According to the complaint, which was filed today in the U.S. District Court of Arizona, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office has a standing policy of threatening "every single person they charge" in certain pre-trial court proceedings with "substantially harsher" plea offers when defendants request preliminary hearings and try to take their case to trial. The filing alleges that prosecutors frequently issue the threat at the top of their initial written plea deal offer and read it into the record at status conferences in front of judges.
"As a matter of policy, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO) punishes people simply for exercising their rights," the filing states. "Many people succumb to the Retaliation Policy, forego their rights, and plead out, rather than face a substantially harsher offer."
The complaint accuses MCAO of using the so-called "Retaliation Policy" in Early Disposition Courts (EDC), which were originally intended to quickly process low-level drug cases and get defendants treatment services.
MCAO is allegedly "filtering an increasing number and variety of cases through the EDC system—presumably because the office has had success quickly pleading the cases out and clinching easy, low-cost convictions."
The ACLU says a review of MCAO data found that between 2019 and 2021, about 40 percent of all criminal cases were sent to the drug courts by MCAO, yet of those referred cases, nearly one-third didn't even include drug-related charges. In 2018, the ACLU found, only 8 percent of drug-court cases resulted in dismissal by diverting defendants to treatment.
The practice results in defendants having to choose between accepting a conviction in a plea deal before their case has been properly scrutinized for sufficient probable cause during a preliminary hearing or getting offered a worse deal by prosecutors if they try to fight their case, according to the complaint.
“MCAO has sabotaged the intended purpose of the EDCs and has used it to their advantage to secure quick convictions without regard for the constitutional rights of people who are accused of crimes,” Jared Keenan, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Arizona, said in a news release. “These coercive pleas have serious consequences beyond sending people to prison — a felony conviction bans people from public housing, makes it difficult to secure a job, and can even bar people from voting.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of all people who have been subjected to the drug-court policy by MCAO and alleges that the policy violates 14th, Sixth, and Fourth amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU of Arizona is seeking a permanent injunction on the practice.
Jennifer Liewer, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, did not respond to Phoenix New Times' request for comment.
The full complaint is featured below: