Oregon lawmakers take on making plea bargains fairer
By ANDREW SELSKY
Feb. 22, 2018
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Some plea bargains presented to defendants deprive them of fundamental rights, say Oregon lawmakers who moved on Wednesday to make them fairer.
Defendants are sometimes even asked to give up habeas corpus — a right, dating back centuries, under which defendants face their accusers in court, according to testimony presented to the House judiciary committee.
Kirk Wintermute, an attorney from Astoria, cited a practice of authorities requiring defendants in misdemeanor cases to waive that right to appear at trial if they miss a court date. These waivers are coercive because they're sought as a condition of release from jail or to stay out of jail, Wintermute said.
If the defense attorney doesn't know why his client is absent or hasn't had contact, the attorney is required to withdraw from the case, Wintermute said. A trial then proceeds with no one at the defense table, with a guilty verdict being inevitable, Wintermute told the committee in a letter.
"Once the court's warrant is served a defendant is brought back to court for a sentencing hearing, but does not have the opportunity to face his accusers in court, cross examine witnesses, or present a defense," the lawyer said.
The House unanimously passed a bill on Wednesday that prohibits a release agreement from jail from being linked to a defendant's waiver of appearance at trial. It would also prohibit a plea agreement from being linked to a former law that was superseded by a legislation passed in 2017 that reduced sentences for certain crimes.
"I believe it is our job as legislators and policy makers to ensure we safeguard individual liberties and protect the basic rights of all our citizens," said House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, the chief sponsor of the bill, in a statement after the vote. The bill now goes to the Senate.
Williamson said more needs to be done to remedy plea agreements.
In an example of a plea agreement she cited that shows other problems, prosecutors in Portland offered to drop two of four charges against a woman, but only if she agreed to waive her rights to due process, to challenge the conviction if exculpatory evidence was later found, to challenge a sentence as unconstitutionally cruel and unusual, and the right to file a writ of habeas corpus.
The bill was endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union and opposed by the Oregon District Attorneys Association.
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