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October 26, 2011

On Why You Should Think Very Carefully Before Taking a Quick Deal on Your First Washington, DC Criminal Charge (Part One)

balance.jpgIn Washington, DC, there is no shortage of people being charged with a crime. The fact is that criminal justice can't handle the huge volume. Years ago a law school professor described the criminal court process like trying to pour the liquid in a 55 gallon drum into a coffee cup. Most of it will spill out. And that spilling out means dismissed cases, plea bargains and diversions. It's good for the government and it's good for the court, but all I care about is if it's good for the client.

Let's look at a DC drug charge first. You are in a car with a friend and get pulled over for having an expired registration. The DC Metropolitan Police officer comes up to your car and tells you that your registration is expired and asks for your license. He goes back to his cruiser, runs your info through the warrant management system, finds nothing, and comes back to the car. "Is there anything in the car I should know about?" he asks. At this point, I would like to remind you of my earlier posts on the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination (a.k.a. the right to remain silent or "taking the nickel" as I like to call it). You don't need to tell the officer anything. Simply say "no." If the officer asks if he can search the car, say "no, I am not giving you consent to search me or my car." If he asks why, simple tell him that it is your right to say no and leave it at that. Do not get tricked into letting him do a consent search of you or your car when he had no probable cause. Many people admit to having drugs or guns and end up in the Central Cell Block (CCB) and eventually the DC Superior Court on a gun charge like carrying a pistol without a license (CPWL) or possession with intent to distribute (PWID) drugs.

If this is your first offense, the government will probably make a plea offer where they will not oppose probation. This seems good that you are basically guaranteeing you will not serve time in jail or prison. That may be appealing, and since a trial is always a risk, you take the deal. The problem is that while you didn't serve time, you are now a convicted felon. That has a lot of consequences. You may lose a job, be denied a security clearance, or lose public benefits such as EBT or welfare. You may be evicted from public housing. You may lose the right to vote. These are all collateral consequences of being a convicted felon, but the trouble doesn't end there.

In the next part of this post, I will discuss one of the most common collateral consequences to taking a guilty plea.

May 31, 2011

Can My Washington, DC Criminal Charges Just Get Dismissed?

Gavel.jpgPeople often call me up after being arrested on a Washington, DC misdemeanor or even felony and ask if there is any way that the charges can just get dismissed because this is their first time ever getting charged with a crime.
As a Washington, DC criminal defense attorney, I have handled cases when the prosecutor will agree to simply dismiss all charges on their first court date. In DC, the term is that the case was "no papered." While this is possible in some cases like possession of marijuana, simple assault without any injuries, or using a fake ID/underage drinking, it is probably not going to happen in the vast majority of cases. Either the offense charged has to be very minor, or the cops went way overboard when making the arrest.
Another option which may be available is when the defendant pays some money (between $50 and $150 normally) and the case is dismissed in what is called a "post and forfeit." This basically means that the case is dismissed on court costs. This is also generally reserved for minor traffic violations and other minor misdemeanors. The next options which are more likely to apply are the deferred prosecution agreement (DPA), and the differed sentencing agreement (DSA). In Washington, DC, if your criminal defense attorney can negotiate a DPA on your behalf, you must agree to probation for several months and perform community service. After you complete the community service (usually 16 or 32 hours) and comply with all other terms of the DPA, you go back to court and the judge will dismiss the charges after your compliance is verified. If you fail to do what you were supposed to do, the government can prosecute you after revoking the DPA. Solicitation of sex (prostitution) which normally involves someone getting caught by an undercover cop pretending to be a prostitute is a case that may be resolved with a DPA.
With a DSA, you must plead guilty to the offense and then agree to a similar set of conditions to the DPA. Once you complete the probation, your case will be dismissed. However, if you fail to complete the DSA requirements, the judge can automatically sentence you because you already pled guilty. A DSA in Washington, DC may be available for someone charged with a DUI depending on the facts of the case.

February 24, 2011

TMZ Reports Lindsay Lohan Is Going to Jail

Lohan Court.jpgAccording to a recent TMZ story, Mean Girls star, Lindsay Lohan is almost certainly going to spend time in jail. From 2007 until the present, Lohan has been arrested on a series of DUIs, possession of controlled substances, and recently, a felony theft charge for allegedly stealing a $2,500 dollar necklace from a jewelry store. This last arrest occurred while Lohan was on probation for a DUI conviction. The judge told Lohan that if she accepts the prosecutor's plea offer by pleading guilty or no contest to the theft charge, that will be an automatic admission of guilt on the probation revocation and she will go jail. The DA's offer was reportedly six months of incarceration. The maximum sentence on that charge if found guilty is one year according to TMZ so it has been suggested that she will probably plead guilty, accept the government's offer of six months on the theft charge, and hope that the judge sentences her to less than six months on the probation revocation. It appears that the jokes aimed at her choice of courtroom attire may be the least of her problems.

