Most criminal cases, including drug cases, are resolved without a trial via a process known as plea bargaining. In that process, both the government and the defense negotiate an agreement as to the outcome of a case, such as the length of any incarceration and/or probation and the requirement of any special conditions such as drug treatment, counseling, curfews and maintaining gainful employment. The plea agreement is then presented to the court. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the court approves and implements the agreement as the final judgment in the case. A federal case in West Virginia this summer, and most recently, a state court memorandum issued in St. Johns County last week, however, may well signal the end of plea bargaining in cases in the greater Jacksonville area involving the manufacture, sale or distribution of opioids.
On June 26, 2017 United States District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin in the Southern District of West Virginia rejected a plea agreement reached between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Defendant, Charles York Walker, Jr. There, Mr. Walker had been indicted for three counts of distributing heroin, two counts of distributing fentanyl and one count for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Through plea bargaining, Mr. Walker pleaded guilty to a single count of distributing heroin and the government dropped the other charges.
Mr. Walker’s plea agreement was then presented to the court for acceptance. To pretty much everyone’s surprise, Judge Goodwin rejected the agreement. In doing so, Judge Goodwin first noted the defendant had a substantial criminal history and that the case facts demonstrated Mr. Walker was engaged in a “continuous drug dealing enterprise.”
More importantly, however, Judge Goodwin considered the plea agreement to have been made in the context of a “clear, present, and deadly heroin and opioid crisis in this community.” Because the heroin and opioid epidemic is perhaps the greatest public health problem at this time, Judge Goodwin felt it was not in the public interest to accept the plea agreement. Rather, Judge Goodwin concluded it would be better to have a trial or full sentencing hearing so the public generally would be more aware of, and deterred by, the substantial dangers and punishment associated with opioid dealing.
While Judge Goodwin rejected the plea agreement in Mr. Walker’s opioid dealing case, The St. Augustine Record recently reported that Circuit Judge Howard Maltz in St. John’s County has issued a memorandum stating he would no longer accept plea deals in all cases involving dealing in opioids. The article reported Judge Maltz’s new policy barring plea deals in opioid cases is motivated by the same concerns of Judge Goodwin in Mr. Walker’s case.
Judge Maltz’s new policy will apply to any case involving the sale, delivery, manufacturing or trafficking of any opioid. The new policy does make some exceptions, including for those who are cooperating with authorities as informants. And, Judge Maltz was clear his new policy won’t apply to addicts who find themselves caught up in the epidemic. “This isn’t the users that I am addressing, this is the people that are dealing the stuff that I am addressing,” Maltz said.
For opioid users, and not dealers, arrested and charged with crimes associated with their addiction, particularly non-violent crimes, Maltz said he is usually willing to accept an arrangement that allows the defendant to get help either in a rehabilitation facility or have the case transferred to drug court, where individuals can avoid harsh penalties by participating in the program that requires them to seek help and complete other requirements like community service. “If it’s a simple possession we will try to get them help,” Maltz said.
At this time, Judge Maltz is the only judge in the greater Jacksonville area to have adopted a blanket policy against accepting plea agreements in opioid dealing cases. However, between Judge Goodwin’s rejection of Mr. Walker’s plea agreement in the Southern District of West Virginia and Judge Maltz’s broad policy rejecting plea agreements in all opioid dealing cases in St. Johns County, you can soon expect higher scrunity if not outright rejection of plea agreements in these types of cases in both the state and federal courts in the greater Jacksonville area and throughout Florida.
If you or a loved one has been arrested for possession of, or the manufacture, sale, distribution or trafficking in, opioids, including heroin and fentanyl, oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), codeine or morphine, you should contact a Jacksonville criminal defense lawyer who can properly advise you about the best case strategies to implement in light of the evolving policies concerning plea bargaining in these cases. Doing so can help ensure you get the best outcome in your drug case in Duval, Clay, Nassau, Baker, Bradford, Putnam and St. Johns Counties.