A proposal that could alleviate concerns about the legality of El Paso County's "fast track" program for domestic-violence defendants and also relieve jail overcrowding is under consideration by county judges.
The plan, made by members of the local defense bar during a recent meeting with the judges of the Fourth Judicial District, would allow people arrested in connection with domestic violence to post bond after receiving a videotaped advisement from a judge.
That would mean that many defendants who are now forced to spend a night in jail while waiting for a "live" advisement, would be able to contact an attorney and possibly leave jail sooner -- before appearing in court to discuss potential plea bargains with prosecutors.
While the proposal might benefit defendants and jail officials, it also might increase the workload for prosecutors and judges handling domestic-violence cases.
"No decision has been made," said Judge Barney Iuppa, when asked about the status of the proposal.
No access to counsel
The fast-track model was implemented in 1999 in response to new state laws aimed at cracking down on domestic abuse. The new laws barred those arrested in connection with domestic violence from posting bond until a judge has advised them of restraining orders against them. In El Paso County, that means most defendants are forced to spend a night in jail, because the advisement is given only once a day, on afternoons Monday through Friday.
At the time of the advisement, defendants are taken straight from jail and placed before a judge. Once the judge has advised the defendants, he instructs them to meet immediately with prosecutors, who try to talk the still-handcuffed defendants into signing plea agreements on the spot.
During this time, the defendants have no opportunity to meet with defense attorneys. And numerous defendants have told the Independent that they felt coerced by prosecutors into signing plea agreements. Tired and scared from spending a night in jail, many say they couldn't think straight and mistakenly believed they had to sign a plea agreement on the spot or else go back to jail.
"I really didn't understand what was going on," said Steve Bugg, one defendant interviewed recently, who pleaded guilty even though his alleged victim told prosecutors Bugg was innocent. "I'd never been in jail. I'd never been shackled."
Female defendants have said they have been threatened with child-abuse charges and signed plea agreements for fear of losing their children.
In 1999, a government-funded study of similar fast-track programs in Pueblo and Durango concluded that the model raises "serious constitutional issues."
"Of key concern is the lack of counsel during plea negotiations," the authors wrote. Without a defense attorney present, defendants "may feel coerced into pleading guilty."(An extensive report on of the fast-track program was published in the Aug. 15, 2002 Independent and can be read online at www.csindy.com.)
All things equal
Some domestic-violence defendants, however, are treated differently. Those arrested on Fridays or Saturdays are allowed to post bond after watching a videotaped advisement, so that they don't have to spend two or three nights in jail.
Kevin Donovan, a local criminal-defense lawyer, says that if some defendants are given this benefit, all should receive it. Giving everyone videotaped advisements, he says, would reduce the element of coercion in the plea-bargain process, because every defendant would be able to leave jail and contact an attorney before coming to court to discuss potential plea agreements.
Doug Miles, the assistant district attorney in charge of domestic-violence prosecution, couldn't be reached directly for comment. However, he said in a voice-mail message that he had not yet formally discussed the proposal with judges.
Judge Iuppa, a former district attorney who spoke on behalf of the county bench, declined to discuss the pros and cons of the proposal. "I don't care to," he said.
Donovan, meanwhile, predicted that prosecutors and some judges might oppose the idea because the existing model allows them to extract guilty pleas with minimal effort. "They just know that it's hurting a lot of innocent people, but it works so well they don't want to change it," he said.
Iuppa said the judges will meet to discuss the proposal again sometime in early April.