The American Bar Association’s ethics committee says that prosecutors negotiating misdemeanor plea agreements with people not represented by attorneys must ensure that each charge has an adequate foundation in fact and law.
The panel on Thursday cited the association’s model rules, noting a “categorical difference” between the role of a prosecutor and a typical lawyer. “A prosecutor’s duty is to seek justice, not merely to convict,” said a formal opinion issued by the committee.
The opinion cited eight specific “obligations” for prosecutors under ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct.
The panel cited statistics showing that misdemeanors make up about 80 percent of state criminal dockets, a figure that has doubled since 1972 with the greatest impact “on communities of color.” The “vast majority” of defendants plead guilty at their initial appearance, and often the accused does not understand the ramifications that such a plea could have on areas including as employment, immigration status and eligibility for a wide range of public services, the committee said.
“Notwithstanding the commitment of most prosecutors to high professional standards, there is evidence that in misdemeanor cases where the accused is or may be legally entitled to counsel, methods of negotiating plea bargains have been used in some jurisdictions that are inconsistent with the duties set forth in the Rules of Professional Conduct,” the opinion said.
It said prosecutors must “avoid offering, negotiating and entering pleas on terms that knowingly misrepresent the consequences of acceptance, or otherwise improperly pressure, advise or induce acceptance” by people who do not have lawyers.