Sonoma County lawyers say plea bargains invaluable
The call came as defense attorney Walter Rubenstein was preparing for the trial of an unlicensed driver who had struck and killed a Sebastopol motorcyclist.
Prosecutors wanted to deal.
After reviewing the evidence, they offered to drop vehicular manslaughter charges against Jorge Valencia-Figueroa, then 33, of Cloverdale, who was accused of careening into Glenn Vierra, 58, as he rode his Harley-Davidson on Highway 116 near Cotati.
All Valencia-Figueroa had to do was give up his right to a trial and admit driving without a license — a misdemeanor carrying a six-month jail sentence. It was something he had been cited for four times before. Then he would be eligible for release with credit for time already served.
Rubenstein didn't need to be asked twice. He took the deal.
"They could have made the argument that he didn't use caution and what he did was inherently dangerous," Rubenstein said. "But I think they did the right thing."
Vierra's family disagreed.
"We were all pretty upset about what happened," said his son, Andrew Vierra, of Eagle, Idaho. "I definitely feel (Valencia-Figueroa) wasn't held accountable for what he did."
In what may come as a surprise to many, a fraction of offenders charged with crimes in Sonoma County ever go to trial. All but three-quarters of 1 percent of the more than 15,000 felony and misdemeanor cases resolved last fiscal year were settled by other means. The overwhelming majority were disposed of by plea bargaining.
The widely accepted practice that defies TV courtroom stereotypes is seen as necessary to relieve the overburdened criminal justice system while offering defendants a measure of certainty about the punishment they will receive.
Without it, the courts likely would grind to a halt under what one expert said would be a 20-fold increase in jury trials. Taxpayers would be on the hook for additional courthouses, judges, bailiffs and other support staff.
Instead, cases are quietly resolved, often in court hallways or through email exchanges between prosecutors and defense lawyers who make concessions to each other. Judges sanction the deals in private meetings where they often say in advance what sentences they are willing to impose.
"Very, very few cases end with that dramatic moment when all the lawyers come together and have this clash over the truth," said Stanford Law School professor George Fisher, whose book, "Plea Bargaining's Triumph: A History of Plea Bargaining in America," was published in 2003.
Statistics from Sonoma County Superior Court offer a glimpse of what happens on the local level. Of the 15,055 criminal cases that were resolved in the 12-month period ending in June 2013, 112 resulted in jury or court trials that produced convictions or dismissals.
The remainder — 14,943 cases — were settled before trial. The exact number of plea bargains was not available, but court officials expect it was the vast majority of the cases. Many were routine deals involving nonviolent crimes and drug offenses. Others were resolved after months of back-and-forth negotiations over reduced charges and acceptable consequences.
Chief Deputy Public Defender Kristine Burk described the process in which prosecutors, offenders, victims and judges try to come to terms as "a dance involving multiple parties." Ideally, it ends with neither side "feeling like it got its pocket picked," she said.
"A deal is good when it reflects that conduct that can be proven and protects against an extreme risk a client faces," Burk said.