What a relief

Idaho's process for handling wrongful convictions can correct injustices

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A person having a bad day gets pulled over for speeding. Incensed, the driver decides to argue with the police officer, who is also having a bad day.

The officer, who is now really mad, writes a ticket for speeding and then charges the individual with obstructing justice. Weeks down the road, a prosecutor looks at the case and offers a plea deal. If the individual agrees to plead guilty to speeding and a lesser charge of disturbing the peace, the felony charge of obstruction of justice goes away.  

Justice is served — or not.

“This situation happens more than you think,” said Michael Palmer, an attorney at the law firm of Palmer and George. “The person who got pulled over was speeding, but they were simply exercising their First Amendment rights when arguing with the cop. Nobody wants a felony conviction, so they take the deal. Are they guilty of disturbing the peace or even obstruction? Absolutely not. Can we do something about it? Yes!”

Anyone can seek post-conviction relief from state and federal courts. The process is time-consuming, but there are laws to handle miscarriages of justice.

“The high-profile murder cases or rape cases with wrongful convictions do happen, but they're rare,” said Palmer. “Most of the time people get caught up in things beyond their control. Once they're convicted, it can feel insurmountable.”

For those seeking post-conviction relief, it's important to remember that the Idaho courts have no authority to grant relief from judgments from other states or from the federal courts.

A judge can grant a motion for post-conviction relief, but that doesn't mean the person is cleared.

“The judge can roll the clock back to zero and order a new trial, or deliver a new sentence, or amend the sentence,” said Palmer. “The burden of proof is on the defendant, though. There has to be either new evidence or a mistake on the court's part. The most common reason is ineffective counsel for the defendant.”

What does ineffective counsel mean?

The U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment guarantees people the benefit of legal counsel, meaning a competent attorney represents them. Ineffective counsel doesn't mean the defendant lost their case or they didn't get along with their attorney.

“It's a failure to provide an effective defense,” said Palmer.  “You have a duty to provide the best defense possible with the facts you have.”

For example, failing to raise an objection during a trial could be grounds for an ineffective counsel argument.

“Perhaps it's a case involving the seizure of drugs in your home and you believe law enforcement officers made an illegal search, the attorney has the responsibility to make an objection,” said Palmer. “Now, the judge may not agree, but the fact is the attorney raised those questions and that can be used at the appellate court level. Failure to raise important motions could be considered ineffective counsel.”

Another reason for post-conviction relief is an allegation of prosecutorial misconduct, like withholding evidence or failing to disclose all of the potential witnesses.

Then there's the physical evidence. As forensic science continues to evolve and improve, the courts can allow new DNA evidence that previously couldn't be tested or known.

“Sometimes the science didn't exist during the original trial,” said Palmer. “It's not just DNA that gets more sophisticated. Back in the late '90s, police had a breathalyzer that was supposed to be the greatest thing ever and juries would just accept that as fact. Well, a few years go by and the manufacturer releases a new breathalyzer that is supposedly even better and far more accurate than the original. Never mind all of those people who were convicted on evidence from a lesser machine.”

Palmer is no stranger to vacating convictions, reducing felonies, or sealing court records for people who now are finding things like bar fights and possession of marijuana are obstacles to getting jobs or carrying a firearm.

“I find there are a lot of people who do not realize they are eligible to petition the court for relief from their past criminal conviction and continue to struggle with the collateral consequences and stigma of it years later,” he said. “Many people may think there is no hope to change their circumstances based upon what may have been older versions of the law, but which is no longer the case.”

For more information: Contact Michael Palmer at  (208) 665-5778.

--Written by Marc Stewart, Director of Sponsored Content

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