Abuse of Discretion: What You Need To Know

Abuse of discretion

What if you are serving time for a crime that you did, but you feel your trial went so badly and that the judge misunderstood your situation completely?

Is there legal recourse – a place in the law – which holds even judges accountable?

Can the outcome of such trials be changed?

The answer is, yes. The United States law does provide a way for the action of judges to be scrutinized. The legal definition is called “Abuse of Discretion.”

Abuse of Discretion

Here’s what is generally meant by abuse of discretion:

Your lawyer, if he or she argued abuse of discretion in your case, would argue that the trial judge has made a mistake during your trial. It was such a bad mistake, clearly against reason and evidence or established law, that you did not get a fair trial.

This argument might be made if a judge:

  • Would not allow an important witness to testify on your behalf.
  • Made improper comments in front of the jury which influenced them against you.
  • Showed a clear bias against you in trial.
  • Made a ruling or rulings on evidence that denied you a chance to tell your side of the story.
  • Gave you a sentence that was grossly too harsh for the crime of which you were convicted.

Positive Evidence

In order to successfully argue abuse of discretion, your lawyer would have to have very clear and positive evidence of these things.

Often, those charged with crimes do feel they haven’t been heard fairly and can feel a sense of outrage at their conviction and sentencing through no fault of the judge. Sometimes, when someone commits a crime, they may have done so not realizing how serious the penalty would be if they were caught.

In other words, they don’t know the law as well as the judge who presides at their case. They could go through the whole process of being arrested and going to court without realizing the full weight of what they’ve done, or taking it too lightly, until they are convicted. This often doesn’t mean the judge has abused his or her discretion.

Accordingly, the assumption of many courts is that a judge is acting within his or her discretion if there is:

  • An absence of arbitrary (not based on facts) determination,
  • Capricious disposition (sudden change of mood) or
  • Whimsical thinking (again, not based solidly on the facts of the case.

Another Standard of Discretion

However, there is another standard of discretion as well, which is more about the policy and purpose of the laws which were allegedly broken. Your lawyer may not have to prove that the judge acted arbitrarily or whimsically in order to prove abuse of discretion. But, he or she would have to prove that the judge failed to properly exercise his or her discretion based on the law in question by having:

  • Misunderstood the facts. It is also sometimes the case that there was insufficient evidence to support the facts the prosecution relied on.
  • Misunderstanding the law. If he or she based the decision on factors that shouldn’t have been allowed by the law or a legal standard that wasn’t correct.
  • Misunderstood the scope of his or her discretion
  • Failed to follow the right procedure of exercising discretion
  • Been unaware of his or her discretion. The record must affirmatively show this.
  • Failed to exercise its discretion

Take Away

Abuse of discretion is a legal definition, and it does have legal precedent. That means these cases have been prosecuted in the court of appeals. Sometimes an appeals court does find there was abuse of discretion, but not enough to warrant a change in the outcome of the trial. This often doesn’t help the defendant, but it does show that judges are subject to the same law as everyone else.

If you believe the trial judge made a mistake during your trial and you have a case for abuse of discretion, please give my office a call.

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