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ABA on the ethical obligations of prosecutors in misdemeanor cases

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Today I came across a headline that I assumed at first glance was an Onion article or some other type of satire. It had to be. The ABA Journal headline stated something that I’ve always assumed was simply a given: “Prosecutors must maintain ethical conduct during misdemeanor plea deals, ABA ethics opinion says.”

Note that what the headline failed to mention was the the opinion addressed prosecutors obligations when interacting with unrepresented misdemeanor defendants. But even so - come on! How could there be any confusion on that issue? Prosecutors are lawyers and, just like the rest of us, they’re required to act ethically at all times. There’s no “misdemeanor or lower” exception to ethics requirements. At least, not that I’m aware of.

But, nevertheless, the fact that the ABA felt the need to weigh in on this is an indication that there was a need for further clarity on this issue. And, if the ABA deems this topic important enough to opine on, then I likewise believe that it’s important enough for me to write about. So if you’re as curious as I was about this opinion, then buckle up and let’s dive in.

In Formal Opinion 486, which was handed down on May 9th, 2019, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Responsibility considered the ethical obligations of prosecutors when negotiating and plea bargaining with unrepresented individuals accused of misdemeanors.

At the outset, the Committee acknowledged that while most prosecutors perform their job functions ethically, that’s not always the case: “Notwithstanding the commitment of most prosecutors to high professional standards, there is evidence that in misdemeanor cases where the accused is or may be legally entitled to counsel, methods of negotiating plea bargains have been used in some jurisdictions that are inconsistent with the duties set forth in the Rules of Professional Conduct.”

The Committee then turned to the accused’s right to counsel, noting that it is unethical for prosecutors to interfere with this right in any way: “Under Model Rule 3.8(b) prosecutors must make reasonable efforts to assure that unrepresented accused persons are informed of the right to counsel and the process for securing counsel, and must avoid conduct that interferes with that process.”

Next, the Committee tackled the plea bargaining process, explaining that when a defendant is unrepresented, prosecutors must discuss the known consequences of a proposed plea deal with the accused. This is because an unrepresented defendant is in a uniquely vulnerable position. As such, “if the prosecutor knows the consequences of a plea – either generic consequences or consequences that are particular to the accused – the prosecutor must disclose them during the plea negotiation.”

The Committee further elaborated on the obligations of prosecutors in this situation and provided examples of impermissible conduct:

“Thus, where a prosecutor knows from the charge selected, the accused’s record, or any other information that certain collateral consequences or sentence enhancements apply to a plea on that charge, statements like the following would constitute prohibited misrepresentations:

‘Take this plea for time served and you are done, you can go home now.’

‘This is a suspended sentence, so as long as you comply with its terms, you avoid
jail time with this plea.’

‘You only serve three months on this plea, that’s the sentence.’”

The Committee then turned to a prosecutor’s ethical obligations when extending a plea offer to an unrepresented and clarified that prosecutors cannot do so unless there is sufficient evidence to support the plea offer: “Under Model Rules 1.1, 1.3, 3.8(a), and 8.4(a) and (d), prosecutors have a duty to ensure that charges underlying a plea offer in misdemeanor cases have sufficient evidentiary and legal foundation.”

Finally, the Committee noted that a prosecutor’s ethical obligations extend to post-plea interactions: “If a prosecutor learns during the plea colloquy with the court or other interactions that the unrepresented accused’s acceptance of a plea or waiver of the right to counsel is not in fact voluntary, knowing, and intelligent, or if the plea colloquy conducted by the court is inadequate to ascertain whether the plea or waiver of the right to counsel is in fact voluntary, knowing, and intelligent, the prosecutor is obliged to intervene.”

That this opinion was even issued, my friends, is an unfortunate reminder of the state of our profession in 2019. That being said, it serves as a welcome, and much-needed, reminder to prosecutors who may be walking a fine ethical line when it comes to many of these issues: always ensure that you walk on the right side of that line, or risk losing your license to practice law.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at niki.black@mycase.com.