I attended the arraignment court at the State Court in Fairbanks as part of an assignment for my Intro to Justice class. Most of the defendants were there on DUI charges, most were male and over 50% of the defendants were military. We have two large bases, one Army and one Airforce nearby. One of the interesting things that I noted was the difference in bail given to military and non-military defendants on DUI charges. Basically, the magistrate recognized that the military has the ability to restrict the defendants far more than bail ever could so he released the military DUI defendants on recognizance with the understanding that they would have worse repercussions in store for them as a result of their military status.
The military DUI defendants ranged from simple DUIs, to those who refused breathalyzers, those with combined DUI and speeding or street racing charges, and those who cursed at the arresting officers. In each of the cases, the magistrate released the defendants on recognizance. Additionally he recommended that the defendant who cursed at his arresting officer send the officer a thank you note thanking the officer for doing his duty and apologizing. One of the people who had military personal present on their behalf was not a member of the military, but rather a dependent. Her husband is currently deployed in Iraq. It was interesting to me that even though she is not a service member, the military thought it was their responsibility to send someone to vouch for her and assure the magistrate that she would be confined to base.
My impressions of the overall process are mixed. On one hand the system was efficient. It went quickly and was for the most part quite scripted and repetitive. On the other hand, this efficiency often left defendants and their families confused. When one of the defendants was asked, “Do you want to talk to a lawyer?” he responded “I don’t know.” This was followed by the magistrate saying “Well I’m not in a position to give you legal advice, do you want a lawyer or not?” The magistrate basically ramrodded the defendant into making a decision. Were it not for the fact that the soldier’s Lieutenant was there to advise the soldier to retain counsel, he might have decided to enter a plea of guilty or make another split second decision.
This rushed feeling was also very clear in another case where the defendant’s mother had come to the hearing. She had all sorts of questions and the magistrate basically told her, “I don’t have time for this.” They were relevant questions too. Her son works for a company that delivers alcohol and with his DUI arrest and bail conditions he is not allowed to drive or be in bars or liquor stores. She wanted to know if he could ride along and make deliveries to places like Safeway who sell liquor, but aren’t strictly liquor stores. The way she said this was in a lot more roundabout manner and she basically frustrated the magistrate into shutting her up. If he had been a bit more patient and heard her out, he probably would have realized what her question was and been able to help her out by answering it. Instead she left disenfranchised with the process and frustrated. She didn’t even know where to get a copy of her son’s charges. I did find it funny that the magistrate imposed the bail condition that her son live with her and follow her house rules until the time of his hearing despite the fact that he is a grown man with his own place.
The system overall gave me the impression that it tried to be fair. Those who entered guilty pleas were given detailed descriptions about what type of rights they were giving up as a result. Those who were there on felony charges and who were not there to make a plea were instructed that they could remain silent if they wished as anything they said could be used against them. This reminder was not required, but was definitely nice. One of things that I found unfair about the hearings was the lack of consistency between military and non-military defendants in the bail conditions. Non-military defendants with similar charges were given monetary fines and in several cases were ordered to have an ignition interlock device placed on their vehicles. Wouldn’t an ignition interlock device be helpful at ensuring that all of those convicted of DUI charges do not offend again during their probationary periods? Why should these devices be ordered only for non-military defendants? This inconsistency bothered me even though I understood the reasoning behind it.