Middle Class Criminal Defendants

by Tom Wolpert on November 21, 2013

When middle class people commit crimes and become involved in the criminal justice system as defendants, they form a very distinctive group.  First, they have no prior criminal record whatsoever.  Typically, the offense(s) which they are charged permit of no defense with respect to the underlying acts.  Generally, they have ‘snapped out’ for some reason, often having to do with emotional stress, sometimes combined with alcohol or medication.  But there is nothing planned in advance, no measures taken for concealment or secrecy.  When a middle class person snaps and commits a crime, he or she does it in ‘broad daylight’ so to speak, with people around who are witnesses.  There isn’t any question what happened.  Moreover, if there were a question, middle class people immediately confess to everything as soon as any police officer appears.  There is no time to for a police officer to read them Miranda rights, the middle class defendant wants to give a lengthy explanation immediately of what happened, why it happened, what the history of it was, etc.  The responding officers get an earful.  Indeed, the lengthy self-analysis of why this crime happened consumes middle class people and whether it is to their spouses, family, friends, police officers, their lawyer, they continue to explain what led up to it, and how and why it should be understood as aberrant behavior.

It is aberrant behavior, but the middle class defendant has no experience interacting with police officers in any adversarial context.  Any teenage kid from a tough neighborhood in Philadelphia would know better than to chatter away at an arresting police officer, confessing and apologizing profusely.  But it is new ground for the middle class person, who has grown up in his or her life from infancy looking at police officers as friends and protectors.  Middle class people, with no experience in the criminal justice system, are under the impression that the system has a vested interest in finding out why they did what they did, in understanding them and, by implication, extending sympathy and forgiveness.  But ordinary criminal law doesn’t work that way – it’s just about the act, and may be about the state of mind at the moment of the act, but not about the lengthy and personal reasons of the defendant.  Most serious crimes which are committed involve substance abuse, and there are always a host of reasons why the event which gives rise to the charges came down the way it did.   Until you have been to a judge’s pre-trial conference or call of the list, where the judge is processing through a list of 60 or 80 or 100 defendants, trying to understand which cases require bench warrants, which will be pleas, which will go to trial, which require continuances, the average person doesn’t get the volume of people who are being ‘processed.’  It’s not like television law, in part because on any given day in any particular courtroom there are about 99 other people around who have also been charged, and a handful of prosecutors, public defenders, private counsel, sheriffs and bailiffs and clerks and court reporters, and one overworked judge, who are all trying to organize this disparate group to some rational end for each individual defendant.

The good news is that, if there is no defense on the facts, there is a lot of room for successful representation on the sentencing end of a plea.  Getting a middle class defendant focused on the future, not on the past, is the key.  The conduct will never be justified, but one can certainly say with conviction that it won’t happen again.  The criminal justice system and its district attorneys and judges are much less interested in understanding why the criminal conduct occurred than they are concerned about whether it will happen again.  Here is where the middle class defendant has odds stacked in his or her favor: typically, they have no prior record, not even a DUI; they have stable jobs and a long history of stable employment; they have education; they have the support of their spouses and family; they do not have chronic alcohol or drug addiction issues; they have genuine remorse for their conduct and anyone who was inconvenienced or injured by it.  There was no effort to conceal the charged acts and no reason to go to trial to make the district attorney’s office prove they happened.  So the defense is all about the sentencing options that accompany the plea.

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