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West Des Moines Iowa Criminal Defense Law Blog

Only 2% of federal criminal cases go to trial

We've known for years that the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved via plea bargain. Courts are so overwhelmed that they simply could not operate otherwise. Unfortunately, the pressure to plead guilty is immense, even when the defendant is not guilty.

Prosecutors routinely threaten additional charges and long sentences for people who consider exercising their right to a jury trial. Moreover, a huge number of defendants are held in jail before trial, often simply because they're poor and can't afford bail. These people are under even more pressure to plead guilty, as they are being kept from their jobs, families and lives. Pleading guilty to a crime you didn't commit becomes the quickest way home.

What could prevent racist bail-risk-assessment outcomes?

When someone is charged with a crime, bail is determined in part based on a risk assessment. The court decides whether the defendant, if allowed to go free, will fail to appear for trial or will commit another crime.

Unfortunately, defendants of color have historically been assessed as riskier than their white peers. That leaves people of color to languish in pretrial detention at greater rates than whites, putting their lives and livelihoods at risk.

With the rise of Big Data, it seemed like a more race-neutral risk assessment method could be devised. Groups have developed risk assessment algorithms meant to consider only factual data, although demographics are often used. For example, these tools might consider the defendant's history of arrests, charges and convictions, along with the seriousness of the crime they're currently charged with. 

How your prescriptions can lead to an OWI charge

When most people think of driving while under the influence, they first think of drunk driving. However, many do not realize the government might attempt to prosecute you for driving while taking prescription drugs. Because of Iowa's broad approach to controlled substances, those taking prescription medications can find themselves unfairly charged. 

Study: Asset forfeiture does little to reduce crime, drug use

A recent study released by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leading public interest law firm, calls into question a number of justifications for civil asset forfeiture. Contrary to claims by law enforcement, seizing property from criminal suspects does not appear to meaningfully reduce crime rates or lessen drug use. Far from being used to fight major drug traffickers, civil asset forfeiture is usually deployed against the poor and people of color.

Civil asset forfeiture is a process allowing police and prosecutors to seize money and property from criminal suspects, particularly in drug cases, when that property is tied to criminal activity. It came into fashion in the 1980s, when governments began emphasizing the War on Drugs.

SCOTUS allows warrantless blood draws from unconscious drivers

If you are pulled over for OWI, stay awake. You lose some of the constitution's protection if you pass out, according to a new ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. If you remain awake, law enforcement officers must obtain a warrant before drawing your blood for a chemical test. If you're unconscious, however, they can draw your blood without bothering to get a warrant.

We've discussed this case before. It arose from Wisconsin, which has what's called an "implied consent" law -- as does Iowa. These laws create a legal assumption that, by driving on the state's roadways, you have automatically consented to a drug or alcohol blood test when ordered by the police.

22% of new Iowa prison entries are for minor supervision breaches

The idea of parole and probation was to reduce the number of people in prison, but states are spending millions on incarcerating people for technical violations of their supervision agreements. In Iowa, for example, 40% of the prison population is made up of parole and probation violators. And, 56% of all new prison admissions are for supervision violations -- 22% of them technical violations.

Across the U.S., technical supervision violations account for a quarter of all state prison admissions. Iowa compares favorably to the national average, but it still ranks in the top third of all states for percentage of the prison population made up of parolees and probationers and new prison admissions for supervision violations.

Supreme Court upholds 'dual sovereigns' double jeopardy doctrine

Terance Gamble was convicted of second-degree robbery and domestic violence charges in Alabama, both of which made it illegal for him to purchase or carry firearms under Alabama and federal law. In 2015, he was pulled over for a missing headlight. An officer searched his car and found marijuana and a handgun.

That traffic stop led to him being charged by Alabama prosecutors as a felon in possession of a gun. He was sentenced to a year in jail.

Over 1,000 federal prisoners' sentences reduced by First Step Act

As we discussed on this blog last December, the First Step Act was a bipartisan reform law that promised relief for federal defendants and prisoners in several areas. The Act was expected to be especially helpful to minority defendants, as minorities have traditionally been sentenced more harshly than whites for equivalent crimes. The first major overhaul of the federal criminal justice system in decades, the First Step Act was signed into law by President Trump on Dec. 21, 2018.

Initial results of the Act are just coming out. In the first four months of the law's application, 1,051 federal prisoners' resentencing petitions were granted. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the sentences were reduced by a mean average of 29.4%, or 73 months. More than 91% of those benefitting from resentencing were African-American.

Eighth Circuit reaffirms: Swearing at cops is protected speech

"With limited exceptions not relevant here, even profanity is protected speech," explained a judge for the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. "Criticism of law enforcement officers, even with profanity, is protected speech."

Iowa is in the Eighth Circuit, which also includes North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Missouri and Arkansas. Therefore, this ruling applies directly to our courts.

Iowa man says criminal charge violated his First Amendment rights

Should criticizing the police get you charged with criminal harassment? Not if you didn't make any threats, according to the ACLU and an Adams County man. Nevertheless, the man was charged with harassment in the third degree when he criticized the behavior of an Adams County Sheriff's deputy.

The charges were eventually dropped, but the man has filed a civil rights lawsuit in an effort to prevent Adams County from charging other people when they engage in constitutionally protected speech criticizing officers.

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