After finishing his morning cup of coffee at 8:30 one day last week, Circuit Court Judge Vincent Femia walked into Prince George's County's largest courtroom and decided 213 criminal cases before the plea-bargaining spree ended at 5 p.m. Two cases were dismissed, at least 40 people were fined and 60 people were sent to the county jail. The other 111 defendants were either scheduled for trial, for sentencing, or given probation.
Most were cases of minor theft, trespassing, shoplifting or drunk driving in which no one was hurt. In a county where more than 80 people were murdered last year, these were small-fry offenses being heard on appeal from District Court, the lowest rung in the Maryland court system.
The small-fry offenders sat alone or with their lawyers, if they could find their lawyers and find a seat. They stood three-deep at the long rail in front of the judge and around the walls; they sat on the window ledges and they paced the corridors outside.
"It's a zoo," said John Broderick, a Baltimore lawyer swirling with the crowd and carrying an armful of manila folders. "It's hairy."
Every six weeks since April 1981, Judge Femia has presided at "Criminal Appeals Day," trying desperately in one day's time to rid the county's Circuit Court of hundreds of minor cases. Juries are slow and expensive, and needed for more important cases.
His approach is unusual for the Washington area. Judges in other Maryland jurisdictions squeeze in similar cases where they can on their regular docket. In Fairfax County, judges divide up such cases and hear them every Thursday.
But in Prince George's, defendants find themselves in front of the red-headed Femia who disposes of them with speed, even if he has to spoon-feed the defendants.
One defendant last Monday afternoon, already in jail facing armed robbery charges, found himself in front of Femia on a relatively trivial handgun charge. The judge, being fed case files out of two large cardboard boxes by his law clerk, lost patience when the defendant could not decide how to plead.
"Do you know what nolo contendere means," the judge asked with a sly smile, referring to a no contest plea that has the same consequences as guilty but leaves less of a scar on the defendant's record. There was no response.
"More to the point," the judge continued, "do you know how to pronounce it?" Still there was no response.
"Repeat after me," Femia said: "Nolo."
"Nolo," said the defendant.
"I accept your plea over state's objections: A man getting eaten by alligators doesn't worry about mosquito bites."
Femia gave the man 10 days in jail, with credit for time served. He had already served 30 days so it made no difference, and the sheriff's deputies took him back to jail. "Bye-bye," the judge said as the man departed.
Some lawyers who come before Femia believe most of these cases should never have come out of District Court.
Maryland law allows defendants to argue their entire cases again in Circuit Court for any reason; some lawyers say such appeals should only be allowed if it can be proved a mistake was made in District Court.
But since that's not the case, a Criminal Appeals Day is needed to free Circuit Court for serious felonies, says William H. McCollough, administrative judge for Prince George's Circuit Court. "A lot of people think it's bargain basement justice," McCollough says. "Some say it degrades the judicial system . . . . They may be correct, but for all practical purposes, we don't have the time to give them."
Femia says "it's not the ideal setup, but it works . . . . The key to the whole thing is that none of these cases are really serious. Every now and then a case comes through that's just too serious to be treated in a summary way. When you see one like that, you have to pull up short . . . .
"I'm not trying to denigrate drunk driving, but if you can't get to try the armed robbery case because of a drunk driving case, you're doing the wrong thing."
Femia likes to think that the institution of appeals day is partly responsible for the recent decline in the percentage of District Court cases appealed to Circuit Court, from 9 percent in 1981, to 5 percent in 1982.
Femia and attorneys for both sides had a pretrial conference on more than half of Monday's cases in Femia's chambers or by telephone during the days before, and the judge took a mid-morning break to strike some more deals. As a result, few cases took more than two minutes to decide, and half that time was spent waiting for the defendant and lawyer to struggle through the crowd to the judge's bench.
For many lawyers, Femia was the last stop on a judge-shopping expedition.
Some said his sentences were tougher than those handed out in District Court but most agreed they were usually lighter. Femia says he sails a middle course.
In drunk driving cases, defense attorneys are usually searching for a sentence of probation before judgment (PBJ), a one-time-only method of punishing an offender without giving him a record, affecting his insurance, or taking him off the road.
