By Jose Medina
SAN MATEO, CA – A recent state appeals case heard here serves as an ugly reminder of how a system of guilty pleas appears to have largely replaced the Constitutional right of jury by trial in California.
The Appeals court was so taken aback by a lower court decision to accept a plea that was a “factual impossibility” they called it a “sham plea” that would “compromise the integrity of the judicial system.”
Defendants, like Devonne Lavert Richardson, forgo a jury trial out of fear that they might end up with a worse sentence than if they were to enter a plea bargain.
This practice does have its own drawbacks such as entering backdoor negotiations away from open court or, in Richardson’s case, entering an illegal plea bargain.
The Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division Three early June decision on Richardson’s case set aside his initial no contest plea and mandated his dismissed counts to be revived and be put back on trial.
According to official statements of the case, a 26-year-old victim met Richardson on August 1, 2018, at an Airbnb in Stockton, where the defendant promised the victim that he would provide for all her living necessities so long as she worked as a sex worker that he would drive around cities to find clients.
It was revealed that the defendant had taken possession of the victim’s purse, phone, identification, and naked pictures he had her take to post online. The victim had previously refused this request but was forced to comply after Richardson threatened to show the pictures to her family.
After a few days engaging in sex work, on August 18, 2018, the victim had an argument with the defendant after the victim had refused wait for a client to go on a “date.” Richardson then grabbed the victim by the neck and threw her to the ground.
The defendant then drove away from the scene with the victim’s possessions. After seeing the incident transpire, a witness called police. The officer did not notice any physical injuries on the victim and she declined to seek medical attention. She also initially denied that an altercation had occurred.
It was not until the following morning did she give an official statement to the police that resulted in Richardson’s arrest on August 23, 2018.
On November 16, 2018, the defendant was charged with a total of seven felonious counts, that ranged from human trafficking to second degree robbery, to which he pleaded not guilty.
Curiously, on March 1, 2019, amended information was filed that added Count 8. On the same day, Richardson entered a plea bargain in which he plead no contest to the new count, which alleges human trafficking of a minor for a sex act, despite the victim being 26 years-old.
The agreement was that the defendant would plead no contest to Count 8 in exchange for all the other seven charges to be dropped and a five-year state prison term.
After confirming that Richardson understood the nature of the charge held against him and the rights he was waiving by entering a no contest plea, the judge accepted the plea and stated, “Mr. Richardson has made a free, knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of his rights.”
Adding, “Based upon that his [sic] plea and the factual basis, I will find you guilty of the charge in Count 8 [human trafficking of a minor for sex] . . . .”
According to the sentencing memo, in what could be considered an attempt at explaining the confusing addition of the human trafficking of a minor charge, the district attorney explained “despite the defendant’s lack of a significant criminal record, the People do believe that this is a prison case.”
The prosecutor further added that “the People conceded that the acts in this case did not merit eight years in prison and thus purposefully offered defendant a count that reduced his minimum exposure from eight years to five.”
While the court was assessing whether or not Richardson qualified for probation, the court stated that “the seriousness of the offense is so extreme and the victim impact [is] so extreme that the Court can’t really justify probation based on the criteria.”
The court explained that the decision to not grant the defendant probation was due to the victim being a minor.
However, the district attorney corrected the judge and stated, “No, she wasn’t, your Honor.” The attorney added that the victim (was not a minor) and that the plea had been offered “in order to reduce the count from [the] eight-year minimum triad.”
After some clarifications, the court then ignored the discrepancies between the human trafficking of a minor for sex act charge and the age of the victim. The judge stood by their decision to not grant Richardson probation “given the seriousness of the offense and the impact on the victim.”
Richardson had entered the plea bargain out of fear of receiving the worst sentence, which in this case was a maximum state prison term of eight years.
Moreover, since the victim was well over the age of 18, Count 8 could not possibly have been committed by the defendant. This inconsistency makes the defendant’s plea an illegal plea bargain.
