EDITORIAL: Please strike a bargain

SO YOU WERE TICKETED FOR SPEEDING and you went to village court because it was your mud-caked lumberjack boots that made it impossible to pull your foot off the accelerator just when the possum living behind your dashboard chewed through the speedometer cable, and you knew you could convince the judge it wasn’t your fault until a police officer motioned you aside and offered you a lesser charge if you would plead guilty–take it or leave it…  the judge is waiting.
Plea bargains like this–an offer of a less severe charge in return for a guilty plea–are common and legal. The justice system would falter without the ability to settle cases by mutual agreement. But the details surrounding these offers have triggered a public spat in Columbia County between the two most powerful parties in the judicial process, the district attorney and some local judges. Until two years ago many police officers were routinely assigned to handle plea bargains for violations like speeding. But that changed a few years ago, when the State Police, forced to cut their budget, declined to conduct plea bargaining. Because the need for the bargains continued, county assistant district attorneys stepped in for troopers. That meant a savings for the state but, as usual with bright ideas from Albany, the cost was shifted to the county budget.
When Paul Czajka took office in January as the new DA, he saw a disparity in the system. His assistants were handling some plea bargains while judges and police officers, except troopers, continued to handle others. Mr. Czajka, who had previously served as district attorney and, more recently as a County Court judge, rightly saw this lack of uniformity as a potential problem.
In response, the DA asserted his authority as prosecutor to handle all plea bargains. To a citizen unschooled in the law this approach makes sense. Why should the public ask the police officer who issues a ticket to second guess him- or herself in order to get a plea. Lawyers and the court should determine whether the charge fits the circumstances.
The matter might have stopped there, going unnoticed by the public except that at least four judges have criticized the extent and manner of the DA’s assertions. And one judge, David Dellehunt, who presides over courts in the Village and Town of Kinderhook, ended up in a legal stand-off with the DA that saw Mr. Czajka file a motion in Judge Dellehunt’s court calling for the judge to recuse himself from all criminal and traffic cases in the county. Citing case law, the judge responded with the legal equivalent of “f’geddaboudit.”
Important legal principles could be at stake here, not least of which are the limits on how much the district attorney can affect the sentencing of those who plead guilty and how that might infringe on the authority of local judges. But to some of us whose primary exposure to the courts is through the warped filter of TV, this looks like a battle over turf rather than a precedent setting confrontation.
It got downright silly when the DA dragged up an ancient quote in the press attributed to Judge Dellehunt during the run-up to a bitter race for county judge eight years ago. The DA accused the judge of disliking him and his assistants because Judge Dellehunt reportedly said that then Judge Czajka “lacked civility.”
Well, maybe it’s the way he said it. In any case, it’s hardly the basis for asking a judge to disqualify himself from hearing cases.
The DA holds the upper hand here. He possesses the legal authority to determine who gets prosecuted and on what charges, and his office has a major role in determining the terms of any plea bargain. But the most effective way to exercise that power is with some obvious effort to accommodate the concerns of the courts. I hope the district attorney will end his call for the recusal of Judge Dellehunt and seek a face-saving way to work for both sides to resolve the plea bargain and sentencing issues amicably.
Mr. Czajka is making important and long overdue changes that should not be tainted by squabbles with local justices. Finding a mutually acceptable way out of this dust-up, which will involve compromise by both sides, wouldn’t be a show of weakness by the DA, it would put the strength of his position in the best possible light.

Comments are closed.