Rhode Island Personal Injury Lawyer
by Slepkow Law

Rhode Island courthouseThe Providence Journal recently reported on a Providence Superior Court Judge scolding a prosecutor and a defense attorney in a written decision for allegedly “judge shopping” in a recent felony criminal case. Notably, the justice of the Court held 19 conferences concerning this criminal cause of action.  This brouhaha gives everyone a peek at the ‘insider game’ that is our court system.

The Providence Journal reported that “A Superior Court judge issued a ruling this week scolding the lawyers handling a crack dealer’s criminal case for “judge shopping” to get a lighter sentence and avoid a trial.”  Read article here

Find ri judiciary court records: https://www.courts.ri.gov

Judge scolds lawyer and prosecutor

The written decision did not decide anything, overturn anything or even change anything regarding the disposition of the case. The ruling was rather a scolding to the prosecutor and the defense attorney and a message to the bar that this type of conduct will not be accepted by the court. “In the blistering decision, Judge Jeffrey A. Lanphear faults Special Assistant Attorney General Robert E. Johnson IV and defense lawyer Chad F. Bank for the plea agreement they struck in the case of Juan Batista, a repeat drug offender.  Judge Lanphear accused the lawyers of conduct that “erodes” the court’s trust and may lead defendants to believe they can be rewarded by manipulating the court.”  Read the full decision here: STATE OF RHODE ISLAND V. JUAN BATISTA 

This mess in my opinion generates more questions than it does answers!

The judge over 19 conferences dug in his heals that the defendant must spend 6 months in the slammer if he plead guilty or nolo contendere to the crack cocaine charges. Defense counsel steadfastly rejected the plea and demanded a jury trial.

On March 13,  2014 the  criminal defense attorney,  the assistant Attorney General  and  Providence Superior Court Justice, Judge Lanphear conferenced the criminal possession of crack cocaine  case* of Juan Baptista to discuss a potential plea. This was the last of a series of 19 seemingly never ending conferences between these judicial officers.  The defendant’s criminal defense attorney believed that three months in the big house was plenty for a plea deal. The defendant’s attorney rejected the plea deal and demanded a jury trial on the merits, as is his constitutional right. The matter was scheduled for a jury trial on April 1st, 2014.

 A curve ball – Defendant pinched for crack

An unexpected curve ball threw the case into upheaval when the defendant was busted for alleged cocaine possession. Less than a month after the last Superior Court conference, the state alleged that the defendant violated his bail on the underlying crack cocaine case. Allegedly the defendant got pinched for possessing 92.5 grams of Cocaine. Id.

Judge shopping? A different Magistrate = a different result

The defendant was brought before a different Magistrate and he copped a plea deal for 3 months to serve and 7 years suspended rather than the 6 months the prior judge demanded.   The prosecutor and defense counsel reached this plea deal that was accepted by the magistrate handling that particular calendar. “The Court file further reflects that on May 12, 2014, the attorneys in the action appeared before the Magistrate presiding over the Daily Criminal Calendar and resolved not only the bail violation but the underlying case which was pending trial.” http://www.courts.ri.gov/Courts/SuperiorCourt/DecisionsOrders/decisions/12-3423A.pdf

Prior judge angry because of judge shopping

The justice who was intimately involved in this case and had participated in 19 conferences only learned of this plea deal on the date of the  jury trial, May 28th, 2014!  The Judge was apparently peeved that “by admitting a new infraction, the Defendant did not increase his punishment, but decreased it!” Id. The judge seemed disappointed that the prosecutor and defense attorney did not inform the Magistrate who accepted the plea of Judge insistence that defendant get 6 months in the can.

“Like many courts, different judicial officers in the Rhode Island Superior Court consider dispositions and accept pleas at different stages in the case, including: arraignment, pretrial, bail violation hearings, trials, sentence violations and after trial. Attorneys, and prosecutors in particular, should accurately and completely describe the proposals previously offered by judicial officers in the same case. It is a bedrock principle of American jurisprudence that attorneys are frank and truthful with the Court. In return, Courts are able to depend on the attorneys for the representations made on behalf of their clients. Shell games are unnecessary. Courts should not need to double check on counsel or have them provide case histories under oath. Judge shopping, simply to obtain a lighter sentence, or avoid a trial, is inappropriate. See, e.g., Abdallah v. Bain Capital, LLC, 2013 WL 3491874 (D. Mass. 2013) and Johns v. Welker, 74 S.E.2d 486 (N.C. 2013). Such conduct erodes the Court’s trust, lessens the honor of the bar, and may lead litigants to conclude that they will be awarded for delay, judicial manipulation or violating their bail.” Court RI

Editor’s notes and opinions: There are many unanswered questions here. Did the magistrate review the Court file and see such intimate involvement of Judge Lanphaer in 19 separate conferences. If he reviewed the file why did he not abstain from accepting the plea? He could have just sent the case to the prior judge for sentencing.

Why didn’t the prosecutor inform the Magistrate of Judge Lanphaers’ prior edicts concerning jail time and sentencing? Why did the prosecutor agree to such a lenient sentence for such a serious crime when another judge insisted on more jail time? Why did the magistrate accept such a 3 month to serve sweet heart deal for a criminal with a lengthy record? Why did the initial judge believe that 6 months to serve is enough for a crack cocaine possession especially consider the defendants prior felony charges?  (The Providence Journal reports “Batista, at the time, was a three-time felony drug offender, court records show.”)

(In my opinion: A criminal defense attorney owes fewer obligations to the court to make disclosures then a prosecutor. As a zealous advocate, it is not defense counsels role to raise the red flag concerning a plea disposition when such red flag would be detrimental to his client’s rights and best interest. If a 3 month to serve offer is made and his client accepts it, if the criminal defense lawyer blows up the deal he may be acting unethically.)

*The Court noted that “the police allege that they located a digital scale, cut cornered baggies, a razor blade knife, acetone, Pyrex measuring bowls, ledger pads, cocaine residue, $3000 cash, and fourteen individual baggies with crack cocaine in Mr. Batista’s apartment. The police further allege that Mr. Batista had two additional bags of crack cocaine on his person at his arrest. Mr. Batista had already been adjudicated a felon of three separate controlled substance felonies and had served time on two of them.” courts.ri

Skip to content