In recent years, I have provided information to the public about the role of prosecutors. However, with political races in the west Georgia area and other developments happening with some of our local prosecutors, I thought that a refresher column about the role of the district attorney (DA) may be beneficial.
In my practice, I deal with the DA or one his representatives on a daily basis. The DA and the criminal defense attorney form the adversarial pairing that create the basis of our criminal justice system. Both prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys are also charged with the heavy responsibility of upholding and protecting the United States Constitution.
But what is the role and duties of the DA and how does the DA affect the community that he serves? The DA (felony cases) or Solicitor General (misdemeanor cases) is an elected representative of the executive branch of government. He or she serves as a link between law enforcement officers and the trial of cases. The DA generally has the duty to see that the law is enforced in order to keep our community safe. However, this duty actually extends to the ethical requirement of seeking justice and not merely convicting a person charged with a crime. This little known aspect of a prosecutor’s job is important because it allows the DA to negotiate criminal cases in good faith whereby a defendant can avoid convictions and even prosecutions under some circumstances. Victims of crimes are served by this negotiation process as well.
One material weakness in the adversarial system of administering justice is the possibility of unfairness arising (sometimes) from the prosecutor’s superior resources and special access to information and witnesses. To protect the accused who might suffer from this unequal contest, Canon 5 of the American Bar Association Canons of Professional Ethics commands: “The primary duty of a lawyer engaged in public prosecution is not to convict, but to see that justice is done. As an officer of the court, the DA has an obligation to ensure that proceedings are conducted in accordance with the rules of evidence and the laws of this State.
The DA necessarily has discretion in which cases are to be tried. For example, this discretion is demonstrated in the non-criminal disposition of some cases and in his action in connection with the placing of a case on a dead-docket (a case placed on hold for prosecution) or a nolle prosequi (dismissal after indictment), or in a dismissal prior to indictment.
However, his discretion in the prosecution of a criminal case starts long before the steps in a criminal prosecution mentioned before and continues to some extent even after a defendant is sentenced. But, there are limitations placed on the authority. For example, Georgia provides no statutory authority to the prosecutor to dismiss criminal charges before indictment. Also, a nolle prosequi cannot be entered without the consent of the trial judge.
With all this being said, the main responsibility for the DA and the solicitor is to prosecute legitimate criminal offenses and protect the community from dangerous citizens living amongst us. My experience has been that the vast majority of the prosecutors working in the west Georgia area are reasonable, professional, and mostly willing to work on the legal and factual aspects of our criminal cases which can benefit the defendant, the victim(s), the county, and the state by saving precious resources that would otherwise be used for costly trials and court appearances.
Police officers are the first line of defense in keeping Georgians safe in our homes, roads, and schools. However, The DA and the Solicitor General are charged with following through on community safety measures.
The men and women who serve as prosecutors greatly affect the level of safety for our citizens. That is why they are elected by the people.
I would say that the decision to vote in a race involving a prosecutor’s office is as important, if not more, as the President or congressional representatives. The people have the choice every 4 years in Georgia to vote in a manner that materially affects the quality of protection that we enjoy.
This year, there are some important prosecutorial elections in the west Georgia. Make the decision to do your research on the candidates and exercise your right to vote. The outcome of these elections may matter more than you realize.