Dear Courts Reporter: My daughter’s boyfriend was indicted in a federal drug conspiracy a few weeks ago. He’s apparently telling her that it’s no big deal and that his lawyer is saying there’s no chance he will spend any time in prison. Should she believe him or dump him? — Steamed in Kansas City
Dear Steamed: A few things before we get started. I’m not a lawyer, I’m unfamiliar with the fine details of this particular case and I don’t give relationship advice. Even federal drug defendants need the support of friends and family.
As a general rule, getting charged in a felony federal indictment always qualifies as a “big deal.” It means that prosecutors have decided that they have a case that’s good enough to submit to a jury.
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Of course, lots of things can happen in the pre-trial process. Piles of evidence, even confessions, can get thrown out because investigators obtained them improperly. But most prosecutors have experience with those potholes and take them into account in their charging decisions.
Absent a written plea agreement, few defense lawyers I know would offer a client blanket assurances about jail time in a complex drug case filed only a few weeks ago. Lawyers generally need more time to completely digest the indictment and the investigative records.
Sometimes, defendants hope for a sweet plea bargain to save their bacon. But consider this: The general practice of federal prosecutors is to negotiate pleas to the most serious charge in the indictment and then drop the less serious charges.
In the case of your daughter’s boyfriend, I see from the docket sheet that his most serious charge carries a substantial mandatory minimum sentence.
Criminal defense lawyers generally are optimists by nature, and part of their job is to sustain hope even in the bleakest circumstance. But they’re not miracle workers, and defendants must temper hope with reality.
A decade ago, pharmacist Robert Courtney pleaded guilty to federal charges that he diluted chemotherapy drugs because his lawyers had negotiated a 30-year cap on his sentence and maintained at least the opportunity to argue for a lesser sentence.
Courtney, who was well served by his defense lawyers, got the full 30.
So, Steamed in Kansas City, it looks to me like your daughter’s boyfriend has some serious decisions ahead. That’s always a big deal.Dear Courts Reporter: OK, you’re not a lawyer. But can you recommend one for me? — Needs Help in Raytown
Dear Needs: No can do, but I appreciate you asking. I can’t send business to anyone I cover.
Thanks to all who call and write. And apologies to the advice columnists whose format I’ve ripped off this week.