D.C. Police Chief Maurice J. Cullinane said yesterday that lawyers for defendants who want to plead guilty to minor offenses routinely shop around the D.C. Superior Court in search of a lenient judge who will not impose a stiff sentence on their clients.
Cullinane, escalating his verbal battle with the city's criminal justice system, said the court tolerates this manipulation because it allows for a quick removal of cases from the court's crowded misdemeanor calender.
Administrators and defense attorneys at the Superior Court vigorously denied that the system allows for the selection of judges. "We try to judge-shop but we can't . . . these people people won't let us," said one defense attorney.
Chief Judge Harold H. Greene said he would not comment on the judge-shopping issue.
In the past several weeks, Cullinane and U.S. Attorney Earl J. Silbert have been increasingly critical of the city court system, particularly in its handling of prostitution cases. They have complained that the courts are fostering prostitution in Washington because judges are not imposing what the police or prosecutors think are adequate penalties for that offenses.
"I think that prostitution is a problem, particularly in areas where prostitutes mainly seem to operate," Chief Judge Greene acknowledge in an interview, "and I think the court like all other elements of the criminal justice system has an obligation to be concerned about that.
"On the other hand I think there is a danger when police or prosecutors attempt to pressure the courtor judges into imposing particular sentences on particular people."
Such pressure makes if difficult to provide "impartial justice," Greene said.
Greene added, howere, that in response to citizen concern over the issue, he will disuss the courts' handling of prostitution cases at the next regular monthly meeting of the Superior Court Judges.
Greene said he decided to add the subject to the meeting's agenda "not because of pressure from the police or prosecutors but in spite of it."
Experienced defense lawyers and other courthouse observers acknowledge that misdemeanor cases can be maneuvered in a variety of ways to increase a defendant's chances of appearing before a particular judge. That manipulation of the system is a strategy many defense lawyers say is part of their job.
"No matter how they do it, it's wrong," Cullinane said. "If a defendant can by manipulating the system get before a judge they want then justice is not being administratered properly,"
The debate over judge shopping at Superior Court accelerated last week after Silbert told a citizens group that the court system allows lawyers for prostitutes to shop the most lenient judges.
Cullinane said that while recent publicity and public uproar have centered on prostitution, lawyers take advantage of opportunities to select judges in all type of misdemeanor cases. While such maneuvering is not unique to the Washington court system. Cullinane said, "it's intolerable."
Silbert refused to elaborate yesterday on the comments he made about judge shopping Thursday night at a meeting of the Third District Citizens' Advisory Council. The third police district includes the Thomas Circle area, which merchants and residents complain has been inundated by an army of prostitutes.
At the meeting, Silbert singled out Judge David L. Norman as a frequent choice of defense attorneys. Silbert declined to specify whether that meant that Norman was a more lenient judge than others.
Norman could not be reached for comments because he was out of town for the weekend. Numerous court-house observes said that Norman is thought to be lenient with most of the prostitution cases that come before him.
Bob Roberts, the court's criminal assignment commissioner, flatly denied that his office allows any judge shopping. The criminal assignment commissioner designates misdemeanor cases to various judges as the judges become available.
Eight of the 44 Superior Court judges usually are assigned to hear misdemeanor cases. Each day the "calender control" judge takes the cases set down for trial that day and assigns them to available misdemeanor judges. When those judges finish those assignments, Roberts said, they then contact the assignment office and are asigned another case.
"They (the criminal asignment office) have proven to us on a number of occasions that you can't judge-shop," said one defense attorney who asked not to be identified.
Judge Norman, sources said, is known for moving cases through his court quickly and is frequently available to take guilty pleas.
While defense lawyers said they have no choice but to take their case to the judge designated by the assign-better than average that Judge Norman will, by way of his availability, hear their guilty pleas.
Thus, these lawyers said they have acknowledge that Judge Norman is hearing guilty pleas, they will advice clients charge with prostitution to plead guilty because the chances are he will impose a light penalty.
These same lawyer said, however, that it is always possible that their prostitution cases could be assigned to other judges who are known to impose stiff penalties.