First-Of-Its-Kind Civil Rights Lawsuit Challenges Coercive Plea Bargaining Used to Punish Thousands of People for Exercising Constitutional Rights
PHOENIX — Today, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Arizona filed a federal class action lawsuit challenging the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO) policy of making plea offers "substantially harsher" if people assert their rights to a preliminary hearing or a trial. This "retaliation policy" coerces thousands of guilty pleas per year and violates the Constitution. Moreover, the retaliation policy applies regardless of the facts of any case, or even if the person might be innocent. Prosecutors also refuse to disclose any information beyond police reports — even if they have it — unless people give up their rights. In emails to public defenders, Maricopa County prosecutors openly acknowledge that one purpose of the policy is to avoid the work of reviewing evidence and preparing for trial.
MCAO enforces its retaliatory plea policy in the Early Disposition Courts (EDCs). These EDCs were initially created to quickly move cases involving minor offenses or drug possession through the system, with the stated goal of helping people in need of drug treatment and other services avoid convictions. It is during the EDC process that prosecutors threaten people with retaliation for exercising their rights and present people with a devastating choice — either waive your right to a probable cause hearing and accept the first guilty plea, all without access to the evidence against you, or MCAO will make any later plea “substantially harsher.”
“For too long, too many prosecutors have used pressure tactics and threats to extract quick, low-cost pleas and keep the crooked assembly line of mass incarceration moving,” said Somil Trivedi, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “These tactics — like MCAO’s policy of punishing people simply for asserting their rights — mock the Constitution and hit marginalized communities the hardest.”
Plaintiffs include a 34-year-old man who felt threatened by MCAO’s retaliation policy and felt he had no choice but to waive his right to a preliminary hearing in order to get more discovery. Another Plaintiff is a 61-year-old man with a substance use disorder who was charged with selling $20 worth of drugs. Despite EDC’s stated purpose — to divert drug offenders away from incarceration and toward treatment — MCAO prosecutors are seeking to send him to prison for almost 10 years. And the offer will get “substantially harsher” if he affirms his rights. The complaint also details the story of a man who was actually innocent of his charges, but MCAO tried to pressure him into a guilty plea anyway.
“MCAO has sabotaged the intended purpose of the EDCs and has used it to their advantage to secure quick convictions without regard for the constitutional rights of people who are accused of crimes,” said Jared Keenan, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Arizona. “These coercive pleas have serious consequences beyond sending people to prison — a felony conviction bans people from public housing, makes it difficult to secure a job, and can even bar people from voting.”
The lawsuit seeks class certification and injunctive relief to stop MCAO’s retaliation policy in order to protect people’s constitutional rights.
Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice is also a plaintiff in the case. President Louis Fidel said: “It is clear the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is more interested in securing quick convictions than doing justice. Their retaliatory plea policy places an accused person in an unconscionable situation and unfairly pressures them to waive important rights. It’s retaliatory, coercive, and a violation of the Constitution. ”
The complaint filed today is available here.