The ACLU has filed a class-action lawsuit against the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office that alleges prosecutors are abusing a fast-track pre-trial court process to coerce thousands of defendants to plead guilty before officials are required to turn over evidence.
The complaint, which was filed in federal court on Wednesday, is aimed at the constitutionality of how prosecutors are using Early Disposition Courts (EDCs) and Regional Court Centers (RCCs).
The two pre-trial court processes are similar and have the stated goal of consolidating hearings and obtaining convictions as quickly as possible.
Often at the first hearing, prosecutors present a plea deal that threatens harsher penalties if defendants exercises their basic constitutional right to hold a probable cause hearing to justify whether the charges are legitimate, according to the lawsuit.
The ACLU’s complaint contains multiple examples of the threat presented to defendants before they have an opportunity to view any of the evidence against them.
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One example: “This offer will be withdrawn and no longer available after today’s hearing date… NOTE: County Attorney policy dictates that if the defendant rejects this offer, any subsequent offer tendered will be substantially harsher.”
In an interview with ABC15, ACLU attorney Jared Keenan said the threats are a violation of defendant’s right to a fair trial and their right to due process.
“The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has created a sort of constitution-free zone where they have all the power and those accused of crimes have none,” he said.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The EDCs and RCCs handle tens of thousands of criminal cases every year.
Set up more than 20 years ago, EDCs were designed to speed up resolution in drug cases, while RCCs were designed to do the same with lower-level felony cases.
However, the use of both has continued to expand over the years as they’ve proven successful at securing early plea deals.
“It has grown exponentially since it began and is now handling cases it was never designed to handle,” Keenan said.
He added, “It’s not justice. It’s an assembly line.”
According to an overview written about EDCs and RCCs, officials tout the programs as “fast-acting, front-end tribunals” that “could be classified as ‘problem-solving’ courts since there is a good deal of collaboration among the court, prosecution, public defender, and adult probation in and around the courtroom itself.”
A collection of public defenders disagrees with that assessment.
The lawsuit is being brought by the Arizona chapter of the ACLU and its national office. The civil rights organization represents Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a local non-profit group of defense lawyers who represent indigent criminal defendants.
The lawsuit also names several specific individuals, including Samuel Luckey, who claimed he felt threatened by the coercive process.
Luckey, who’s facing drug charges, voiced his concern during a court hearing in April when a judge asked him if anyone threatened him if he waived his right to a probable cause hearing.
“In a way, that’s threatening,” Luckey told the judge. “That’s what I’m trying to express. That seems threatening. If I go along with (the hearing), they’re going to take the plea they’re giving me and just like, they’re not giving me nothing. That sounds threatening to me in a way. I’m not saying nobody is saying they’re going to kill me or anything. But this is my life here. In my eyes, that’s threatening.”
The ACLU claims the current practice by prosecutors in these cases also unfairly impacts minorities and those with lower incomes who can’t afford to make bail.
“The people that are most vulnerable in the system - the communities that are the most over-policed and over-prosecuted - are the same communities that are going to be stuck in jail with a bond they can’t afford and threatened with a harsher deal if they don’t take the first one,” Keenan said.
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.