Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentences Give Prosecutors Excessive Power at the Expense of Defendants’ Rights

In criminal cases in state and federal courts, one major landmine in getting cases resolved and trying to get fair results is crimes that carry mandatory minimum prison sentences.  There are few greater injustices in the criminal system than the advent of the mandatory minimum prison sentence.  Additionally, they are the source of a tremendous amount of wasted money and abuse by some prosecutors. The idea behind adding mandatory minimum prison sentences is that legislators (the people who make the laws) do not trust judges (the people who sentence defendants according to the laws) to order proper sentences in what they consider the more serious cases.   Mandatory minimum sentences are designed to tie the hands of judges so they cannot sentence a defendant to less prison time than a certain amount provided in the law if the defendant has been convicted of the qualifying crime. The obvious problem with these laws is that every case and every defendant are different and judges are supposed to consider the specific circumstances of each defendant and each case when determining a proper sentence.  The judges, after sitting through a trial or hearing the testimony of witnesses and arguments of the lawyers at a sentencing hearing, are informed of those relevant factors prior to making a sentencing decision.  Legislators in Tallahassee or Washington D.C. have no idea about the facts of a particular case or the mitigating circumstances of a defendant. Yet, it is those uninformed legislators making the ultimate decisions as to a floor for a defendant’s sentence.

The other, less obvious problem with mandatory minimum sentences is that they essentially take the power away from the judge, who is an impartial figure in the process, and puts that power in the hands of a prosecutor. Charging people with crimes that come with mandatory minimum prison sentences gives the prosecutor significant leverage to force a guilty plea out of a defendant who is arguably innocent. Why? Because while the judges have no power to go under mandatory minimum sentences (with a few exceptions in federal court), the prosecutor can always waive the mandatory minimum sentence or amend the charge to a different charge that does not come with a mandatory minimum prison sentence to strong arm a defendant into a plea.

We see this happen in the case of aggravated assaults with a firearm in Florida. If a person points a firearm at another in a manner that causes fear of serious bodily injury or death, that person can be charged with aggravated assault.  Aggravated assault comes with a three year mandatory minimum prison sentence in Florida when a firearm is involved. The problem is these cases often have issues.  Did the defendant point the gun or just have a gun? Did the defendant point the gun at the alleged victim because the alleged victim was initially threatening the defendant? Was this a valid case of self defense?  Quite often, these are very gray areas that do not have simple answers. Such ambiguous factual and legal issues may be best decided by a jury. It may be a close call or maybe the witnesses need to be fully cross-examined at trial to see if the state can really meet its burden that the defendant committed a serious crime that deserves a minimum of three years in prison. The defendant has that constitutional right to explore those details with witnesses under oath.  But the mandatory minimum sentences often effectively eliminates that right for defendants.

For instance, assume the defendant is a lawful gun owner with no prior record, a family he takes care of and a good job. He got into a situation where he felt like he had a right to defend himself by showing or pointing a gun. The responding police officer, who did very little to investigate other than talk to the witnesses who were the alleged victim’s friends, decides the defendant did not have the right to show or point his gun and arrests the defendant for aggravated assault with a firearm. The prosecutor knows the case is weak so he says he will waive the three years if the defendant pleads guilty to the aggravated assault. The defendant cannot take the risk of losing (knowing anything is possible with a jury) and going to prison for at least three years. He would lose his job and his family would have no income. So, he feels he is forced to accept the plea to a felony charge he thinks he did not commit to avoid going to prison for three years.

This is not that uncommon and happens with a variety of charges all over Florida as many charges do carry mandatory minimum penalties. It effectively gives prosecutors a hammer to force guilty pleas in cases where the evidence is questionable and/or the defendant feels like he has has a good defense.

In a future post, I will discuss and link to a report from the federal government showing some of the statistics and effects of mandatory minimum criminal laws.

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