Law enforcement officers can’t cite every jaywalker, stop every speeder, and arrest every underage drinker, nor would most people want them to do so. Wisely exercising discretion is an important part of an officer’s work. At the same time, North Carolina has a statute that makes it a crime for an officer willfully to fail to discharge his or her duties. That statute has occasionally been used to prosecute officers who chose not to enforce criminal laws. This post considers the extent to which the statute constrains an officer’s discretion.
The Supreme Court just concluded its Term with blockbuster decisions on affirmative action, free speech, and student loan forgiveness. But criminal law practitioners should be aware of a less-ballyhooed case that is significant for its broad pronouncements about the discretion of police and prosecutors. The case is United States v. Texas. This post summarizes the decision and places it in context of the ongoing national debate about discretionary decisions concerning arrest and prosecution.
In this blog post from 2012, Professor Jessica Smith summarized Rules of Evidence 101 and 1101, which together dictate that the rules of evidence apply to “all actions and proceedings in the courts of this State,” except for proceedings that are specifically excluded by the rules or another statute. Pursuant to these two rules and the case law interpreting them, proceedings at which the rules of evidence (except for rules of privilege) do not apply include: applications for warrants; grand jury proceedings; first appearances; pretrial release hearings; probable cause hearings; hearings on motions to suppress; witness voir dire; sentencing hearings; probation revocation hearings; and more.
That’s quite a list. If the rules of evidence do not apply to any of these proceedings, are there any limits at all on the evidence that may be offered? Could an unsworn and mentally incompetent witness with no personal knowledge offer irrelevant and prejudicial triple-hearsay testimony about a prior conviction more than 10 years old, offered solely for the purpose of showing the defendant’s bad character and the likelihood that he acted in conformity therewith?
Surely not. But if there are no rules of evidence, why not? The short answer to nearly any question about the admissibility of evidence under Rule 1101(b) is “it’s in the judge’s discretion,” but what guides that discretion, and what are its limits?
Jonathan wrote last month about reform-minded sheriffs in North Carolina and the actions they can and cannot take with respect to enforcement of federal immigration laws. Reform-minded prosecutors also have been in the news of late. Prosecutors in St. Louis and Kansas City announced last year their plans not to prosecute marijuana possession cases, subject to certain exceptions. Boston’s newly elected district attorney, Rachel Rollins, campaigned on a promise to decline to prosecute fifteen enumerated charges, including shoplifting, larceny under $250, trespassing, and stand-alone resisting arrest charges, absent exceptional circumstances. Closer to home, new Durham district attorney Satana Deberry has said that she does not want her office to prosecute misdemeanors or low-level felonies that originate in schools. The national discussion about these and other suggested reforms has included debate about the extent of district attorneys’ discretion to determine which cases will be prosecuted in their districts. Just what are the duties of a district attorney in North Carolina? And how much discretion may a district attorney exercise in carrying out those duties?
Prosecutors have wide discretion to decide how to charge defendants. In exercising that discretion, a prosecutor certainly may consider the sentence associated with each possible charge, and may choose to pursue the charge or charges that is most likely to result in the outcome that the prosecutor sees as just. But the criminal sentence may not be the only outcome of a criminal case. A variety of collateral consequences may be imposed by law, such a change in immigration status, a requirement to register as a sex offender, or loss of professional licensure. Other consequences may also follow certain convictions, such as loss of employment or housing. May prosecutors consider collateral consequences when making charging decisions and when evaluating possible plea bargains? Should they do so? Must they?
In a post here I discussed the procedure a trial judge should follow when a deliberating jury asks to review evidence. In that post I noted that the judge must exercise discretion when responding to the jury’s request. The types of factors that the trial court might consider include: the significance of the evidence; a … Read more