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Walter Phillips Wants Philly Courts To Violate The Constitution

Philly's court system is a mess. Lots of people get charged, but not so many ever make to a plea or a trial: They go underground instead. In today's Philadelphia Inquirer, former prosecutor Walter Phillips provides the solution: Trials in absentia!

One way the city's Common Pleas judges could address this problem - without any expense - would be to take the unified stance that trials will go on even in the absence of such defendants.

The trouble is that many Philadelphia judges just won't call the bluff of absent defendants and follow the law that allows trials to go forward in their absence. A variety of reasons have been advanced for their timid stance: fear of reversal, the awkwardness of forcing defense attorneys to make fundamental decisions without consulting their clients, and just plain lethargy.

This would seem to violate Constitutional guarantees that a defendant can confront the evidence and witnesses against them. But Phillips waves those concerns away, suggesting that there's plenty of Supreme Court precedents suggesting such trials can take place anyway.

And sure, the topic has been addressed by the Supreme Court, but the takeaway is that conducting a trial without the defendant present can take place only in limited circumstances: If a defendant is disruptive during the proceedings, for example, or skips town after the trial has begun.

But widespread, systemic absentia trials for tens of thousands of people? No. Here's why: Those rules allow for the trial to proceed only if a defendant is present at the very beginning of a trial.

There are, I'm sure, exceptions to what I'm about to say. But the problem with absentee defendants in Philly isn't that they show up for the first day -- or first hour -- of their trial, then flee the scene. It's that they don't show up at all.

Philly courts are a real mess, yes. And nobody likes to see justice delayed or denied because some two-bit punk hit the road. But violating the Constitution -- despite Walter Phillips' protestations -- isn't really the way to proceed.

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