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Should a law-abiding citizen have to pay for a clerical error?

Although criminal laws differ from state to state, there is sort of a universal system that most people across the nation, including here in California, understand. Generally speaking, an accused person often stands trial and has a chance to argue their case. If the trial results in a conviction, then the accused person relies on the court to execute the sentencing guidelines handed down by the judge.

But what if the sentence is never enforced because of a clerical error? Should the accused person be forced to serve the sentence anyway even though it wasn’t their fault that the error occurred? This is the major question that is being raised by a criminal case in Missouri this month that could raise similar questions about cases here in Livermore as well.

According to the details of the case, a man had been sentenced to 13 years for armed robbery in 2000. But because his case was on appeal, he was released on bail. During this time, his criminal defense lawyer explains, he not only complied with the terms of his bail but he married, started a family, and started his own construction business as well. But around the time that his 13-year sentence was supposed to end, the state’s Department of Corrections noticed that he had not served the time and promptly arrested him.

The state now wants him to serve the 13 years. But should he have to serve time for someone else’s mistake? It’s a question that not only applies to this case but similar cases in other states as well, including here in California. As the man’s attorney points out, “One of the goals of the criminal justice system is to reform individuals to make them productive, contributing members of society.” He went on to explain that his client was able to do this without serving time in a correctional facility.

The judge in this case faces a difficult decision though and must find the balance between acknowledging that a mistake was made, which was not the man’s fault, while still holding him accountable for the crime for which he was convicted.

A resolution is still pending in the case.

Source: Courthouse News Service, “Sentenced 13 Years After Conviction,” Joe Harris, April 21, 2014

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