Take a man who gets caught selling cocaine. Punish him, right? Or perhaps you believe in treatment. But what if it was a very small amount, and a one-time thing, and he never even used himself? Does that matter to you?
What if it also happened over a decade ago, and he has had no criminal events since then? Most simple cases like this are set to go to trial in 90 days while the evidence is fresh. This case was approaching thirteen years. Does that matter to you?
What if he came to this area for work, was staying at a shelter, and his family desperately needed money before he could get any work. He was gullible, he was sent out to sell, and he was caught immediately with the ten-dollar baggie. Does that matter at all?
What if the life event he was trying to get money for was a very sick child, his daughter, and she died? Do we care? Does some amount of suffering wash away some amount of “sin” or criminal behavior?
What if he never received notice that there were these pending charges against him, that he had a hearing where he was to be arraigned, as he was homeless, then working at sea, then moved out of state? And that the state never looked for him in the more than a decade between, all the while he got stable work, filed his taxes, had a driver’s license, and lived above-board. Does that matter?
What if he was much later, after his surviving children had grown, trying to apply for permanent residence, and to his surprise found out there was a warrant for his arrest, and the first thing he did was to buy a ticket and fly here, possibly to go to jail, and then face likely deportation under the new, harsher regulations and policies? When we add up the totality of this man’s life experiences, do we care?
The judge did. For the first time in my career, and likely the only time, at the moment she was set to sign off on a guilty plea, the judge wiped tears from her eyes, and then just took a deep breath, and said: “Looking at the totality of circumstances, I find that I must dismiss this case in the interest of justice. So ruled.”