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How many wrongful misdemeanor drug convictions occur in the US?

On behalf of Dolan + Zimmerman LLP March 19, 2019

Across the United States, around 13.2 million misdemeanor cases are filed every year. Unfortunately, there are no statistics on how many of those cases result in conviction — much less on how many wrongful convictions occur.

Some data is available from the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School, Michigan State University College of Law, and the Newkirk Center for Science and Society at the University of California Irvine. The Registry has identified 85 misdemeanor exonerations over the past 29 years — around 4 percent of the total exonerations it has identified since 1989 — 2,145. Fifty-eight of those misdemeanor exonerations involved drug possession.

Interestingly, all but one of the misdemeanor drug possession exonerations occurred in Harris County, Texas. This is not because Houston has an unusual number of wrongful misdemeanor convictions, however. One reason is that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office has an active conviction integrity unit that focuses on both felony and misdemeanor convictions.

Another is that Harris County’s crime lab regularly tests alleged drugs even when the defendant pleads guilty. In other jurisdictions, drug cases are brought based on relatively unreliable field tests, and when a defendant pleads guilty, no lab testing is done.

But does that low number of exonerations indicate that wrongful misdemeanor convictions are rare? Not necessarily. Felony exonerations are simply much more likely because resources for the wrongly convicted are very limited and are typically directed to more serious cases. Moreover, people often capitulate to misdemeanor charges, pleading guilty just to end the matter regardless of their guilt. Guilty pleas place an additional obstacle in exoneration efforts.

It’s quite typical for defendants charged with misdemeanors to be assigned unaffordable bail, especially if they have a prior criminal record. In such cases, a plea of not guilty means being jailed for months while awaiting a trial date, even if the case for innocence is clear. That often means the loss of employment and housing. Furthermore, demanding trial exposes the defendant to the possibility of a longer sentence if they are convicted.

Many people choose to plead guilty to misdemeanors to get out of jail and back to their lives more quickly. The penalties are usually low enough that people can afford to make that choice.

Because it’s often less painful to plead guilty to a misdemeanor than to wait for a trial, it’s possible that many innocent people end up with convictions on their records. There is simply no telling — and that should give us all pause. If you are charged with a misdemeanor drug offense, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to help you. Legal defenses may exist in your case, and it is better to get the best possible outcome now than to regret and attempt to challenge an unfair or unfounded conviction in the future.