Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Corruption in the Courtroom

Judges play an important role in the criminal justice system.  They are the only party in the system that must remain completely neutral.  Because judges remain neutral, we entrust them with various decisions that can affect the outcome of a case, such as ruling on motions relating to the admissibility of evidence and determining whether there is sufficient probable cause for warrants.  To ensure these issues are decided in the fairest manner, it is crucial that judges do not have a stake in the litigation presented before them. 

Unfortunately, this position of neutrality was missing from Judge Abel Limas.  Before becoming a state judge in Texas, Mr. Limas was a police officer and then a practicing attorney.  In 2001 he became a state judge for Cameron County and served on the bench for eight years.  However, during Mr. Limas’ tenure on the bench, he sold his rulings for prices ranging from $300 to $500.  In total he received more than $250,000 in bribes and kickbacks for his rulings.

The FBI began investigating Mr. Limas in November 2007, and the investigation lasted for fourteen months.  Mr. Limas was eventually caught after being caught on a wire.  In 2010, when the FBI confronted Mr. Limas with these allegations, he helped the agents uncover a wider corruption scheme that was happening.  The FBI learned the district attorney of Cameron County was also corrupt and accepted bribes and kickbacks for using his prosecutorial discretion.  Mr. Limas pled guilty to racketeering in 2011, and helped to uncover the widespread corruption in Cameron County.  With his help, it was uncovered that the corruption spread to other attorneys, state representatives, and a former investigator for the district attorney.  Mr. Limas was sentenced to six years in prison.

Though this may have happened in Cameron County, issues of corruption affect the general public.  For the criminal justice system to work effectively, we need to be able to trust the individuals that hold positions of power in the system.  We need to be able to trust that they are making ethical and lawful decisions, and not doing what is beneficial to them.  Further, judges must also be held to this higher standard because of their unique position as a neutral third-party.  Once a judge becomes an advocate for one side, the system does not work.  Judges and prosecutors cannot be for sale.

In the criminal justice system, the judge and prosecutor have arguably more power than the defense side.  The prosecutor decides whether the case will be dropped or continued and the judge determines the admissibility of evidence.  It is crucial that prosecutors are making ethical decisions.  Consequently, if the prosecutor and judge are acting unethically the defense is at a huge disadvantage.  This power difference can have significant consequences for defendants who are already at a disadvantage.  Therefore, not only is it important that these corruption cases are prosecuted to ensure the public’s trust in the system but also to ensure that criminal defendants are given a fair trial.  When these types of crimes are uncovered, it is essential that not only are the individuals prosecuted, but that all manners of corruption are uncovered.  It is imperative that the public sees that this type of behavior is not tolerated.  Furthermore, the sentences imposed for these crimes should be harsh to serve as a deterrent to other judges and prosecutors. 

Rochelle Brunot

Associate Publications Editor, Criminal Law Practitioner 

Image by: Fayerollinson, via Wikimedia Commons.

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