Week One, Law and Society

Assignments for Week 1:

I.  The first week of the term is devoted to getting started with the basics for the course and doing some background reading on Law and Society.  You should bookmark (or add to favorites) the main page for the course. For the Monday/Wednesday class, this first Wednesday, we will see a video on the Three Strikes law in California. The video will be shown on Tuesday night of the second week for the Tuesday class.

II.  Go over all of the webpages carefully and make sure that you understand all requirements and scheduling for the class.

III.  Review the document below for the plea bargaining simulation, to understand the role you will be playing: 


District Attorney's Instructions:

The prosecuting attorney is employed by the local government (city or county) to represent the interests of the citizens of the community in a safe, crime-free environment.  It is her or his job to charge apprehended law violators with specific violations of criminal statutes.  Often, this is a difficult task.  A single act may violate more than one law and may therefore be punishable by a penalty for each law broken.  For example, in the course of a robbery, the defendant might be charged with robbery, assault with a weapon, threat of bodily harm, criminal trespass to property, possession of stolen property, and illegal possession of a weapon.  A person who has burglarized five houses could be charged with five counts of burglary.  The district attorney's office must decide what is the appropriate charge or charges and the number of counts of each.

District attorneys in most jurisdictions bring only a small percentage of cases to trial.  Trials are expensive and time-consuming for the state, and their outcomes are often uncertain.  Consequently, the district attorney is usually sensitive to saving the state substantial expense.  The district attorney also has a large caseload and does not have enough time to try all of them before a jury.  One way of dealing with these pressures is by encouraging defendants to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser charge or recommendation of a reduced sentence.  You can give up on only two cases during the term, and agree to take the case to court for a trial.  The remaining cases must come to a plea bargaining agreement that the defendant agrees to accept.  We will assume all cases are in California, instead of the real state where the case was tried. 

Judge's Instructions:

You are a judge in a criminal court in an urban area.  Unlike judges portrayed on television and in the movies, you seldom preside over trials.  Instead, most persons appearing before you plead guilty.  In exchange for pleading guilty, defendants usually are not charged with as serious crimes as they might ordinarily be, or they are given a lenient sentence.

Prior to court session, you should be familiar with the case scheduled for that day and have a copy of the California Criminal Code.  You may establish any rules of courtroom decorum that you feel are appropriate.    If any defendants or attorneys consistently fail to show respect for the court, after being warned, they may be held in contempt of court, fined, and sentenced to up to six months in jail.  Attorneys also face suspension from office.

You have the authority to intervene in any plea negotiations occurring in your court.  This intervention may take the form of encouraging negotiations, indicating a willingness to accept or reject guilty pleas to particular offenses, or at any time dismissing one or more of the charges against the defendant.  If you find there is insufficient evidence to convict the defendant, you may dismiss the charges or instruct the prosecution to obtain more evidence before proceeding.

The law requires that pleas of guilty may not be accepted unless the judge is satisfied that the defendant is actually guilty.  You must, therefore, ask all defendants who plead guilty the following questions:

1. Do you understand the charges against you and the maximum penalties authorized by law?

2. Are you, in fact, guilty of the charge you are pleading guilty to?

3. Are you pleading guilty voluntarily?

4. Has any person threatened you or made you any promises to influence you to plead guilty?

5. Do you understand that you have the right to a trial by jury and that you are waiving that right?

Generally, the judge is required to impose the middle term of a punishment.  However, there are mitigating and aggravating factors that may lower the term or raise the term of the punishment.  For example, if a defendant is guilty of robbery, his or her sentence may be raised to a high term by aggravating factors if he or she has a history of criminal activity, is a threat to society, if the crime was severe, or more.  Mitigating factors may include circumstances such as no prior criminal record, children to look after that may otherwise be given to the state, defendant was a military veteran, and more.  These factors can be circumstances directly related to the crime or factors relating to the defendant's personal life.

Public Defender's (Defense Attorney) Instructions:

The Constitution of the United States requires that all persons charged with a crime carrying a possible jail term, who cannot afford to purchase the services of a private attorney, must be supplied one by the State.  The office of public defender in most states fulfills that Constitutional guarantee.  Like the district attorney, the public defender is salaried by the State. 

In the typical case, the public defender has a conference just before the court hearing, where she or he tries to learn a few facts concerning the basis for the accusation and to ascertain what her or his client desires to plead.  It is your job to get your client off from the charges and allow them to walk free.  Most of the time, you will have to compromise with the prosecution and come up with something that all sides will find satisfactory.  Only two cases during the term may be taken to court.  We won't try them in court, but you will have to come to a satisfactory conclusion of the negotiations. 

© Karen Donahue 2017