While this story is happening in California and I am a Washington, DC criminal defense attorney, the process involving a probation revocation is the same in the District as well. If you plead guilty to a criminal charge and are sentenced to probation, you essentially agree to a set of conditions worked out between your lawyer and the government. The conditions will depend on what charges are involved. In the case of a drug charge, random urine tests are likely to be a condition. If the conviction was for a DC DUI, it is likely that the court will require you to attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings as part of your probation. If you fail to meet any of the required conditions, or are arrested on a new charge, you run the risk of having your probation revoked. At a probation violation or revocation hearing, the judge will determine if it is more probably than not that you are in violation of the terms agreed to. If you are found in violation you can receive the full sentence provided by the DC Code without a trial because you already pleaded guilty to the offense in exchange for probation.

December 11, 2010

Gun Control Laws in the District of Columbia

609608__45_bullets.jpgI read an interesting article today in the American Bar Association Journal about gun control laws in the US. It is not surprising that the article focused on the District of Columbia. Washington, DC has what is considered to the toughest gun laws in the nation. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, up until the Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. Heller, you were not even allowed to have a loaded gun in your home for protection. The DC law required the gun to be stored unloaded in a locked case, and the ammunition locked in a separate case. After the Heller case, the law was changed by the DC City Counsel to allow residents to have a loaded handgun stored in your home. You must register the gun and the ammunition and are allowed to own the caliber of ammunition for the gun you own. If you are found with even one bullet designed for a gun you are not registered to own, you can be charged with a gun crime.

As a Washington, DC criminal defense lawyer who handles gun charges, I thought it might be helpful to talk about some of the many gun laws.

1. Possession of an Unregistered Firearm - Possession of an unregistered firearm can result in a one year sentence and a $1,000 fine. Transferring a firearm to someone you know not to be eligible to register a gun can result in a 10 year sentence and a $10,000 fine.

2. Carrying a Pistol Without a License (CPWL) - There is no lawful way to carry a gun in Washington, DC. Carry permits are not issued to anyone who is not a law enforcement officer or military. If you have a registered weapon, it must be transported with a trigger lock or other locking mechanism and be unloaded. Ammunition must be kept in a separate locked case and you can only carry it in this manner when you are going to shooting range or other lawful recreational activity. If you are arrested for carrying a gun without a license, it may result in a fine of $10,000 and imprisonment of up to 5 years.

3. Unlawful Possession of Ammunition - As I mentioned above, in the District of Columbia, unless you are a licensed firearms dealer, you can only possess ammunition for the type of firearm that you are lawfully registered to own. Possession of unlawful ammunition is a crime and can result in a fine of $1,000 and a year in prison. It is also illegal to own what is considered a "large capacity ammunition feeding device," which means a magazine, belt, drum, feed strip, or similar device that has a capacity of, or that can be readily restored or converted to accept, more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

I chose to highlight these three major gun laws because they are the ones most likely to catch someone off guard that has no idea they are in violation of the Washington, DC gun laws. There are many other gun crimes, but they are generally involved in the commission of a major felony, so I will address those in a later post.

November 29, 2010

I'd Rather Be Fishing... As Long as I don't Violate Any of the Fish and Game Laws in Washington, DC

591307_karelia_8.jpgWhen I'm not working as a Washington, DC criminal Defense attorney, I like to go fishing whenever I get a chance. One of my favorite things to do is fish for Striped Bass, known in the DC Metro Area as Rockfish. They were once abundant in our waters, but after many years of over-fishing, they have faced near extinction. The government banned commercial harvesting and greatly increased recreational catch limits. This has seemed to help and regulations are finally being eased up a bit. What I didn't understand was how I kept seeing Rockfish for sale at local markets given the restrictions. This always struck me as odd. It turns out, my suspicions were correct.

According to a statement released by the US Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, the owners of Profish, a local wholesale fish distributer, had been selling illegally harvested Rockfish for over ten years. The Judge fined the two owners of the company $850,000 and sentenced to them to 15 and 21 months, respectively. He said that this type of behavior had been taken too lightly in the past and it was time to send a message.

Sometimes people do not realize how seriously fish and wildlife offenses are taken, especially in the Washington, DC area. Let's say you go trout fishing at a local stream and are planning on keeping some fish. If you keep even one more fish than the daily per person limit, there can be serious consequences. The government can take your equipment used to catch fish and the car or truck in which you transported the fish. After they seize and forfeit your assets, they can impose a fine--and you may even face jail time.

