How the Misdemeanor Criminal Justice System Leads to Numerous Injustices in Texas and Around the Country

The U.S. criminal justice system generally divides criminal offenses into two categories:  felonies and misdemeanors. A felony conviction can result in a substantial fine and a lengthy jail or prison term. A misdemeanor conviction, while still creating a criminal record, usually results in a lesser penalty, and for this reason misdemeanors are often considered less “serious” than felonies. Misdemeanor convictions can have a profound impact on a person’s life, however. Recent research has suggested that a vast number of people have pleaded guilty to misdemeanor offenses they probably did not commit, simply to extricate themselves from the system as quickly as possible. The lower degree of scrutiny given to the misdemeanor system seems to have played a role in enabling this practice, which may extend throughout the entire country.

Bart Everson (Flickr: Inmates) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsTexas law designates individual offenses as misdemeanors or felonies, and it also provides definitions based on the offense’s potential punishment. An offense is a felony if it is “punishable by death or confinement in a penitentiary.” Tex. Pen. Code § 1.07(a)(23). A misdemeanor is “punishable by fine, by confinement in jail,” or both. Id. at § 1.07(a)(31). Misdemeanors are further divided into Classes A through C. Penalties range from a fine of up to $4,000 and/or a jail sentence of up to one year for Class A misdemeanors, to a fine of up to $500 with no jail time for Class C. See Tex. Pen. Code § 12.01 et seq. Federal law uses the same subdivisions for misdemeanors but prescribes different penalties. 18 U.S.C. §§ 3559(a)(6)-(8).

Most rights related to criminal proceedings guaranteed by the Bill of Rights are not dependent on the severity of the alleged offense. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, whether the offense under investigation is a felony or a misdemeanor. The Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination applies in any court proceeding. A defendant always has the right to confront their accuser under the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause, and the U.S. Supreme Court has held that no one may be “denied the assistance of counsel as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.” Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25, 38 (1972).

The right to a trial by jury, also guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, only applies in cases of “serious” offenses. The definition of “serious” is not concrete, but it generally means an offense with a potential sentence of at least six months. Baldwin v. New York, 399 U.S. 66, 73-74 (1970). The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “excessive bail” is difficult to enforce in many cases, particularly in seemingly minor misdemeanor cases. The imposition of high amounts of bail is a major element of the criticism of the misdemeanor criminal process.

A report by Loyola Law School Professor Alexandra Natapoff, published last fall by the Washington Post, explores policing practices commonly known as “quality-of-life” policing. She summarizes these practices as “police tell young men to move along, then arrest them for loitering when they don’t.” If they cannot afford bail, they feel pressure to enter a guilty plea in order to get released and avoid losing their job. This results in a large number of convictions for what might not have been criminal activity in the first place, despite the various constitutional rights mentioned earlier. Media reports have exposed widespread practices like this in the St. Louis, Missouri area, but the issue is likely to be present nationwide.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

For more than 20 years, board-certified criminal defense lawyer Michael J. Brown has fought for the rights of people facing charges of alleged criminal offenses in west Texas state and federal courts. To schedule a confidential consultation with an experienced and skilled advocate, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

Federal Prosecutors Assert Jurisdiction Across International Borders in Fraud Case, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, December 23, 2015

Facial Recognition Technology Arrives at Texas Border Patrol Stations, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 17, 2015

Appellate Court Ruling Considers Whether Confession Was “Voluntary,” Reviews Implications for Defendant’s Fourth Amendment Rights, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 13, 2015

Photo credit: Bart Everson (Flickr: Inmates) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.