(CN) — Arizona's Maricopa County Early Disposition Courts process more than 32,000 criminal complaints each year. And according to a class action filed Wednesday, in order to process more cases faster the county attorney’s office threatens criminal defendants with more severe sentences to coerce them into waiving their right to a preliminary hearing.
“Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has sabotaged the intended purpose of the Early Disposition Courts and has used it to their advantage to secure quick convictions without regard for the constitutional rights of people who are accused of crimes,” said Jared Keenan, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Arizona in a statement.
“These coercive pleas have serious consequences beyond sending people to prison — a felony conviction bans people from public housing, makes it difficult to secure a job, and can even bar people from voting," Keenan, the lead class attorney, added.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Maricopa County, which includes the capital of Phoenix, is home to some 4.4 million people. While Early Disposition Courts were created following the 1996 passage of Proposition 200, which banned jail time for first-time drug possession charges, the putative class contends the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office instead uses these courts to coerce convictions from criminal defendants.
From 2017 to 2021, the Early Disposition Courts heard one in five of the county's criminal cases. Instead of sending drug users to treatment programs, county data cited in the complaint indicates only 6.7% of cases presented in the last five years resulted in diversion.
"It does not matter what the charges are or what the accused person’s criminal history is, if any. It does not matter if the person simply wants more time to investigate their case. It does not even matter if the person might be innocent. ‘County Attorney policy dictates’ that deputy county attorneys will punish that person simply for exercising their rights,” the class says in its complaint.
Prosecutors ask criminal defendants in Early Disposition Courts to waive their right to a preliminary hearing before reviewing discovery including witness statements, bodycam footage and drug test results. Without the preliminary hearing, defendants are additionally denied the opportunity to negotiate pretrial release. In some cases, the preliminary hearing presents the opportunity for a judge to dismiss the case entirely based on lack of probable cause.
Because eligibility for a public defender is determined at the initial appearance, the preliminary hearing is often a defendant's first opportunity to be represented by an attorney in court.
Once a defendant waives their preliminary hearing, they can either accept the plea deal offered or continue to trial.
“For too long, too many prosecutors have used pressure tactics and threats to extract quick, low-cost pleas and keep the crooked assembly line of mass incarceration moving,” said Somil Trivedi, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, in a statement. “These tactics — like Maricopa County Attorney's Office’s policy of punishing people simply for asserting their rights — mock the Constitution and hit marginalized communities the hardest.”
The plaintiffs comprise two proposed classes: current and future defendants who are asked to waive their right to a preliminary hearing, and current and future defendants who face harsher penalties for pursuing a preliminary hearing. The Maricopa County Office of Public Defender estimates the Early Disposition Courts hold 3,500 active cases each day.
Plaintiff Michael Calhoun, 61, was "staring down the barrel of the retaliation policy” when the complaint was filed.
Despite having no violent criminal history, the county attorney's officer offered the Phoenix resident 9 1/4 years in prison on a charge of selling $20 worth of drugs to an undercover officer. If Calhoun rejected the offer and proceeded with a preliminary hearing, he was told the prosecutor would pursue an even harsher sentence.
The class claims the practice violates 14th Amendment due process rights and places an excessive burden on the right to trial in violation of the Sixth Amendment.
The plaintiffs seek a permanent injunction prohibiting the Maricopa County Attorney's Office from continuing the practice of making threatening plea offers and to cover attorneys fees.
A spokesperson for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office declined to comment citing pending litigation.
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