26 January 2004

A Week in the Life of a Criminal Defense Lawyer:

Monday - MLK Day ~ No Court

Tuesday - I have to go to court in the morning for a client who I know has hired another attorney. The client had told me a month earlier that he had hired this attorney but the attorney never sent me an order of substitution. So I go to court sit there for 15 minutes, walk up, and am withdrawn from the case. In the afternoon I come back to court and get my client's possession of heroin case dropped by the prosecutor because the lab analysis showed that the substance the officer seized, relying on his training and knowledge gained from years on the street, wasn't any type of illegal substance. I get another client's driving on a suspended license charge continued so that she can get her license before she faces the court.

Wednesday - I get up and am in the middle of getting dressed for the general district court's 8:30 docket when I look at my PDA's calender and realize that I'm actually due in court at 8:15 because it's a return (to make sure my client is paying restitution) and the judge involved has his returns start 15 minutes before court is scheduled to begin. In that instant I go from being on schedule to being at least 10 minutes behind. I rush out the door and burn rubber - of course, never exceeding the speed limit. I even tie my tie at a stoplight on the way in (the disturbing thing is that it turned out better than it usually does when I tie it in front of my bathroom mirror). I get to the courthouse 5 minutes after docket was to begin; I'm feeling pretty good because dockets never start on time so I'm fairly sure nothing will have taken place yet. Then I look at the bulletin board where the docket is posted. The Judge has changed the time he does his returns from 8:15 to 8:00 a.m. and nobody bothered to tell me. I rush down to the courtroom and talk to the deputy at the back door who tells me that my client had already been called, that he had paid his restitution, and the client was released from supervision. I check this - it's absolutely correct - and then I go upstairs to the circuit court and wait until the docket there starts at a little after 9:00 a.m.

In the circuit court I have a client who had been convicted by the general district court, upon a plea of guilty, of assault and battery for attacking and choking his sister-in-law. He'd received the maximum penalty that court could give him (12 months) and exercised his absolute right to appeal the decision to the circuit court and get a trial de novo. I go and talk to the prosecutor, angling to get an offer which might get my client a couple months less in jail, but the prosecutor refuses to deal. Then I offer that we both proffer the testimony on my client's plea of guilty but the prosecutor declines that offer as well: "If I don't put her up on the stand how am I going to get the 12 months again?" Okay, fine. My client pleads guilty. The prosecutor puts the victim on the stand to testify how my client had run across a school lobby and started choking her until she was almost unconscious, then tossed her aside, and ran off. She swears that there were no problems between her and my client. Then I put my client on the stand to testify about how he had been jumped the night before by three guys who had cut his face and told him to stay away from his sister-in-law. I take a pair of panties out of my folder and holding it with my pinky and thumb ask him if he recognizes it. "Yes sir, that's a pair of her panties which they threw in my face." Me: "Your Honor, I don't have a bag or anything, if you want to see them . . ." Judge: "That's okay Mr. Lammers, I'll let you hold on to them." Client then testifies that he had gone to ask her why she sent them and lost his temper when he saw her. In the end the judge sentences my client to 6 months in jail rather than the 12 months he had received in the lower court.

I eat lunch with a deputy who works on the road (serving papers, evicting people, etc.). Being a good guy he tells me a shortcut to the rural county courthouse I am going to that afternoon. I jump on this road and drive along for miles and miles as the road twisted and turned through the Virginia countryside. It kept getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Finally, the last couple of miles were about a car and half wide with no lines at all alternating between areas which had been covered with sloppily laid blacktop and areas where you dodge deep potholes (which my '89 Saab just ain't gonna handle). But in the end it did get me there about 15 minutes quicker. It might have even been quicker if I hadn't got caught behind that tractor for a mile or two.

My client in the rural county is appearing before the court for a sentencing hearing having previously pled guilty to 3 counts of distributing small quantities of cocaine. I arrive a hour and half early so that I can go over his presentence report with him (as is fairly common, the report showed up too late for me to get to the jail and go over it with him). It takes all of 15 minutes; if I hadn't come early I'm sure that discussion would have taken an entire hour and half. So I spend the next hour plus talking to a deputy and a couple of guards from the jail until court opens at 2 p.m.

