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The Making of a Lawyer: Introduction & Part 1-The Responsibility of the Criminal Justice System

July 20, 2011

The Making of a Lawyer: Introduction

As soon-to-be members of the legal profession, law students are inundated these days with horror stories of recent graduates who are unable to secure unemployment or the dismal earnings outlook for major law firms. However, all is not gloom and doom.

My name is Elisa Kim, and I am a rising 2L at the Earle Mack School of Law, Drexel University. Over the past year, I have had the privilege of working and serving with the YLD of the Philadelphia Bar Association as the student liaison for the school. I am a native of Philadelphia, having lived here for over 25 years of my life. The Making of a Lawyer attempts to portray a light-hearted but realistic view of life as a law student: the thoughts, fears, concerns, and other ramblings that come across my lap every day.

I welcome feedback and comments on any/all of my blog entries. Thanks!

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Part 1 –  The Responsibility of the Criminal Justice System

This summer I had the opportunity to split my summer, and I am currently serving as a judicial intern for the Fourth Circuit of Illinois through the Judicial Intern Opportunity Program of the American Bar Association.  This is an observation that I had while sitting in criminal court. 

There are so many people in criminal court that are repeat offenders. They come in, and they have the system down pat. Everyone knows them: the prosecutor, the defender, the clerk, and the judge. Most of the time the state attorneys already has their file memorized and has to always run checks right before the hearing to make sure that the sentencing guidelines are in compliance with the number of prior convictions on the individual’s record. There was one woman in court today who was offered a plea bargain of supervision on a DUI charge. However, the state attorney revoked the offer when he did a last-minute search on her and found out that she had recent charge pending in the system for theft.

FYI: In Illinois, Supervision is a court order allowing a judge to impose a penalty, but is not considered a criminal conviction. Supervision is available only for misdemeanor sentences, and will not include a jail sentence. It may include other conditions such as fines, costs, community service, SWAP, no contact with a victim, counseling or restitution. Supervision is for a specific period of time.

At the conclusion of the supervision, if all the conditions (including a standard condition of no new violations of the law) have been met, the case is dismissed. Depending upon the charge, a supervision, other than for a DUI, may be expunged from a person’s record between two and five years after the supervision is successfully completed.

Read more at Suite101: Illinois Criminal Sentencing Law: Supervision, Conditional Discharge, Jail or Prison | Suite101.com http://www.suite101.com/content/illinois-criminal-sentencing-law-a100530#ixzz1RdTT9pMs

Another man in court was pulled over for speeding, which is a petty offense; however, when the police pulled his records, they discovered an outstanding warrant from 12 years ago. Apparently, it was related to some restitution charges from an incident in the past, but he had moved out of state, and the state was never able to collect from him. Although the initial fine was around ~$200, by this time, the fine had ratcheted up to over ~$1500 due to late payment penalties and interest. It’s amazing how the little things that you forget in life can implode unexpectedly in astronomical proportions.

In the afternoon, we had several bench trials related to traffic offenses. Half of the defendants ended up striking a plea bargain with the state attorney’s office. The other half went through with the bench trial, most of them as pro se defendants. There was one woman in particular who had an interesting allegation related to her speeding charge: she claims that the police officer pulled her over where the speed limit changed to a higher speed limit. However, the officer testified that he had checked the speed limit locations, and the woman had a GPS, looking like she was trying to get somewhere in a hurry. The judge ended up ruling for the state, because according to him, that particular township does not issue very many tickets, and he doesn’t see their police come to court that often. He felt that the fact that the police officer actually took the time to write up a ticket probably indicated that the officer had a valid reason to do so. The woman was considerably upset afterwards and let loose a couple of expletives because she ended up incurring more fees and penalties than if she had taken the offered plea bargain.

There was another case where a woman was ticketed for not stopping for a bus that was dropping off handicapped children, and passing the bus on the right. Although the woman claimed that she didn’t see the bus stop sign or anything, the judge ruled against her mostly on policy with you should never really pass a bus on the right, never mind a bus with handicapped children. For the most part, most of the defendants that actually went to bench trial ended up losing.

There was one really interesting case that came up on the bench trial, and that was a guy who was charged with a traffic offense for an open bottle of alcohol in the car. According to his testimony, he was not driving but he had just been drinking in the car as a passenger. However, in rebuttal, the state trooper testified that the guy had, in fact, been driving. As a result, the judge got upset that the defendant lied about his testimony under oath and sentenced him rather harshly on the charges. Usually, he tends to favor the defendants and tries to hand out the lightest sentencing possible under the Illinois Sentencing Guidelines, but in this case, he definitely utilized his discretion and went the other way.

Note to self: never try to defend myself pro se on a traffic case through a bench trial.

I know that technically, you’re presumed innocent until proven guilty, but I feel that especially for these smaller petty offenses, it’s almost the other way around, and the defendant has the burden of proving their innocence, and the state is presumed to be correct.  I’m sure that after seeing hundreds and hundreds of cases come before you as a prosecutor, public defender, and judge, there is a certainty that comes from experience. However, I believe that every prosecutor, public defender, and judge should recite to themselves every morning before heading to court that, “Everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.” Maybe it’s naïve of me to think that the justice system could be fixed so easily, but where else can an individual find justice, if not through the justice system? Therefore, the courts and representatives of the law need to recognize and shoulder the awesome responsibility that they’ve been given.

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