Ohio's top court declines to change rules on plea deals

AP News
|
Posted: Jan 14, 2016 3:45 PM

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio's top court decided Thursday to continue allowing defendants to plead to lesser crimes that don't bear much resemblance to the facts of the original charge.

Some trial court judges argued that such pleas undermine public confidence in the courts, saying the seriousness of a crime sometimes isn't reflected in the end result.

"Baseless pleas are an affront to the very principles our justice system was designed to promote: that is, truth and justice," Michael Donnelly, a judge in Cleveland's Cuyahoga County court, said in a letter to a Supreme Court committee reviewing the use of such pleas.

Plea bargains that stray from the facts in sex crimes can also allow defendants to avoid having to register as sex offenders, Donnelly said.

The Ohio Supreme Court without comment declined by a 4-2 vote to move the proposal forward.

Donnelly said Thursday he was disappointed but would continue to push the issue.

Connecticut, Florida and New Jersey, among other states, require a plea to have some basis in the facts of the crime.

More than 20 states limit prosecutors' ability to resolve drunken driving cases with plea bargains that dismiss or eliminate an impaired-driving charge, according to the National Center for State Courts. New Mexico allows plea bargains as long as one of the convictions includes at least one offense related to driving under the influence.

Ohio doesn't prohibit impaired driving to be reduced to lesser charges such as reckless operation, said Doug Scoles, executive director of the state's MADD chapter. That typically happens when evidence of drunken driving is shaky, such as the lack of a solid blood-alcohol test, he said.

Ohio's proposed restrictions were supported by the Ohio Coalition to End Sexual Violence and the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. They support plea bargains, especially if they spare victims the trauma of a trial, but they want any lesser charges to include some element of the original sexual assault crime.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys say creative negotiations are occasionally needed for cases with flawed evidence or uncertain witnesses.

Sometimes prosecutors have to take the sure bet on a conviction, albeit on a lesser charge, instead of potentially letting a defendant go unpunished, said Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty.

Plea bargains can offer a "safety valve" for situations in which mandatory punishments for the original charge might not fit the circumstances of an offender or provide the best hope for rehabilitation, said Tim Young, the Ohio state public defender.

Ohio justices Judith Ann Lanzinger, Sharon Kennedy, Judi French and William O'Neill voted against the proposal. Justice Terrence O'Donnell and Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor supported it. O'Connor declined to comment.

Justice Paul Pfeifer did not participate.

___

Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/andrew-welsh-huggins