When the case is called I stand and point out to the judge my client's serious medical conditions. I point out that he was caught dealing minor quantities of cocaine. Then I point to a statement my client made to the probation officer as to his plan for self help after completing his sentence: "I don't make mistakes twice, I'll never do that again." I then proceed to argue to the judge that he should take my client at his word: "You see that the probation officer lists Mr. Smith's IQ at 76. Well, I just don't buy it. We can see from the record that Mr. Smith learns and doesn't make the same mistake twice. In '85 he was convicted of felony larceny [edit. comment: he stole a dog from the local pound - any theft of a dog is a felony in Va.] but he never made that mistake again. In '92 his charge of felon in possession of a firearm was taken under advisement and we never see him making that mistake again. Now we see him before the court on the only drug charge ever on his record. I tell you he's learned this lesson just like he did previously and it is obvious that a long sentence is not needed to drive the point home. I ask you to take him at his word and sentence him to as little time as possible." The judge listened politely and then proceeded to sentence my client to ten years on each count with eight years suspended, all three sentences to run concurrently.

As I am driving back from court I check my messages and there is one from the federal clerk's office. I call back and get assigned a case as I'm driving down the highway. At one point I just have to pull off the road because the clerk is giving me a lot of info and it's kinda tough to drive, write stuff down, and hold the cell phone all at the same time (for the record I was not writing while I was driving).

Thursday - I go to court for a client's preliminary hearing on a felony DUI (3 DUI's within 6 months) and her trial on a misdemeanor suspended license charge. After the hearing, I go to appeal the misdemeanor so that there is one sentencing event in the circuit court. I wait for the clerk to complete the paperwork of the person in front of me (who has already left). And I wait. And I wait. And I wait. And I wait. Meanwhile, the people who have been sent to the clerk by the traffic court pile up behind me. 5 people, 10 people, 20 people, 30+ people - the clerk is off in her own little world and doesn't even notice. Finally, the clerk walks back over to the window and realizes that if she doesn't move fast the line is going to back up into the courtroom. She shifts into fourth gear and gets my client's paperwork done in about three minutes. A forty minute wait for three minutes of work.

In the afternoon I have a client charged with driving on a suspended license. It's a particularly nasty form of driving suspended which will take my client's license for a year because he was convicted of a DUI three years prior. My client had been making efforts to get his license back - which usually leads to conviction under a statute which doesn't take his license - so I make a motion to continue the case. The judge won't have any of it. So then I run down to the law library and spend the next hour or so looking for any angle I can find to try to get this thrown out or reduced. I spend most of the time looking up a case which I think will prove my client not guilty. Bingo! Then I look a little further and figure out that the case has been made irrelevant by changes to the statute. Crud. Client has to plead guilty but he's happy with his 10 days in jail (weekends) and not all that concerned about having his license suspended even further.

- I go off to another county to represent a client on a show cause for not paying off a fine. While waiting for the case to be called I see a lady walk up to bench. On the other side a bunch of prison guards and a detective come up. The lady then spends the next ten minutes or so trying to get the judge to assign an attorney to her case but he won't do it because a prior judge has decided she doesn't qualify. The prosecutor, trying to be decent about it, tells the judge a couple times that he is not comfortable trying this woman without a lawyer. When that doesn't seem to do any good he points out to the judge that a certificate of analysis was filed late and the lady is entitled to a continuance; he points it out a couple or three times but the lady doesn't seem to get it. Then the judge pointedly asks her if she wants a continuance (twice); it's very obvious she has no clue what's going on and finally she says "no." At this point I stand up and volunteer to take the case pro bono. The judge agrees and gives me a few minutes to talk to the client and the detective. Proving that no good deed will ever go unpunished, the first thing the detective says to me is "I haven't got all the transcripts here, but I've got fifty pages here and I can get you the rest." Shortly after that conversation I go into the courtroom and ask the judge to grant a continuance which he does. Then he calls my next case and, despite my best efforts, refuses to give my client a continuance so that my client can get his fines paid. He points out that my client has had 5 or 6 continuances already over a 7 month period and there have been no payments made at all. I show him medical records from my client showing that he had congestive heart failure about six months ago and has only been back to work recently. The judge isn't having any of it. With my client almost crying next to me (in fake "whispers": tell him this - tell him that - what'll I do?), the judge sentences him to 30 days in jail but agrees that he can do the time on weekends if I can find a jail which will take him and sets his date to report off for a week.

In the afternoon I sit in my office waiting for clients to come in and two actually do. It's a miracle two clients have shown up two weeks in a row. Of course, the federal client came from 4 counties on the other side of Richmond so I spent the better part of a hour on the phone trying to get him to my office. Oh well, at least I know the feds will pay me for all my work.

Addendum: Matt comments on this post here: Stop the Bleating!

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