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July 17, 2012

"Can money save you from prison?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new article from the Cincinnati Enquirer, which carries the subheading "Facing more than 30 years in prison a convicted drug dealer and gambler made a deal."  Here are excerpts from the piece:

Derek Ragan, a convicted drug dealer and gambler, faced more than 30 years in prison after officials raided his West End restaurant, called it an illegal gambling house and seized almost $1 million in cash. When he left court last month, Ragan had none of that cash – but had his freedom.

Ragan agreed to forfeit the $992,457 seized by police, eventually split by four law enforcement agencies and the IRS, hoping for leniency.  It worked.  Instead of the decades in prison the original charges carried, he got probation. “Sometimes money talks,” said Rich Goldberg, a Hyde Park criminal defense attorney who represented Ragan in the past. “I suspect if he had $9.92 instead of over ($992,000 seized), there is a likelihood a plea bargain wouldn’t have been as good for him.”...

Prosecutors won’t specifically say why the deal was offered to Ragan, saying plea deals are a normal part of their strategy.  Is it cynical to suspect it was because he agreed to forfeit the almost $1 million seized?

Yes, said Julie Wilson, spokeswoman for the Hamilton County Prosecutor. “Some charges were dismissed pursuant to a plea agreement but the plea was NOT contingent on forfeiture of the money,” she wrote in an email.

Ron White, a philosophy professor at the College of Mount St. Joseph, isn’t convinced. “I don’t think it’s cynical at all. I think it’s today’s reality,” White said. “These are minor crimes compared to murder and theft... It raises lot of questions.” A culture of 'cash or prison'

The concern, added attorney Larry Salzman, is such plea deals could “create a culture of cash or prison.” Salzman is with Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based law firm specializing in fighting government forfeiture cases.  “It calls into question the legitimacy of prosecutions,” Salzman said.  “If they’re going to have a direct financial incentive, it creates a perverse incentive for law enforcement. It creates a climate of cynicism.”

July 17, 2012 at 09:05 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Honestly, those comments are woefully optimistic. I think a "climate of cynicism" was created a long time ago. Look at the article Doug featured here awhile ago about how criminals who can offer information get better deals than those who don't.

The fundamental truth is that if you give the state something it wants the state will give you something you want. That's the essence of a bargain. The problem is that this approach is diametrically opposed to the notion of the police and the courts as truth seekers. This is just a blatant example that would "shock the conscious" if any of the prosecutors had a conscious to shock.

Posted by: Daniel | Jul 17, 2012 11:05:52 PM

It's a common element of a plea. It is uglier when the assets are substantial and circuits fight over venue.

Posted by: beth | Jul 17, 2012 11:57:26 PM

Of course money can save you from prison. Like Daniel said, it is the essence of a bargain. If you have a stack of cash that you're willing to let go into forfeiture if the AUSAs are going to show you some love, it's not exactly something that the government is going to be deaf, dumb, and blind to.

Posted by: Guy | Jul 18, 2012 12:23:19 AM

I urge all law students to take a morning and to sit in a local traffic court. What goes on has almost nothing to do with what is being taught in law school.

Example. New Jersey. Points from traffic offenses last seven years. They may result in higher insurance, forced classes, loss of licenses in a state with poor public transportation. So no matter what the infraction it gets pled to careless driving, no points, and $400 fine. That is the lowest level of infraction. There will be a case every two minutes, for an entire morning. The court will have made about $20,000 in 4 hours. Any desire for a trial or refusal to settle, results in progressively increasing pressure and intimidation to settle.

Get caught in the drunk driving machine, and the costs are in the $1000's. Lawyers solicit defendants by mail. However, all they seem to do is accept a plea bargain, and the defendant can do that without legal assistance. The deal will be offered whether represented or not. Certainly, no lawyer will be aggressive, since this appears to be the lowest business a lawyer can do.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 18, 2012 1:06:51 AM

0012773 Julie Katsanis Wilson
Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney
Admitted in Ohio 1983 11 01
University of Cincinnati
▼ ▬ ☺ ▬ ▼
… said Julie Wilson, spokeswoman for the Hamilton County Prosecutor. … but the plea was NOT contingent on forfeiture of the money … she wrote in an email.
▲ ▬ ☺ ▬ ▲
(My emphasis on “NOT”)

Q. Notwithstanding her relative youth (under age 55) , I would not expect Ms. Wilson to admit that the plea was “contingent” upon forfeiture .

The scenario could easily be “We of course are not asking you to forfeit ALL the money that triggered excessive saliva flow which shorted our lap tops ; but consider keeping the money and giving your soul to heaven or giving us the money and keeping your soul.”

It is Hamilton County, Ohio under discussion , not Utopia or Eden .

DJB, JAG* , ARR/AWD 2012.07.18.T09:18 EDT
Note: New email address for Love/Ambivalent/Hate (LAH) e-mail:
"JAG" {[email protected]} ; substituting < for { and > for }

If in Franklin or an adjacent county, I’ll arrange for pickup of cases of single malt Islay scotch.


Speaking of cynicism , as Justice Souter once spoke:
Where history’s understanding is missing, cynicism will take its place.

Justice Souter at a March 2009 meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
(MARK SHERMAN, Associated Press Writer 14 March 2009)

Posted by: M. Blank | Jul 18, 2012 9:18:44 AM

The newspaper story notes that the most serious felony charges (like 20-year senteneces, or thereabouts) were dismissed, and the defendant entered a plea to the least serious feony charges that nevertheless carry a presumptive sentence of prison, but for which prison is not required. Add that fact to the mix, and it's hard not to be cynical about the result. I'd also say that was good work by defense counsel for the client.

Posted by: Greg Jones | Jul 18, 2012 3:26:39 PM

I have noted in several posts that Forfeiture is changing everything. Our Government obtained BILLIONS of dollars in forfeited funds and assets over the years. To see the hundreds of pages of property seized from citizens that our Government hopes to keep, go to Forfeiture.gov, and click on the Attorney button at the bottom. All of these hundreds of pages of items only have to be advertised for 3 weeks. (So the pages are constantly renewing with more items) If no one files a claim for these items, they are "administratively" forfeited to the Government. If you DO have the audacity to file a claim to get your property back, your forfeiture becomes a "judicial" case--and you would be well advised to have an attorney assist you in navigating your way through the system--and believe me, the Government will fight you tooth and nail over the money or assets so that THEY can keep them.
Presumably you can not buy justice---and at least one court of appeals chastised a judge who wanted a Wife who owned the couples home to give up the house for a reduced sentence for her husband. ($ for leniency) Because SHE wouldn't give up her house, the judge increased the husband's sentence (US v Bennett 2nd Circuit 2001)
Forfeiture can play a perverse incentive in charging decisions. I truly believe it played a part in my prosecution (for which I was acquitted)--I owned rental properties, a valuable home and other assets---none of which had any connection to crime--but the Government seized them anyway. (Real property is not "seized" at first--the Government will put a lis pendens on the property that effectively keeps you from selling or borrowing against). And money laundering "vagaries" allow them to seize EVEN more--as "innocent funds" that even "touch" the criminal proceeds will be deemed as "involved in the crime" or
"used to conceal". So if you deposit $100 of bad money into your $1000 account, the Government can try to seize and forfeit all of it.
My assets were seized in 2008. I was acquitted in 2011. It is now nearly August of 2012, and I am STILL in a legal battle with the Government to regain my property.

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