Plea Bargains, Drunk Drivers, and Reckless Homicide

There’s a petition on MoveOn.org, asking the State’s Attorney in Cook County, Illinois to not accept any plea bargain from a defendant who was charged with Reckless Homicide and Aggravated DUI after hitting and killing a cyclist…whilst driving with a 0.125 blood-alcohol content.  It’s being shared around the cycling world locally, and it’s one of those areas where bike life intersects with my professional life.

Insert all appropriate disclaimers.  Innocent until proven guilty.  State’s Attorney has her own discretion.  This is not legal advice.  Read “alleged” before every allegation.

Hypothetically assume that the driver was totally wasted, the cyclist was totally innocent, and the driver recklessly, or even maliciously, killed the cyclist.  (Those may be the facts, or may not.  I’m not close enough to the case to know.)

The petition is still wrong.  Here’s why:

1.  We don’t want State’s Attorneys to kowtow to public pressure on criminal prosecutions.  Do you want your Courts run by public referendum?  Folks, there are way more drivers of cars out there than cyclists.  If there were 10,000 cyclists who signed a “no plea deal for the driver” petition, and 1,000,000 drivers who signed a “dismiss the charges against the driver” petition, should the State’s Attorney count the votes and dismiss the charges?  No.  We’re not that far away from a time when public pressure lead to lynchings based on race or creed or a host of other factors that we don’t want taken into account in criminal prosecutions.  We’re not that far away from a time when public sentiment suggested that women were incompetent witnesses…or for that matter couldn’t own property.  I know our State’s Attorneys are elected, and are thus responsible to the electorate.  But when it comes to making legal decisions, we don’t want them to act on impromptu referenda…partially because that’s not how the legal system should work, and partially because of the perils of majority rule.  Listen to Atticus Finch.

2.  If there is a just plea bargain, it may be a better outcome than a trial.  With a plea bargain, the defendant goes away for a prescribed period of time.  If it’s done right, there’s no appeal.  No chance of reversal.  Done.  No burden of proof.  No fickle jury filled with drivers of cars who are compassionate to someone who ‘accidentally hit a cyclist that veered into the road in front of him.’  At a trial, the defendant has to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  Beyond a reasonable doubt.  Do you understand how thin that margin is?  Any reasonable doubt.  Why take the risk of trial if the outcome can be the same?  People often assume that plea bargain means a reduced sentence…I think that’s likely the “bargain” part of the phrase that confuses people.  But that’s not necessarily the case.  If the prosecutor can get substantially the same prison sentence with a plea bargain as she would going to trial, she’d be foolish to not take a plea bargain.  Why run the risk of trial?  Why run the risk of years of appeals?  Why tie up the resources of the office preparing for a fact and time-intensive trial, when a plea bargain accomplishes the same result, and frees up prosecutors to pursue other criminals…or, in a perfect world, frees them up to research, draft and propose new ordinances and statutes to protect cyclists?  (Note–the risk argument is the one that you should really look at.  In a perfect world, the risk argument would be all that we discussed, because State’s Attorneys would have adequate resources to staff every case properly.  But in the real world, the resource allocation issue is one that has to be paid attention to).  Why do we demand a trial?

Because we want our trial–a public trial, in open Court, to determine his sentencing.

Why?  Do you get more satisfaction out of a public trial–with the inherent risks–than you do with a plea bargain?  Is the trial intended to be a part of the punishment?  We subject both innocent and guilty people to trials–and they’re all presumed innocent until proven guilty.  The trial should not be a part of the punishment, but rather should be a factfinding venture to determine the facts, and the resulting guilt or innocence.  We should not take satisfaction in the suffering of another human going through trial (and we should not design our trials to be public spectacles that punish the participants…unless you’re ok with punishing innocent people who are acquitted of charges).  Both the punitive and rehabilitative steps in cases such as this are supposed to occur in the post-trial process, through sentencing.  (Note: I’m excluding specialized matters like Drug Court or Mental Health Court that include an emphasis on rehabilitation).

I understand the outrage.  I get the anger.  I can empathize with the desire for a public ‘flogging’ of the defendant–the drunk driver who unjustifiably killed a cyclist.  (Allegedly–with some pretty darn strong allegations).  But the legal system shouldn’t function differently because we relate to the victim, and public influence shouldn’t steer the tactical decisions of the prosecuting attorney.

I mean no disrespect to those behind the petition–and Lord knows that I mean no disrespect to the fallen cyclist or his family.  (There’s a risk in writing something like this, that it will be misunderstood.  I’m running that risk because this is an important issue that I think people need to understand.)  We’re supposed to feel outraged.  We’re supposed to want to serve on the jury and throw the book at the defendant.  If someone in my family was killed by a drunk, I’d be giving the proverbial “give me a gun and let me administer justice myself” speech.  But our legal system cannot be run that way.  We cannot let passion and emotion drive our justice system.  The decisions have to be made with information, compassion, and reason…but not with vengeance or mob rule.

