Charging on the Margin
61 Pages Posted: 24 Aug 2015 Last revised: 27 Aug 2015
Date Written: August 21, 2015
The American criminal justice system has experienced a significant expansion in the number and severity of penalties triggered by misdemeanor convictions. In particular, legislatures have increasingly attached severe collateral consequences to misdemeanor offenses — penalties such as being required to register as a sex offender, prohibitions on owning or possessing a firearm, and deportation. While there is a wealth of scholarship studying the effect this development has had on defendants and their attorneys, little attention has been paid to the impact collateral consequences have on prosecutorial incentives. This Article starts to remedy that gap by exploring the influence collateral consequences exert on initial charging decisions in low-level prosecutions.
Critically, the ability to impose certain collateral consequences through a misdemeanor conviction unlocks an array of additional charging options for prosecutors. As a result, prosecutors are now more likely to engage in a practice I term “strategic undercharging.” A prosecutor engages in strategic undercharging when she charges a lesser offense than she otherwise could, but does so for reasons that advance her own aims — and not as an act of prosecutorial grace or leniency. In other words, prosecutors can sometimes gain more by charging less. By explaining why (and when) prosecutors are likely to engage in strategic undercharging, this Article complicates the conventional wisdom that prosecutors reflexively file the most severe charges available.
This Article also proposes that collateral consequences be factored into the determination of what procedural safeguards are afforded a criminal defendant. Under existing law, collateral consequences are generally deemed irrelevant to that inquiry; the degree of procedural protection provided in a given case turns exclusively on the threatened term of incarceration. Changing this approach could have several salutary effects on the administration of collateral consequences. At a minimum, it would honor a basic principle underlying our criminal justice system: the threat of serious penalties warrants serious procedures.
Keywords: collateral consequences, prosecutors, charging, misdemeanor, felony, criminal procedure, grand jury, preliminary hearing, discovery, jury trial, deportation, sex offender registration, firearm prohibitions
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