We have seen them on TV shows, movies, and in newspapers but few people understand the full role of a prosecutor in the criminal justice system. We will look at Cook County and the Cook County States Attorney Office, which represents a common lay out of prosecutor offices across the United States. The Cook County State’s Attorney represents the second largest prosecutor’s office in the country. Currently, the Office is run by State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx. You can think of Ms. Foxx in terms of a Chief Executive Officer (“CEO”) who oversees the Office, the Office’s policy, and prosecution of (almost) all criminal allegations in Cook County. Ms. Foxx’s official title, State’s Attorney, tells us quite a bit about her position in the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutors who run the daily courtroom calls are called “Assistant State’s Attorneys,” (“ASA”) which denotes the fact they are not the elected “State’s Attorney,” but rather, her assistants.
What is a Local Prosecutor?
Recall earlier in the blog where we said that “almost” all crimes are prosecuted by an Assistant State’s Attorney? There are municipalities throughout the State of Illinois who will employ “local” or “village” prosecutors to present cases before a criminal court or enter plea bargains with criminal defendants. A village prosecutor has the same authority to enter pleas or take matters to trial but typically a village prosecutor only handles traffic and some smaller misdemeanor matters. Regardless of whether you have a village prosecutor or an Assistant State’s Attorney, you will want an experienced criminal defense attorney at your side to help you navigate negotiations, motions, or even a trial with them.
What is a State’s Attorney’s Job?
While these titles have no bearing on your case it is always helpful to know the actors, their titles, and their roles in a courtroom. One another note on titles, in other counties and states throughout the United States a prosecutor may be called an Assistant District Attorney, DA, Commonwealth Attorney, or Circuit Solicitor. Regardless of the name, each of these individuals plays nearly the exact same role in a courtroom. So, what does that role entail? A broad definition includes presenting a case against an individual who stands accused of violating the law, initiating felony charges before a grand jury or during a preliminary hearing, and entering plea bargains. This list is far from exhaustive and will vary from county to county and state to state. Most of us are familiar with police officers writing tickets for traffic violations or investigating and arresting individuals for more serious crimes but after the ticket is written or the individual is arrested – the process is taken over by an Assistant State’s Attorney, or a local prosecutor.
In Cook County, there are typically two levels of prosecutors in a criminal courtroom. You will find misdemeanor and traffic ASA’s as well as a more experienced ASA who focuses on felony matters. There are also deputy supervisors, supervisors, and bureau chiefs but interaction with those levels of the State’s Attorney Office is far less frequent. Let us dive a little deeper into the role of a misdemeanor / traffic ASA. In a misdemeanor/traffic courtroom (they are often combined in the suburbs), the ASA in charge of the courtroom will handle the daily court call, tender discovery to opposing counsel, subpoena a police officer into court to testify, argue motions, and enter plea negotiations. You can think of the ASA in the courtroom as a liaison between the police department who wrote a ticket or made the arrest as well as the “complaining witness” (the victim) if there is one. As a liaison of sorts, the ASA will request discovery from a police department, which includes reports, videos, and any other evidence to ensure that a defense attorney receives it in order to use it to advise their client. If there was a complaining witness involved in a matter, the prosecutor will reach out to them to inform them of the court date and ask for their input on a case. Most importantly, the ASA can dismiss a case, can enter a plea, or take a case to trial.
How Does a Plea Agreement Work?
What goes into a plea agreement? A prosecutor is going to look at several matters before making an offer to someone’s attorney. First, the prosecutor will reach out to the complaining witness (another name for victim) on the case to see how they wish to proceed. At times, a complaining witness may decide they would rather not pursue a case any longer and the prosecutor has the discretion whether they will then drop the case or attempt to prove it another way. At other times, a complaining witness may tell the prosecutor about medical or car repair bills they wish the prosecutor to try to recover from an accused. Second, the prosecutor will look at whether the accused has a criminal and traffic background. If so, the prosecutor may modify their offer to reflect previous convictions and increase the penalties for an individual.
On the other hand, a prosecutor may also look favorably upon someone who has no criminal or traffic background. Third, the prosecutor will look at the facts they have available from the police report and any video to determine whether an individual cooperated or if they were difficult for the police officer to deal with during the arrest. It may come as a surprise to some, but police officers have a fair amount of say in formulating a prosecutor’s offer. Finally, the prosecutor considers whether the law requires certain minimum fees, fines, community service, classes, or even prison time. During these negotiations, it is crucial to have an experienced defense attorney who is familiar with the statutory minimums and who knows how to best present mitigating circumstances to the prosecutor.
Going to Trial When There’s No Agreement
If a plea agreement cannot be worked out, then the prosecutor is the one who will present the “State’s” case or the “People’s” case to the court during a bench or jury trial. In practice, this means the prosecutor will call their witnesses, which may include police officers and complaining witnesses to testify to what they observed. A criminal defense attorney will then be allowed to ask follow-up questions (or cross-examination) to try to expose flaws in the prosecutor’s case. The flaws pointed to by your attorney may be to attempt to introduce “reasonable doubt” into the mind of a jury or of a judge who is hearing the prosecutor’s case against the accused. After the prosecutor presents their case, the defense can present their own case, call their own witnesses, and introduce their own testimony. If a criminal trial results in a finding of guilty the judge will often ask the prosecutor what their recommendation on sentencing would be and if there are any factors in “aggravation,” which means any previous criminal or traffic convictions or any thing that makes a crime especially heinous. The judge will also ask a defense attorney for “mitigation,” which means anything making the crime more understandable – think, “I stole bread because my family was starving,” like the famous French musical Les Misérables. This brief blog post can only scratch the surface of what a prosecutor does daily and what an experienced defense attorney can do for you.