By accepting this unauthorized plea bargain, the court had made a grievous error that compromises the integrity of the judicial system.
In the official appeals court document filed for Richardson’s case, the court criticized the court’s unethical conduct in handling his case, emphasizing that the major issue here is that the trial court requested a stipulation to a “factual impossibility” adding that “under such circumstances, the acceptance of the guilty plea was an abuse of discretion.”
The appeals court elaborated that the factual impossibility in Richardson’s case was that the “defendant could not have been guilty of trafficking a minor because the victim indisputably was 26 years old.”
The appeals court further added that “since it was legally impossible to commit the charged crime against the overaged victim, the trial court acted in excess of its jurisdiction when it imposed sentence for that crime.”
They also mentioned that Richardson “cannot lawfully admit in the trial court that felony committed in another jurisdiction includes all of the elements of a California serious felony when, as a matter of law, it does not.”
The appeal document made clear that they understand that high volume and rapid pace calendars could have caused the court to proceed with a stipulation, but that a full calendar should not “override the significant policy considerations attending a guilty plea.”
They criticized the court further, stating that “it was the trial court’s responsibility to ensure the plea was valid and, if not, to refuse to allow it, despite the agreement among defendant, his lawyer, and the district attorney to its terms.”
Furthermore, “the role of the trial court is not to merely rubberstamp any agreement submitted by the parties, but [to] protect the public by ensuring the interests of justice are served by the agreement.”
In Richardson’s case, the court failed to be meticulous in evaluating the facts of the charges when accepting the plea bargain.
It was the court’s obligation “to ensure that its sentencing decision was not predicated on an invalid plea that was unauthorized by law” after it was made “clear on the record that the victim was ‘26’ years old (an adult and not a minor).”
The appeal document reminded the court that criminal statutes serve as the foundations in determining whether or not a defendant is convicted.
They provided a clear analogy stating that “the diverse statutes comprising the criminal law are there for a reason; they are not like tools above a workbench to be selected by the parties to a criminal case according to their utility in getting rid of pending cases and without regard to a defendant’s conduct.”
In Richardson’s case, the court failed to match the statutes with his actual conduct.
The judge overseeing the defendant’s plea hearing was put on the spot as the document iterated that “[i]t should not be necessary to state that the obligation of a judge is to uphold the law . . . . In exercising its authority, the court cannot lose sight of its duty to follow the law and maintain the integrity of the judicial system.”
Once again, Richardson’s plea “directly contravened these principles.”
The appeals court stressed that “we cannot affirm this sham plea simply because it inured to defendant’s benefit. To ratify the ultimate result would compromise the integrity of the judicial system.”
Unfortunately, Richardson is not the only defendant who risks entering illegal plea bargains out of fear of receiving a worse sentence at trial.
According to a 2020 plea bargaining report by the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera), “researchers estimate that more than 90 percent of criminal cases that end in conviction are the result of plea bargaining… …a low visibility, off-the-record, and informal process that usually occurs far from open court.”
Defendants are having to make a choice between having closed door negotiations to seal a plea bargain or a jury trial that has a high chance of resulting in a worse sentence. In the same report, Vera found that there were “64 percent longer custodial sentences imposed at trial” than in sentences imposed by pleas.
This difference in sentencing outcomes has certainly had an effect on the public’s view of jury by trial, especially for those dealing with the justice system.
Correspondingly, a 2018 National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) trial penalty report also found that in “over the last 50 years, trial by jury has declined at an ever-increasing rate to the point that this institution now occurs in less than three percent of state and federal criminal cases.”
After the plea sentencing hearing, Richardson had filed an appeal on the basis that the court had accepted an illegal plea bargain. His case has been returned to court where his no contest plea will be vacated, Count 8 will be removed, and all seven dismissed counts will be reinstated for a new trial.
Jose graduated from UC Davis with a BA in Political Science and has interned for the California State Legislature. He is from Rocklin, CA.
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