AS CRIMINAL DEFENSE lawyers, we regularly appear in the Superior Courts throughout the state. We recognize that the attorney general has the statutory authority to take control of a county attorney’s office. But we question the wisdom of that action in Hillsborough County.
Let’s be clear — a statutory takeover overrides the will of the electorate and should only happen in the most extreme circumstances. With Hillsborough County, we just don’t see it. It appears that the attorney general has simply capitulated to unwarranted complaints from the Manchester police chief.
In taking over the Hillsborough County Attorney Office, the attorney general echoes complaints made by the Manchester police chief in three cases. The simple fact is that none are outliers. Each resolved within a range commonly seen throughout our criminal justice system in Hillsborough and in other counties.
There appear to be good reasons for the resolution in each case. The plea bargains in the Gelinas and Garvey cases are consistent with similar cases around the state. The sentence, in each case, was imposed by a Superior Court judge after careful reflection about public safety, rehabilitation and consideration of the risks the state faced at trial.
In any criminal case a verdict, either way, is never a guaranteed outcome.
The Manchester police chief’s complaint and the attorney general’s response fail to consider why most cases in the criminal justice system result in a plea bargain. There is often great uncertainty when a case goes to trial. Victims and witnesses often recant or change their statements, evidentiary hurdles come into sharper focus and defendants are often more inclined to accept a plea bargain.
While a “victimless” prosecution is sometimes possible, a “victimless” guilty verdict is rare. These are problems faced by prosecutors, not police officers.
In our society, we separate police and prosecutorial functions for good reason. Simply put, we value checks and balances. In our criminal justice system the prosecutor has separate and distinct functions from the police. This allows for rational and objective evaluation and decision-making and also ensures that prosecutors can follow the ethical duty to “do justice,” which inevitably involves looking at all aspects — good and bad, weak and strong — of any one case.
The police are essentially witnesses invested in the case. Often the actions of the police are questioned during criminal trials. The police should never dictate how a case should be prosecuted or resolved. But that is exactly what the attorney general has allowed.
Removing an elected county attorney based on a complaint from a police chief is an unusual and extreme measure that violates our system of constitutional protections and threatens the core of our democracy.
In the United States, we frequently condemn the actions of non-democratic nations when the military or the police remove elected officials and fail to follow the will of the citizenry. Yet, that has happened here.
The citizens of Hillsborough County have had their chosen elected official removed because the police do not like how his office has handled a handful of cases out of thousands.
We are not saying that the Hillsborough County Attorney’s office is the best-run or most efficient prosecutor’s office. It is not. There are substantial inefficiencies and administrative problems, many of which are due to the imposition of the Felonies First legislation. But the inefficiencies of the office are hardly a reason to eradicate the will of the Hillsborough County electorate.
It is also concerning that the attorney general would appoint a former police chief with an inactive law license and no felony prosecution experience to oversee the office.
Throughout our country, innovative prosecutors and police departments are finding new and successful methods to address the root causes of crime in our communities. Mass incarceration and the “throw-away-the-key” methods of the old war on drugs are being replaced with successful community policing, rehabilitation and reentry models.
This is an epic time for prosecutors to make meaningful strides toward true justice. Unfortunately, the people of Hillsborough County must sit on the sidelines as they watch an unnecessary and unproductive dust-up between the police department, the attorney general and the county attorney.
The people of Hillsborough County deserve better.