» Clients, Government Rants, Practice in General » Arizona Sentencing Laws Meet My Least Favorite Word: Policy

Arizona Sentencing Laws Meet My Least Favorite Word: Policy

It’s no big secret to regular readers of this blog that Matt does the heavy lifting around here. Frankly, he does 99.999% of the lifting. I was finally, again, inspired to write out of deep frustration. I often feel as an Arizona criminal defense attorney that I operate in a separate world from attorneys in other states because of Arizona’s especially draconian sentencing requirements. Arizona legislators seem to take pride in steppin’ it up a few notches every couple of years to save our citizens the embarrassment of getting lambasted by Texans laughin’ at our sissy laws. 45 days for a first time DUI if the blood is high enough? We got that. 10 year minimum for possession of a single photo deemed child pornography, with mandatory consecutive stacking for additional pictures or videos? No problem. Do we worry that a person is likely to get less time for actually raping a child than possessing one or two photos of the child nude? Hell no. Immigrants? Better have your papers in this State. I don’t necessarily think it’s harder to practice criminal defense in Arizona, just more frustrating.

The case that brought me to near tears in court this year didn’t involve DUI or children. Rather, it was a fraud case where my client wrote several unauthorized checks for small amounts. She found her ex-boyfriend’s checkbook in a box; they separated months earlier after living together for two years. It was a simple case. The State had photos of her at the bank and copies of the checks. She was charged with several counts of forgery and, shockingly, a class 2 felony count of control of a criminal enterprise.

Unfortunately for my client, she pled to two minor drug charges a month before committing the bad check offenses. She hadn’t had time to get started on probation and kick her drug habit. We had evidence that she was being strongly influenced by a couple of shady individuals who received the bulk of the money but managed to avoid prosecution. We didn’t think we could have won at trial on a duress defense. She was a thirty-year-old mom and had no prior felonies a few months before writing those bad checks. So what is a reasonable absolute minimum should she lose at trial?

How about 15 years on the class two and 10 years if she lost on any of the class 4 felony fraud charges? Yep, good ol’ tough mandatory sentencing Arizona style. Because she was on probation, she could receive no less than the presumptive sentence. Her petty drug charges, which I’m guessing in most States would never have been felonies, maxed her out on the repetitive offender sentencing guidelines.

Fortunately, a safety valve exists on ridiculous mandatory minimums: reasonable plea offers. Unfortunately for my client, she resides in Maricopa County. I was appalled to find myself fighting tooth and nail for plea that would get my client less than half a decade. Why? Policy. Before I was assigned the case, my client rejected her initial offer of between 4.5 and 7 years. We had evidence she didn’t understand the plea when it was offered. However, without getting the previous attorney to admit to misinforming the client (yeah, right), we had to fight for a stipulated sentence far above anything remotely resembling justice.

I found myself fighting back tears when speaking to her family. Explaining to mom that her daughter was going to serve four-plus years over some checks totaling less than the value of a Yugo had me fighting frustration that felt near primitive. I felt like a failure. Ego is a fact of life for all trial attorneys, but especially for criminal defense attorneys. We all feel the prick of defeat even when deep down we know that that particular client didn’t get a raw deal. This case felt more like a sword thrust than a prick.

I worked her case hard. I think I’m usually pretty darn good at getting good plea offers. By the numbers, I got her a quarter of her potential minimum sentence if she lost at trial. It didn’t remotely feel good. This time, I felt I got put through the wringer by Arizona law and ridiculous policy guidelines, and nothing I did made it close to just. I told her more than once that she was the poster child for unfair law and policy.

I’m fond of the term “Perfect Storm.” I don’t use it here because it implies a rare convergence of events. Here, it’s just policy. I hope policy changes in Maricopa County. I’m not dumb enough to hope legislators start repealing absurd laws.

Filed under: Clients, Government Rants, Practice in General

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