Continue reading "I'd Rather Be Fishing... As Long as I don't Violate Any of the Fish and Game Laws in Washington, DC" »

November 3, 2010

Lesser Included Offenses and the Art of the Plea Bargain

60534_abandoned_building.jpgSometimes winning a case means a not guilty verdict. Other times winning a case involves getting the charges reduced to something the client can accept--like getting a felony reduced to a misdemeanor.

A few years ago I represented a client charged with burglary. He was recently released from prison and didn't have any place to live. He tried to find work but because of his criminal record and the economy, he didn't have much luck. He met a friend who was staying in a vacant house. After the housing market collapsed, there were many old houses throughout the country that were bought with the intent to renovate and sell for a profit. Many of these old homes now sit vacant with renovation efforts abandoned.

This particular home was vacant and in foreclosure. The bank hired an investigator to check on the condition of the property and make sure there weren't any squatters. He discovered my client and his friend sleeping on lawn chairs in what used to be the living room of this partially gutted building. The investigator called a burglary detective he knew and both men were placed under arrest for burglary.

After reading the police report, I couldn't understand why this was charged as a major felony (burglary) and not a misdemeanor (trespassing). The detective stated in his police report that this was a home or apartment, so the higher charge was justified. My client was willing to admit he was trespassing in a vacant structure but had no intention of committing any other crime. He only wanted a dry place to stay. He was squatting, not a burglar. What really bothered me was the reason this was a major felony was because the officer claimed this was a "home." While it is true that it was once a home, it was not occupied and was in a state of disrepair. The reason breaking into a home carried such a high sentence is because it involves violating the place one feels most secure and safe. This was not a home in the sense that the legislature had in mind when creating this law.

Continue reading "Lesser Included Offenses and the Art of the Plea Bargain " »

October 14, 2010

Collateral Consequences in Washington, DC: Is There Really Such Thing as a "Get Out of Jail Free Card" (Part Two)

979240_jail.jpgIn part one of this post, I discussed collateral consequences in the context of public housing, now I want to focus on how they can affect future criminal charges.

When I meet with a new client, I go through his or her criminal record carefully looking for anything that may affect their current charges. Often times I see misdemeanors that they chose not to fight because it was easier to pay a fine and get out of jail than it was to hire a lawyer and fight the charges. This is especially true in the case of DWI/DUI/OWI, Shoplifting, and Simple Possession of a Controlled Substance.

It may seem like paying $300 and signing a few forms and walking out of jail that night is like getting off scot-free. Of course when you get charged with the same or similar offense later and you're treated as a repeat offender, it doesn't feel so great. The next time you get arrested, you are charged as a repeat offender, and along with that comes greater fines, possible mandatory jail time, and it may even be "enhanced" to a felony. The prosecutor is also a lot less likely to give you any favorable deals the second time around.

Continue reading "Collateral Consequences in Washington, DC: Is There Really Such Thing as a "Get Out of Jail Free Card" (Part Two)" »

October 12, 2010

Collateral Consequences in Washington, DC: Is There Really Such Thing as a "Get Out of Jail Free Card" (Part One)

204588_monopoly_board_game.jpgEvery so often the news runs a story about a law-abiding woman being evicted from public housing because of the actions of someone living in her apartment. Here are the basic facts you might hear: 17 year-old Billy is living with his mom in an apartment owned by the DC Public Housing Authority. Billy gets arrested for Possession With Intent to Distribute Cocaine Base (crack) on a street corner somewhere in Washington, DC. He has no adult criminal record and agrees to plead guilty in exchange for probation. He does not have to serve any time in jail or prison under this sentence as long as he stays out of trouble. He is free to go.

A few weeks later, Billy's mom gets an eviction notice from the District of Columbia Public Housing Authority because a resident of her household (Billy) has been convicted of a felony. She is confused and doesn't understand why she has to leave because of something her son did that had absolutely nothing to do with her apartment. She appeals the eviction but loses. Her eviction is what the law calls a "collateral consequence" of her son's conviction.

A collateral consequence is something that happens as a result of a criminal conviction and can often affect you in many unexpected ways, none of which are good. In the story you just read, eviction from public housing was a collateral consequence of Billy's felony conviction. The DC Public Housing Authority has a right to evict all residents of a home when any member of that home is convicted of a felony. Exclusion for public housing is only one example of a collateral consequence. In part two of this post, I will discuss other collateral consequences and what you can do to avoid them.