But District Court judges are feeling pressure from the public on drunk driving, and aren't handing out PBJs very often. So attorneys take the cases to Femia. He gives a first-time drunk driver with a relatively low Breathalyzer score a choice of two days in jail and a PBJ, or a $500 fine (plus $75 costs) and six points on his driver's license. If a defendant "blows high" on the Breathalyzer, say .20 where the legal limit is .13, Femia doubles the penalty.
On Monday, two men convicted of drunk driving whom Femia had sent to jail the week before returned to the judge as a condition of their PBJs. They looked beaten and bleary-eyed.
"Well, did you like it in the jail?" Femia asked one man. "No sir," replied the man who had bags under his eyes. "See that fancy band on your wrist?" the judge asked, pointing to the prison identification bracelet. "Hang it over your rear-view mirror and look at it next time you try to drink and drive."
Both men were released. Femia has said he will incarcerate drunk drivers 30 days once a new jail is built.
Lawyers say Femia is almost impossible to deal with when it comes to drunk drivers. Says Femia, "I don't give counseling services here."
He pointed out last week the number of defendants on shiny new canes and crutches. "They'll try anything to get out of going to jail," he said. Late that afternoon, a man who pleaded guilty to two drunk driving charges asked not to be sent to jail because of "severe ill health and unemployment." Femia was not moved: "Waive the costs, but take the body," he said. "Fifteen days."
One overweight, 58-year-old unemployed construction worker from the District, facing his fourth drunk driving conviction (but his first in Prince George's), sat in the crowd expecting the worst. "I'm not prepared for anything, but I'm pretty sure I'm going to do some time," he said, sweating through his scruffy gray beard and clutching a paper bag.
The bag contained insulin, hypodermic needles and pills. He said he had never been to jail. "I don't want to go ever, but now I have no choice."
He was given 55 days in jail, and two sheriff's deputies came up to put handcuffs on him. But his wrists were too meaty for the handcuffs to fit, and when they pulled his arms behind his back, his wrists wouldn't meet. So they took him to the jail unshackled.
State Trooper James Vandegrift, who arrested the man in south Laurel last summer, said he was satisfied with the sentence but frustrated by the system. "All the times I've been summoned here, in the year and a half that I've been at the College Park barracks, I have yet to testify. We have nothing to say in the plea bargaining. That's all up to the attorneys."
It's a lawyers' game on Criminal Appeals Day, and the clients are the pieces they play with and fight for. A 21-year-old truck driver from Beltsville facing relatively minor robbery and PCP charges arrived at 9:30 a.m. and was still waiting his turn at 3 p.m. "I don't know what's going on," he said.
His lawyer, William F. Renehan, said Femia had offered his client three days in jail for a guilty plea, but because his client was convinced he was innocent, he was anxious to go to trial. At 4:30, on the brink of a trial, Renehan finally cracked the bargain he wanted.
"We got a good deal," he reported. "They offered him two days in jail--Friday night and Saturday night, with a PBJ, and they dropped the PCP charge."
Prosecuting attorneys agree that Criminal Appeals Day is needed to cut the Circuit Court caseload, but complain Femia's sentences are too light. "These cases should be heard and disposed of in District Court," says State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr. He sees little hope of changes in the state law that allows "two bites at the apple," as the automatic appeals process is known.
Prosecutors attend Femia's pretrial conferences but insist they are not plea bargaining. "We advise the judge of the defendant and the circumstances of the case. Then the judge makes a plea offer," says Margaret Nemetz, an assistant state's attorney who has attended dozens of these pretrial conferences.
But, says chief prosecutor Arthur Marshall, Femia "does dispose of cases. I have to admit that."
And the pressure is always on. "How do you plead?" Femia asked a man charged with driving while his license was suspended.
"Not guilty," the man replied.
"I didn't hear you," said the judge, who had read the evidence against the man. "You meant to say guilty."
"No, not guilty," the man replied.
"You have to learn to trust sometimes," Femia said. The prosecutor whispered in the defendant's ear.
"Guilty, your honor," said the man who then was given a PBJ and six months of unsupervised probation.