Why are so few cases tried? Several factors cut down the number of cases where trial is even a possibility. First, I try to prosecute “good” cases- many cases where culpability is uncertain are never filed. Some prosecutors will file every case the police bring in and let the system sort it out. I think that’s a waste of resources and an abdication of my responsibility to only charge defendants where the evidence supports it.
Second, guilty people generally plead guilty. I don’t have good number on it, but I’d estimate that about half of all people who are arraigned tell the judge that they intend to plead guilty before they ever talk to me. These defendants aren’t pressured in any way. They’re simply people who are taking responsibility for a mistake.
Third, a significant number of defendants have other, bigger legal issues. Their misdemeanors pending in my court typically get resolved later, alongside their felony cases. That only leaves a small percentage left that hires or has appointed an attorney negotiating on their behalf.
If the person makes pleas of “actual innocence,” this is when their lawyer tries to convince me of it. To be quite fair to everyone involved, that happens. I’ve dismissed DWI cases after re-watching the video with a defense attorney. I dismissed one possession of marijuana case after the defendant agreed to take a UA and it came out negative. I’m human and make mistakes in case intake. The inverse is true as well- after seeing the evidence against them a defendant may plead guilty. Usually though, this negotiation is about punishment rather than guilt and ends with a plea bargain that the defendant and the prosecutor can both live with.
So when does a case go to trial? In my experience there are two reasons- an obstinate defendant or a defendant with a LOT to lose. Again, in fairness, sometimes a defendant is obstinate because they’re innocent. This happens, but I’m a firm believer that the system works. If I play fair and the defense plays fair, then I don’t have any room to gripe about verdicts I disagree with. Both trials I’ve lost fall into this category. One I lost on a pretty technical point: I didn’t prove that it happened in my county, and if I don’t prove jurisdiction then the judge can’t hear the case. The judge granted a motion to dismiss immediately after I rested. It was my first jury trial and I made a rookie mistake- most prosecutors I’ve talked with have done the same thing.
Sometimes a defendant goes to trial when the consequences of *any* guilty verdict are more important than any punishment that may be assessed. In all three cases I’ve won, the defendants were on probation or parole for an unrelated felony. Any guilty plea would have meant a trip back to prison. These defendants were willing to try their cases because the risk of the maximum misdemeanor penalty was nothing compared to the reward of a not guilty verdict. All three were very strong cases, so the possibility of a not guilty was very low, but they were facing years in federal or state prison.
One final note- a defendant may go to trial because the terms of the offered plea bargain are unacceptable to them. In some cases a defendant may then do what’s called an “open plea.” They plead guilty, but leave punishment to the judge’s discretion. These are both very uncommon in misdemeanor cases because our ranges of punishment are so compressed, with a normal maximum of one year in jail or two years probation.