Hearings, meetings and court dates all part of settling a criminal case

A blank plea agreement form sits atop a table in the Mecosta County Prosecutor’s Office. The majority of criminal cases in Mecosta County are resolved through plea agreements. (Pioneer photos/Emily Grove)

This is the second in a series of four articles looking into the use of plea agreements in Mecosta County. The first story discussed the number of cases in Mecosta County. The next story in Friday’s Pioneer will look at the financial reasons behind plea agreements and the cost of taking a case to trial.

MECOSTA COUNTY – Much like the rest of the state, the majority of court cases in Mecosta County will never go before a jury of a defendant’s peers.

According to data from the National Center for State Courts, in 2016 only 2.1 percent of felony cases went to a jury trial in Michigan.

With about 2,000 cases annually in Mecosta County, Prosecutor Brian Thiede estimates between 90 and 95 percent of the county’s cases are ultimately plea-bargained.

“Really, the plea percentage has to be that high and at that level in order to be able to try what cases are left,” he said.

So how do the select few cases wind up in front of jurors, while the vast majority are neatly settled behind the scenes with plea agreements?

To begin the process of a criminal case in the judicial system, the prosecutor’s office prepares charges and signs off on the complaint. A law enforcement officer takes the charges to a magistrate or judge. The magistrate or judge then signs the warrant, which authorizes the arrest of the subject, Thiede said.

“Of course, some of these people have already been arrested, but it is up to the prosecutor’s office to determine what they are charged with after reviewing the facts of the case,” Thiede said.

After a defendant has been arraigned on charges in district court, what happens next depends on if it’s a misdemeanor or felony case. In a misdemeanor case, defendants and the prosecutors meet for a pretrial conference, which is conducted in the prosecutor’s office.

“We will meet with the attorney or just the defendant if there is no attorney, which is common in misdemeanor cases,” Thiede said. “We will make an offer to resolve the case, mostly just to plead as charged.”

In his experience as a defense attorney, Dennis DuVall often finds the first thing defendants want to know is what their sentence is going to be and what DuVall can do to help.

“Even though the goals between the defense and prosecution are contradictory, we work closely together in attempt to resolve cases as favorably as possible,” DuVall said. “On occasion that does not happen.”

Prosecutors and defendants may go back and forth a few times and hold more than one pretrial before reaching a resolution.

“If we can find a way that settles what they’ve done most recently, but also gets their life back on track, we try to do that,” Thiede said.

If it becomes clear an agreement won’t be reached, a trial date is scheduled in district court.

Case files line the wall on a shelf in the Mecosta County Prosecutor’s Office.

After an arraignment on felony charges, the prosecutors, defense attorney and defendant meet for a probable cause conference. That’s the first opportunity to talk about the case. However, these conferences may have to be postponed and adjourned in order to get more information about the case, such as waiting for lab results to come back, Thiede said.

Next is a preliminary examination, which is a hearing to establish a crime has been committed and there is reason to believe the defendant committed it. These can be waived and the case will be bound over to circuit court.

Years ago, these hearings were the first time the defendant was presented with the evidence against him or her, but with modern day discovery rules, prosecutors are obligated to give the defense most information, thus making preliminary examinations unnecessary.

However, sometimes it is advantageous to the defense to have the preliminary exam, with the chance a judge will dismiss certain charges after hearing the evidence. On the other hand, a judge can approve a motion by the prosecution to add more charges based on what comes out in a preliminary exam.

Whether a felony case is bound over because a preliminary exam was held or because it was waived, the defendant will be arraigned in circuit court on the charges.

Next is the pretrial, where it is discussed how likely the case will be resolved without trial, whether a trial has to be combined with another case (if there are multiple cases against a defendant or combining the process with a co-defendant’s case), how long a trial is expected to last, any motions and setting a possible trial date.

Between the pretrial and trial date, there is a settlement conference, sometimes two, and then a final settlement conference. These meetings discuss possible plea offers and resolutions.

From a defense standpoint, attorneys are working to get their client the best possible sentence, DuVall said.

“An example would be a person charged with a felony,” he said. “If they take the case to trial and lose, they could go to prison. If they take a deal they may get a shorter sentence. We give clients the pros and the cons, and every case has them. They ask the questions, I answer them, and then they weigh their options.”

At times a judge will be part of a settlement conference, as prosecutors and attorneys discuss possible case resolutions and want to see if a judge will accept the agreement.

“It may be a question of, ‘We are thinking of offering a delay of sentence – will you accept that?'” explained Mecosta County 49th Circuit Court Judge Kimberly Booher. “If I say no, that gives them somewhere else to go back to and negotiate because they know that window is closed.”

If a deal is struck, the defendant will enter a plea and then return to court to be sentenced. If the defense and prosecution cannot agree, a case will move to trial.

With limited trial dates and numerous cases booked for the same slots, Thiede and the other prosecutors are constantly pushing to settle as many cases as possible.

“We are trying to resolve everything we can,” he said. “We are giving what we feel are the best offers we can give, but you still don’t know which aren’t going to work, so you are giving a decent offer in each. Then most of the time, each defendant pleas.”

However, there are some crimes and defendants who Thiede classifies as “plain evil.” These offenders aren’t likely to get a plea offer, or if they do, other factors have played into the decision.

Fortunately, these tend to be a fairly small percentage of the people prosecutors encounter, Thiede said.

“Those are the cases that more often go to trial, regardless of anything else, because we want to get the most we can possibly get for the sake of society,” he said. “We want them in prison. That’s where the focus of our efforts tend to go. We usually know that quickly in a case and the line in the sand is drawn.”

Mecosta County Prosecutor Brian Thiede looks over notes while in court for plea and sentencing hearings.

When attempting to resolve a case and figuring out what type of plea deals to offer, Thiede often looks at the character of the offender and their history.

From people with no criminal history who may have inadvertently committed a crime to the repeat offenders, there’s a wide range of punishments and possibilities.

For example, a very minor theft is still a theft and it needs to be dealt with, Thiede said, but the system needs to consider the best remedy and what makes the most sense.

Should the county spend money having someone sit in jail? Or is it best to have a defendant pay fines and costs, make restitution and do some community service?

“That’s sometimes what the plea agreements are focused on,” Thiede said. “What’s the right punishment for this person? What’s going to make the victim whole, if there is a victim, and what will satisfy society, but without losing track of the idea this all costs money.”

This series continues in Friday’s Pioneer. 

To read the other articles in this series, follow the links below:

PART 1: When it comes to criminal cases in Mecosta County, trying each just isn’t possible

PART 3: Cost of paying to take cases to trial adds up for Mecosta County 

PART 4: Prosecutor, attorney discuss factors when reaching plea agreements to avoid trial

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Posted by Emily Grove

Emily is the Pioneer and Herald Review crime and court reporter, covering crime in both Mecosta and Osceola counties. She can be reached by e-mail at emily@pioneergroup.com or by phone at (231) 592-8362.

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