Wednesday, October 10, 2012

In Re Alonzo J. (Cal. Ct. App. - Oct. 10, 2012)

Parts of this seem clearly right.  Other parts seem troubling.  But I admit there's no clear answer.

On the one hand, I agree with Justice Butz that the trial court got it wrong.  Yes, the defendant -- a juvenile -- said he didn't commit the offense, but nonetheless wanted to plead guilty.  That's surely a problem, and one the trial court thought precluded a plea.  But the Court of Appeal correctly holds that the solution to this problem is for the juvenile to plead no contest.  There's enough evidence here to support the charges even without an admission by the juvenile, if only based upon hearsay (and yet likely admissible) statements by witnesses -- albeit now recanted.  So the trial court could enter a no contest plea even if the juvenile continued to insist he was innocent but wanted to plea.  Problem No. One Solved.

But that still leaves Problem No. Two.  Defendant wants to plead guilty.  Defendant's lawyer thinks that's a stupid call, so doesn't want to let him.

Now, if this was an adult case, Problem No. Two is no problem at all.  Defendants who are adults can do whatever they want.

But Alonzo isn't an adult.  He's thirteen.

The trial court thought that thirteen year olds couldn't plead without their lawyer's consent.  There's a statute that may facially seem to say exactly that.  Paternalism and all.  But the Court of Appeal holds that, yep, they get to plea just like adults.  Even if the lawyer opposes it.

I'm not sure that's wrong as a statutory matter.  Though I'm less that certain it's right; moreover, I'm not entirely confident that the Court of Appeal comes to grips with the central problem here.

The Court of Appeal puts a lot of stock in the fact that the trial court can reject the plea if it finds that the plea's not "knowing and voluntary."  Ergo you should defer to the defendant.  Unless.  But while I agree that unknowing/involuntary pleas shouldn't be accepted, as applied to 13-year olds, is that constraint really a sufficient safeguard?  What does that even really mean?

Take the present case, for example.  The reason the kid's lawyer doesn't want him to plead guilty is because the cops have no witnesses -- everyone's recanted -- and the plea deal makes him admit to a felony, which is a big deal.  Especially when it's very possible they can only prove a misdemeanor at best.  By contrast, why does the kid want to plea?  Because admitting the felony gets him back home in time for his sister's birthday.  Which he wants to attend.

Now, maybe a rational adult would make the same choice.  But the lawyer -- who's looking out for the kid -- definitely doesn't think so.  How is the trial court supposed to decide whether to accept the kid's plea as "knowing" and "voluntary"?  It's "knowing" in that the kid knows that he's pleading to a felony and knows (intellectually) what that means.  It's "voluntary" in that no one's forcing him to take it.  But does that really mean it's knowing and voluntary, and we should enforce it?

Imagine, for example, that the kid said that the reason he really wanted to get home for his sister's party is because he totally loves chocolate cake, and doesn't get any in prison.  So he's willing to plead to a felony -- which, again, he says he totally didn't do -- because that's the only way he can partake of that tasty treat.  The judge makes sure he understands that a felony's a big deal; yep, the kid says he understands that.  The judge says that, personally, she doesn't think any cake is worth a felony rap if it's untrue and that the kid might beat it anyway.  The kid says, sure, I understand, but I really want the cake, and for me, it's worth it.

Accept the plea?

The point is that thirteen year olds make some bad decisions.  Shockingly, shockingly bad ones.  Do we want a system that gives them autonomy in that realm?  Or are these things too important?

I can completely see both sides here.  But I'm not sure that saying "Don't worry; we'll make sure the decision's knowing and voluntary" doesn't just pass the same buck to a different test.  The real issue is whether the system should say, as a general rule, that kids aren't entitled to complete autonomy in this area.  That just like we give parents dispostive veto power over critical decisions (and, indeed, many non-critical ones), in this realm, we should give the kid's lawyer -- the kid's de facto parent as regards legal decisions -- similar power.  So the kid doesn't give up a felony for some cake.  Which we know some kids will do.  Whether the "cake" is literal or metaphorical.

I'm just not sure.  I'm truly torn.

One last point.  The Court of Appeal ends by granting the kid a remedy; since he would have clearly taken the plea deal (and that's right), his conviction gets reversed, and the prosecution has to offer the same deal.  UNLESS they want to simply retry him.  That's a huge caveat.  After all, at this point, the prosecution has not only tried the kid, but won.  They've got very little incentive to offer the kid the same deal at this point.  And the Court of Appeal doesn't make 'em.  So it's potentially a somewhat meaningless victory.  At least for this kid.

For for other kids, in the future, they get to take plea deals.  Even terrible ones.  Even when their lawyer -- and perhaps the judge -- knows they're bad ideas.  Because that's the price of autonomy.

True for 13-year olds.  And, presumably, 8-year (and 3-year) olds as well.  All depends on what we mean by "knowing and voluntary" as applied to those ages.