The court comes to school: lessons on prosecutorial discretion
Last Wednesday, my criminal law students had to go only a few feet to hear a session of oral arguments before the Utah Supreme Court. Both the Utah Supreme Court and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals hold arguments at the S.J. Quinney College of Law every so often. It’s always a great learning opportunity, and Wednesday’s arguments were no exception. A felony drug possession case raised important questions about efforts to limit prosecutorial discretion in charging decisions.
A police officer found a plastic baggie with methamphetamine residue in the defendant’s pocket. Under Utah law, this evidence could have been used to charge possession of drug paraphernalia (a misdemeanor), or possession of a controlled substance (a felony). The state charged the felony offense. At a preliminary hearing, the defendant successfully invoked State v. Shondel, 453 P.2d 343 (1969), a Utah case that provides that “where there is doubt or uncertainty as to which of two punishments is applicable to an offense an accused is entitled to the benefit of the lesser.” Wednesday’s arguments focused on how courts should decide whether there is uncertainty as to the applicable punishment: should courts look only at the statutory language to decide whether two statutes impose different punishments on identical conduct, or should the courts consider how the statutes are applied given the facts and evidence of the particular case? On paper, Utah’s felony drug possession and misdemeanor paraphernalia statutes look different—there are ways to possess drugs that don’t violate the paraphernalia statute, and ways to possess paraphernalia that don’t violate the drug possession statute. But in this case, the only evidence to support either charge was the presence of the baggie with meth residue in the defendant’s pocket. No doubt there will be disagreement about whether prosecutors faced with these choices should charge the offense with the greatest penalty (as John Ashcroft directed federal prosecutors in 2003—see discussion here) or the offense with the least severe penalty, as Shondel seems to require in at least some cases. But as Doug Berman has often noted, in a world in which concerns about sentencing disparities tend to focus on judicial discretion, more efforts to regulate prosecutorial charging decisions might be overdue.