Defendants Pleading Guilty Still Entitled to Due Process Rights

Posted on in Criminal Defense

due process, pleading guilty, Illinois criminal defense attorney, constitutional rights, Only a small percentage of criminal cases in the United States ever go to trial. Most criminal cases end in a defendant's guilty plea. Even a plea bargain, though, requires the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney because prosecutors and the courts must still respect a defendant's constitutional right to due process.

As the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago recently explained, even a seemingly minor procedural issue can have serious due process implications. The Court determined that a defendant's guilty plea was invalid because the trial judge improperly delegated the handling of the plea to a lower official, known as a magistrate judge.

Unfortunately, it can be common for local residents' constitutional rights to be ignored by police officers and sometimes even in court. Ensuring all of your rights are respected every step of the way is one key reason why it is imperative to secure the aid of a seasoned criminal defense attorney. Your lawyer is often the difference between facing serious punishments and getting a chance to move on with your life.

Understanding the Process - Magistrates vs. Judges

If you are charged with a federal crime in Illinois, your case is heard in one of the state's three United States District Courts. Each court has a number of district judges, appointed by the President of the United States with the consent of the Senate. Only judges appointed in this manner may exercise the “judicial power” of the United States under the Constitution.

However, in order to help these judges with their substantial workload, Congress allows district courts to appoint magistrate judges to handle certain administrative matters, such as pretrial motions and evidentiary hearings. Magistrate judges may even conduct trials of misdemeanor offenses with the consent of the prosecutor and the defendant; but magistrate judges may not conduct felony trials.

Limits on The Power of a Magistrate Judge

Procedurally, while the magistrate judge is capable of handling many facets of the process, there are limits. When those limits are crossed, then it is critical for an attorney to point out the error. In some cases the magistrate overstepping his or her bounds can overturn a verdict or plea.

For example, as the 7th Circuit recently explained, while guilty pleas may be routine in the justice system, the district judge still plays a crucial role in protecting a defendant's due process rights. The judge must conduct an independent inquiry into the defendant's competence, whether he understands the charges against him and the consequences of a guilty plea, and whether there is a factual basis supporting the plea. None of these tasks may be delegated to a magistrate judge.

Protecting Your Rights

If you or someone you know is charged with a federal crime, it is important you have an attorney looking out for your best interests. Even small procedural questions can make the difference between freedom and spending years in prison. Contact the Chicago criminal defense lawyer at Law Offices of Hal M. Garfinkel LLC, Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney today if you need advice or assistance.
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