When the judge starts prosecuting you, you know you have a problem….

There is a story in the Charleston Daily Mail today titled, “Judge refuses to accept guilty plea from ex-firefighter.”  Apparently the defendant was charged with second degree arson for the destruction of a boat dock.  According to the assistant prosecutor, it may have been an accident – albeit a reckless one.  But recklessness or negligence, doesn’t qualify as “willful or malicious” if there was no intent to set a fire or burn an object – thus giving the prosecutor good reason to plead the case to a destruction of property – a misdemeanor.

But apparently the judge wasn’t having it, and refused to accept the plea.  Something that I have noticed in arson cases: the judges’ take them very seriously. When buildings or objects are getting burned in their districts, people pay attention and so do the judges.  The judge doesn’t want to be the one who let the defendant out on probation only to have something else burn down.

And being that there is no misdemeanor arson charge, the only lesser-included available is destruction of property – which carries a maximum of one year in jail. Oftentimes, an arson defendant already will have served a considerable amount of time in jail because the bond was most likely set extremely high – or else they have been on home incarceration.  The result is that the person will not do much time – and hence, the judge doesn’t want to accept the plea.

But can the judge do that?  Yes, if he finds there is no factual basis for the plea.  But, is there anything stopping the prosecutor from dismissing the charge and recharging destruction of property?  Probably not – unless the judge is going to try the case, which of course he can’t do.  In any event, the case would have to be dismissed eventually due to lack of speedy trial.

 – John H. Bryan, West Virginia Attorney.

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