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A reminder to prosecutors: Don't play loose with charging duties

Although the following story concerning a prosecutor’s sloppiness comes courtesy of New York, it commands broad relevance and is certainly instructive in California and all other states across the country.

What many people might see as the central message in a ruling issued recently by a judge in that state is this: Prosecutors need to get it right when they formally bring criminal charges against an individual, and close scrutiny of a prosecutor’s charging papers by an experienced criminal defense attorney can help ensure that happens.

The judge in a case alleging multiple weapons charges and other criminal counts against a defendant was certainly not impressed by the prosecutor’s work. She reminded that lawyer from the bench that an indictment “must contain a factual allegation of every element of the offense charged.”

Every prosecutor is flatly tasked with knowing that, given that the requirement is drummed into the heads of criminal lawyers from their very first days of law school, for this critically important reason: Incompleteness and a lack of clarity in charging fatally undermines fundamental fairness and the legal rights of persons alleged to have committed crimes.

In the New York case, the prosecutor’s charge of criminal possession of a weapon did not mention a stated exception in the law or whether the defendant qualified for that exception. Additionally, the charging papers inadequately named the criminal law being applied and incorrectly set forth the statute being cited. Moreover, the prosecutor defined an important term in the case through reference to statutory language that had been altered by the state legislature.

The prosecutor will likely remember forever this result of those multiple mistakes: the judge’s dismissal of two counts of weapons possession.

Source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, "Technical deficiencies upset Brooklyn prosecutor's weapons case", Charisma L. Miller, Dec. 3, 2013

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