Don’t ask the State’s Attorney to abandon one of her best options for dealing with a conclusive case.  Don’t ask her to take unnecessary risks to satiate our desire for a public flogging.  Don’t ask her to waste resources proving what someone will agree to, because you relate to the victim.  What should we be asking for?

Justice.

The first thing that should come to mind is asking the State’s Attorney for justice for the rider, his family, and everyone out there who takes to the streets every day–whether in a car, on a bike, or on foot.  If there’s a plea bargain, so be it…but let it be a just one, that properly and adequately punishes (and hopefully reforms) the defendant.

Think about what you really want.  What if the State’s Attorney listens to the call for a trial, and reduces the charges to improper lane usage, but zealously and vigorously prosecutes that charge in a public jury trial?  Would that be satisfying?  Obviously not.  If the facts support the charge, ask that the State’s Attorney stick to the charge, rather than reducing the severity of the charge–with either a jury trial or a plea bargain.  It’s not the trial that people want…it’s justice that people want.

And if this does go to trial, ask for a jury of peers.  Think about how jury selection will go in this case.  The defendant’s attorney will likely want to strike any prospective juror who has a developed interest in cycling.  Is that fair?  Should we also strike any juror who has an interest in driving, or who drives a car, to prevent bias in favor of the defendant?  Ask the State’s Attorney to push for a true jury of peers.

Moreover, think beyond this case.  What keeps this from happening again?  Why be reactive?  Ask the State’s Attorney to support local, county or state regulations protecting cyclists.  Ask the State’s Attorney to support a statewide anti-harassment ordinance like the one that was recently supported by Axletree in DeKalb, Illinois.  Use this as an example to get laws, or bike lanes, or other improvements that will protect all users of the road in the future, and prevent future tragedies instead of being angered by future tragedies.

I get it.  I really do.  It’s human nature to want our pound of flesh.  But please don’t fall for the misconception that plea bargains are inherently lenient, unfair to the victims, or necessarily a bad idea.  When you can accomplish the same result with no risk…

The thoughts in this post are my personal thoughts.  Don’t confuse them with my professional thoughts or professional obligations.  But do consider them, and consider your preconceptions.  Think about what you really want.  Ask for that.

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8 thoughts on “Plea Bargains, Drunk Drivers, and Reckless Homicide

  1. Excellent reasoning. Not being the lawyer type, these considerations never would have occurred to me. I also have assumed mistakenly that plea bargains were tantamount to beating the rap, I guess. Thanks for the post.

  2. “People often assume that plea bargain means a reduced sentence…” Well, that’s exactly what a plea bargain is. The very definition: An agreement that permits a defendant to plead guilty to a lesser charge instead of pleading not guilty to a more serious one. Plea bargaining is usually undertaken by a prosecutor to obtain important information from a defendant or to avoid a long and costly trial.

    The prosecutor will not get the same sentence because the process is a “give and take” exchange.

    People are singing the petition for that very reason—not because they want to see a public trial, but because a proper and full sentence should be issued.

    • I’ll say it again–a plea doesn’t inherently mean a weak sentence. Your comment makes it clear–you want justice, not a trial. I agree wholeheartedly. Ask for what you want! I have personally seen cases with plea deals that really were not reductions from the likely trial outcomes, based on strong prosecutorial cases.

      I’m not arguing with you–I want to strengthen your message.

  3. Incredibly insightful article. We have to trust our system to administer justice; we are not qualified to do so as biased, hyper-emotional accusers. It’s horrifying to witness the vindictive nature that surfaces in many when (non-malicious) tragedy strikes. We don’t have guillotine executions for public spectacle anymore–we’ve evolved morally, right? Focus your energy on ameliorating the problem of the action where you can in your personal lives: demand adamantly that no one you know ever drinks & drives, institute a zero tolerance policy with those around you & be vigilant; let the court dictate the punishment for the accused.

  4. While I understand your concern of burden of proof. The fact that the BAC was .125 would be proof enough of (at the very least) drunk driving. Granted the sentence would probably still be too lenient as I hear of people with multiple DUI’s way too much in the States. It is way to easy to obtain and hold a license in America.

    • Assuming that the BAC test was properly administered and the results are properly admissible in Court, that’s very helpful, yes.

      The point is still this: we want justice, and appropriate punishment. I, for one, don’t care if it comes from a plea or a trial. I’d rather that the defendant plead guilty for a certain outcome, and have the State’s Attorney focus her efforts on positive changes that can help prevent this from recurring.

  5. I was the author and person who started, and delivered, the petition to Anita Alveres, the States Attorney. After collecting over 3500 signatures in the first three days (and many more since then) I sent the petition along with a cover letter acknowledging the authority of the States Attorney to make the final decision. The petition was to demonstrate the a large segment of the community was watching carefully and expected an outcome serving justice – and not letting the person charged “off the hook” with a lenient sentence.

    • Great that you got involved, and great that you demonstrated community interest…but the request of the petition was the wrong request. Ask for justice, rather than asking to not use a very powerful tool to get justice.

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