Feb 15, 2016

Houston Lawyer: Prosecutorial Vindictiveness

Prosecutorial vindictiveness refers to filing a lawsuit for purposes of harassing the defendant when there is no genuine basis for the suit. If the defendant in the lawsuit wins and has evidence that the suit was filed out of harassing or vengeful motives and without any legal or factual foundation, it may be the basis of a claim for damages against the person who filed the original action. If vindictive prosecution is clearly proved against the party who brought the original suit, punitive damages may be awarded along with special and general damages.

A prosecutor may violate a defendant’s due process rights if they are using their decision to prosecute for purposes of retaliation; for example, charging the defendant with a more serious offense after the defendant appeals the conviction of a lesser offense,  or charging the defendant with an offense although the defendant has not violated the law.

North Carolina v. Pearce, 395 U.S. 711 (1969), is a United States Supreme Court case that forbids judicial “vindictiveness” from playing a role in the increased sentence a defendant receives after a new trial. In sum, due process requires that a defendant be “free of apprehension” of judicial vindictiveness. Time served for a new conviction of the same offense must be “fully credited,” and a trial judge seeking to impose a greater sentence on retrial must affirmatively state the reasons for imposing such a sentence.

The United States Supreme Court considered two respondents’ writs for habeas corpus in their decision. The first respondent, Pearce, was convicted of assault with intent to rape and sentenced to twelve to fifteen years. His first conviction was reversed in a state court proceeding because his involuntary confession was improperly admitted in his first trial. On retrial, he was convicted and sentenced to an eight-year prison term. Both the state and Pearce agreed that this sentence, combined with his previous time served, amounted to a harsher sentence than he had originally received. His conviction was affirmed on appeal to the Supreme Court of North Carolina. Pearce then brought a habeas proceeding in federal court, and the federal district court as well as the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit both declared that Pearce’s new sentence was “unconstitutional and void.”When the state failed to re-sentence him after sixty days, the federal court ordered Pearce to be released. At this point, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The second respondent, Rice, plead guilty to four counts of second-degree burglary, and he was sentenced to ten years in prison. The judgment was set aside in a state court proceeding two and a half years later, after Rice successfully argued his constitutional right to counsel was violated at trial. He was retried in Alabama state court, convicted, and sentenced to twenty five years in prison, with no credit given for the time he had already served. In his habeas corpus petition, the federal district court and Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit declared that the increased sentence was a violation of due process and “unconstitutional.” The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

About twenty years after Pearce was decided, the Court  overruled Pearce by implication in Alabama v. Smith, 490 U.S. 794 (1989). As a result, current jurisprudence interprets Pearce’s holding to provide a defendant with a “rebuttable presumption of vindictiveness.” This doctrine of a rebuttable presumption of vindictiveness, absent an affirmative indication of objective facts justifying an increased sentence, is referred to as the Pearce Principle.

If the presumption of vindictiveness arises, it may be rebutted by showing that a legitimate and objective reason supported the change in the indictment or the basis for the indictment itself. However, if no presumption of vindictiveness arises, the defendant may show that the prosecutor was actually vindictive in her prosecution. The defendant may present direct evidence showing that the prosecutor was vindictive.

Additionally, if the prosecutor bases their decision of whether to prosecute on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity than the prosecutor may be guilty of selective prosecution. A claim of selective prosecution must be raised in a timely manner before the trial has commenced, otherwise the claim may be regarded as untimely and waived.
In order for the defendant to prevail on a selective prosecution claim they must overcome a strong presumption that prosecutors have properly performed their duties. A selective prosecution claim is typically analyzed in accordance with the equal protection standards; the defendant must produce evidence that shows that the prosecutor engaged in selective prosecution which had a discriminatory effect upon the defendant, and that the prosecution was pursued with discriminatory intent.

When it comes to criminal law cases, an experienced and effective criminal defense attorney can mean the difference between a prison sentence and reduced or dismissed charges. Even in less serious cases, a good criminal defense attorney can make a serious impact on the outcome of the case by ensuring that the rights of the accused are protected throughout the legal process. If you have been accused of a crime, please contact us today for a free consultation with an aggressive and resourceful criminal defense attorney. We will work tirelessly to ensure the best possible outcome for your case. 

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