Friday, November 12, 2004

Is It Soup Yet?

Not quite yet.

OK. To recap: Request by police to charge someone; reviewed by an APA to determine whether there is a crime and, if so, which one; further review by the APA to decide whether the degree of proof represented by the police report satisfies the elected prosecutor’s criteria that the case, as it now exists, can be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt; assuming it can, the request is marked up with the necessary statutory language selections and returned to Intake; paper warrant is generated and then signed by the APA, authorizing the issuance of the warrant; complaint portion of the package is sworn to by an officer, either before the clerk of the court or a magistrate. Hang on, we’re almost there.


At this point we’ve almost got our warrant. The final step (usually) is for a "neutral, detached judicial officer" to review the basis for the complaint and decide if there is probable cause to believe the specified crime has been committed and that the named individual did it. Huh? You may well ask. What was all that rigamarole with the APA? Didn’t that amount to a determination that a crime was committed, etcetera, etcetera? Well, consider:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be eized."
Look familiar? Of course! It’s the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And, like much of that document, it assumes things that were so obvious to the framers that they didn’t bother to spell them out. Most importantly, for this discussion, that the person making that probable cause determination is a person who has no interest in whether the warrant does, in fact, issue. That is, someone other than the police or the prosecutor, usually referred to as a neutral and detached (or disinterested) judicial officer. In our case a misdemeanor court judge or a magistrate of that court. Most of the time, the magistrate will agree that the facts and circumstances demonstrate probable cause sufficient to begin a criminal prosecution. Sometimes they don’t. Then what happens?

In some cases, the magistrate simply thinks there is a missing element of the crime. For example, there is insufficient proof of the value of stolen property to support the degree of offense charged. Generally, these kinds of deficiency are easy enough to fix. In other cases, the magistrate disagrees that a crime has been made out. Those are a bit harder to resolve.

If the problem is that the magistrate doesn’t understand the law, that can be addressed in as politic a manner as possible. There have been occasions when the chief assistant or even the elected prosecutor have found themselves conducting a one-on-one seminar in some esoteric aspect of substantive criminal law for one of our judges. I mean, let’s face it – legislatures can get up to some real hijinks when they take a first run as things like identity theft, elder abuse, revisions to the drunk driving statutes, and so on. Not to mention the hilarity that can ensue when they attempt to revise statutes that have remained essentially unchanged for 150 years or so. In all fairness to the magistrates and judges of high volume courts, it can be a little difficult at times to keep up with 1) the volume of legislation relating to criminal law and procedure, and 2) the volume of case law on the same topics. When you explain changes in either the letter or the interpretation of the law, supported by real evidence that things are pretty much the way you claim, most of the time the problem goes away. Not always, though. That, however, is a highly unusual situation and will be considered at another time. For now, let's assume the magistrate takes a look at the complaint, reviews any documentation, and signs the warrant. That's the point where criminal process is said to have issued.

The warrant, authorized and issued, is returned to the requesting police agency and next steps in the process are up to the officers.

How long does this whole process take? Depends on the case and how badly the warrant is needed. I've seen attempt murder warrants issued in two to three hours. On the other hand, I've seen complex drug conspiracy warrants that spent weeks between the submission of the request and the issuance of the warrant. Average time for non-custody misdemeanors and low-grade felonies -- about a week.

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