In Pittsburgh, Allegheny County Judge Joseph Williams has caused a controversy by rejecting a plea bargain on the ground that it is the type of deal that “only goes to white boys.” The plea agreement involved three months probation for a man accused of fighting with police during a traffic stop.
In the hearing, Judge Williams (who is African American) rejected the plea agreement on the grounds that it was “a ridiculous plea that only goes to white boys.” He said that a black defendant would never have been given such a plea agreement. He further accused Assistant District Attorney Brian Catanzarite of racial bias, observing that he “for some reason comes up with I think ridiculous pleas whenever it’s a young white guy.” He continued “I’m just telling you what my observation is. If this had been a black kid who did the same thing, we wouldn’t be talking about three months’ probation.” The first problem, the prosecutor noted, is that it was not his deal — Catanzarite was standing in for another prosecutor and did not cut the plea deal.
Catanzarite was not backing down from the allegation, however. He stated “[n]ow that the court has essentially called me a racist, I think that’s unfair. I don’t make offers based on race. I make offers based on facts.”
Williams later recused himself and another judge (who was white) accepted the plea agreement.
It is hard to judge the leniency of the plea from the known facts. In favor of the plea, the defendant had no criminal record. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. We have seen that in some cases officers charge assault with even the most limited contact with a defendant. It is not clear if this involved something more serious.
I would be surprised if the police would allow a prosecutor to plead out a serious assault case against an officer — or that the police union would remain silent in such a circumstance. In this case, the officer was not injured and agreed to the plea agreement.
Catanzarite’s legal options are limited. In-court statements are generally privileged and cannot be the basis for defamation actions. If the judge makes such statements outside of the courtroom, he could face such a lawsuit. Catanzarite could also file for judicial discipline in such a circumstances.
The judge, however, is not without supporters in this controversy with some people applauding him for objecting to the disparate treatment given white and black defendants.