The Kaplan Law Firm’s Matthew B. Kaplan has obtained the reversal of the criminal conviction of one of his clients. In an opinion issued last week the District of Columbia Court of Appeals—the highest “state” court in the District of Columbia—agreed with Kaplan’s argument that his client had been improperly convicted in a “stipulated trial” on charges of the unlawful possession of a weapon and of ammunition.
In a stipulated trial the prosecution and the defense agree on the key facts of a case without witness testimony and the case is then presented to a judge. In rare cases such an arrangement might make sense—for example, if there is no dispute about what the defendant in the case did, but the prosecution and the defense disagree as to whether what the defendant did was a crime. But increasingly in recent years federal prosecutors in the District of Columbia have used stipulated trials to make an end run around strict rules that govern the entry of guilty pleas by defendants. These rules sensibly require that, before a judge can accept a defendant’s guilty plea, the judge must question the defendant to be sure that there is reason to believe that he is actually guilty and that the defendant understands that he is pleading guilty and that he is doing so voluntarily. Moreover, in rare circumstances a defendant who pleads guilty may be allowed to withdraw his plea.
Apparently unhappy with these well established rules, which protect constitutional rights, D.C. prosecutors have required some defendants to agree to a stipulated trial instead of pleading guilty if they want to receive the benefit of a plea bargain. In such cases the procedure makes a D.C. trial court look like a kangaroo court—the prosecutor will recite the facts exactly as the government believes they occurred, the defense attorney is compelled to say that he agrees with that recitation, and the judge will then promptly declare the defendant guilty. The entire “trial” is complete in a few minutes. In its recent opinion the Court of Appeals said that the trial court in this case committed reversible error by failing to treat the stipulated trial as a guilty plea and to take steps to ensure that the defendant “understood his constitutional rights and knew that he was waiving them.” The court remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.
Unfortunately, even though this criminal appeal deals with important issues of constitutional rights, the Court of Appeals issued its decision as an “unpublished” opinion. This means that it will not be binding precedent. Presumably, however, the Court expects government prosecutors to read the opinion and take it into account when considering whether to insist on stipulated trials in future cases.