Kendall Coffey: International Legal Forum

Kendall Coffey discusses his observations of the International Legal Forum in St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg, Comparative Law and Prosecutors
I recently had the pleasure of participating in the International Legal Forum in St. Petersburg, one of the world’s top legal conferences where our discussions included comparisons of legal systems throughout the world. It may be interesting at times to describe comparisons and this month we turn to a very important legal area: the role of prosecutor.
In Europe as well as in Central and South America, many criminal prosecution systems are derived from the Napoleonic code which relies on a judicial officer, the investigative magistrate, to oversee the early stages of an investigation.  Pursuant to this “inquisitorial system,” the investigative magistrate rather than a prosecutor determines whether the evidence is sufficient to bring criminal charges. If the investigative magistrate decides to initiate charges, the case is generally assigned to a different judge who will preside over the determination of guilt or innocence. In recent years, while retaining some features of the inquisatorial system, Russia’s criminal code has been moving to an “adversarial system” in which the prosecutor rather than a magistrate has ultimate responsibility to decide whether to bring formal charges against particular defendants.
The United States, where more than 14,000,000 arrests are made each year, an adversarial system is used. With federal prosecutions, each district has a U.S. Attorney appointed by the President who also appoints the U.S. Attorney General in Washington. While federal prosecutors handle many extremely important cases, the vast majority of cases – more than 95% of the crimes in the country – are prosecuted by state and local prosecutors. The offices of local prosecutors are commonly headed by officials elected by the voters from the local community. For example, in Miami, the prosecution office is headed by the state attorney elected every four years by the voters in Miami Dade County. With federal, state and local prosecutors, decisions to bring criminal charges are made by prosecutors rather than an investigative magistrate. Although a grand jury is required to bring felony charges in the federal system and death penalty cases in Florida’s state system, grand juries almost always approve the requests made by prosecutors.