Prosecuting Collateral Consequences

Eisha Jain, 104 Georgetown Law Journal

(June 2016)
Prosecuting Collateral Consequences

According to the article's author, criminal law scholars have long agreed that prosecutors wield vast and largely unreviewable discretion in the criminal justice system. This article argues that this discretion now extends beyond criminal penalties and broadly reaches civil public policy decisions, such as deportation and licensing.

The author contends that, as a result of ubiquitous plea bargaining and collateral consequences — state-imposed civil penalties that are triggered by criminal convictions — prosecutors can deliberately exercise discretion to trigger or avoid important civil consequences. This aspect of prosecutorial discretion has been underexamined, partly because of a lack of awareness of collateral consequences. But as a result of important new initiatives designed to promote information about collateral consequences, prosecutors as well as defendants are becoming more likely to know that even minor convictions can trigger much more serious civil penalties.

As some commentators have pointed out, prosecutors who are aware of collateral consequences may have powerful incentives to drop charges or otherwise structure pleas to minimize the likelihood of certain collateral consequences. But importantly, prosecutors also have strong structural incentives to take the opposite approach and reach pleas to maximize the likelihood of civil penalties. For some prosecutors, enforcing collateral consequences serves as an administratively efficient substitute for a criminal conviction, as a source of leverage, as a way to circumvent the requirements of criminal procedure, as a means of achieving deterrence or retribution, or as a way to promote their own public policy preferences.

This article develops an analytic framework for understanding the structural incentives that lead prosecutors to influence collateral consequences; exposes legal and ethical problems associated with plea bargaining in light of collateral consequences; and argues that collateral consequences can undermine important interests in transparency and accountability.