30 March 2004

A Week in the Life of a Criminal Defense Lawyer

Last week was supposed to be a week of vacation. The State prosecutors were off on one of their semi-yearly private CLEs from Monday thru Thursday (having never been privy to one of these, I can only assume that the prosecutors get together to bad-mouth innocent defense attorneys & plot ways to invalidate those pesky Constitutional rights). It has been at least 2 years since I last took an actual vacation and I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to do but I blocked the week off a couple months back, determined to devote it to doing something non-legal. Then I screwed up and let a judge schedule me for court on the 26th. It wasn't a fatal error; I could get someone to cover one case for me. However, the judge, not having been briefed on my vacation plans, for some reason assumed I'd be in court that day and appointed 3 other clients for me to represent. That killed any real travel plans but I was still determined to take the rest of the week for myself. Then a clerk from the federal district court called the week before and asked me to take a case. As much as I might have wanted the time off there is no way I could turn that down (the federal system pays well enough that a couple cases a month will mean I can pay my bills on time). So, I take the case and have an arraignment in federal district court scheduled for Monday morning. Thus, the stage is set for my week.

Monday: I drive to Richmond a hour early so that I can go to the Marshal's office and speak with my client (I had been unable to get out to see my client in the Outer-Mongolia Regional Jail). Then I go off to the court room to sit and wait for my client's initial arraignment. As I'm sitting there admiring the dark wood carved fasces on the judge's bench, the marshals get my attention and point out that my client's mother and father are there and want to talk to me. I go out in the hall with them and they start telling me about how Client has just gotten a job which he will lose if he does not get a bond. I have to explain to them that he is facing 21-27 years (career offender) and he is not going to get a bond. Then someone sticks his head out of the courtroom and tells me they are calling my client's case so I hustle back in. The initial arraignment is pro-forma and done in less than ten minutes. I turn to my right and shake the prosecutor's hand, exchange pleasantries (he graduated from Washington & Lee Law the same year I did and always seemed like a decent guy), and head down to the Marshal's office to talk to my client again for a few minutes. Then I headed back out to Chesterfield County. I did spend the afternoon in my office but I must admit that most of that time was spent watching DirecTv rather than accomplishing anything.

Tuesday: Having not done paperwork I should have Monday afternoon because of federal filing deadlines I have to go into the office. However, in an act of breathtakingly insignificant defiance, I go to the office in jeans and a t-shirt (not exactly sure whom I was defying as I am the boss, owner and sole employee of Lammers Law Office). While I'm sitting there a call comes in from a federal judge's clerk who is conferencing me with an AUSA and they are trying to bump up a re-arraignment and sentencing under a plea agreement. We all agree to set it for Thursday morning at 10 a.m. Immediately after the conference call ends I attempt to call Client. The entire time I have represented him this client has been easy to reach and he knows that he is supposed to be ready to come in for his court hearing at a moment's notice. Naturally, when I call his number his phone is dead. And it's way too late to send him a letter. Great.

Wednesday: I get up, put on a suit, and (after catching lunch with some buddies) head to my client's home address. I drive, and drive, and drive, and drive, and drive. Finally, off some country road at least ½ hour south of Petersburg I find the address. I walk up to the front door warily eying the “Beware of Dog” and “No Trespassing” signs. When I ring the doorbell my client's mother comes out in her pink bathrobe and is mortified (I interrupted her doing laundry). She lets me in and quickly runs to the back to get some clothes on; the dogs turn out to be a female Lab and the nicest Rotty I've ever met – both of which are extremely interested in sniffing at me because they can smell my dogs and cats. When Mom comes back out she is able to give me Client's cell phone number (woulda been nice if he'd given me that number) and I call him and tell him to be in court the next day.

Driving back up I-95 there is a wreck which keeps me from traveling over 25 mph or getting into the right hand lane to make my turnoff into Chesterfield County. So I end up in Richmond. Trying to make lemons out of that lemonade, I make a trip to the US Attorney's office to pick up discovery on a case which an AUSA told me would be ready Monday. It's not ready. The AUSA comes out apologizes and, when I tell him I will be back on Thursday, tells me he can have it ready by the time I next swing by the office.

Thursday: I arrive at court about 30 minutes early. We all sit around nervously for a while until court starts but the hearing goes off like clockwork, the plea agreement is entered, and my client is sentenced to community service for conspiracy to distribute various drugs. Then I walk 4 blocks over and, lo and behold, the AUSA was true to his word – discovery is waiting for me when I arrive. I go down to the first floor and sit in the cafeteria eating a snack (breakfast) while I read the discovery. Not good. I go back up and ask the AUSA to let me have a copy of the tapes which supposedly corroborate the discovery but he does not have them; he tells me he'll get me a copy as soon as he gets one himself.

In the afternoon I drive out to the rural county I have court in on Friday in order to talk to the prosecutor. Unfortunately, he is still at the prosecutors' CLE ( I had been under the misperception that it ended on Wednesday). I drop off some papers and head back home.

Friday: I head out to the county where I have court. My first client has a show cause for not attending all the sessions of the alcohol safety program mandated because he was convicted of a DUI. He arrives with a pile of receipts showing that his wife was in the hospital at the time due to complications during pregnancy. I present the matter to the judge and she rerefers him to the program. The next client is accused of malicious wounding (maliciously causing bodily harm with intent to maim, disfigure, disable, or kill) which carries a minimum penalty of 5 years although a judge could suspend some of that. The prosecutor offers to drop it to unlawful wounding (unmaliciously causing bodily harm with intent to maim, disfigure, disable, or kill) which carries a maximum penalty of 5 years (in my client's case probably probation). Personally, I do not think my client was guilty of anything more than a battery and would have loved to take it to trial but my client proved more risk adverse than I (probably because it was his rear on the line and not mine) and took the offer. The prosecutor reduced the charge and my client waived his preliminary hearing.

My last two cases were going to take about 5 minutes combined. However, before they were called I had to sit through a long and acrimonious preliminary hearing for a malicious wounding and a trial. I think my clients were called as the last two people on the criminal docket. The first had her case continued for six months. The second had her underage possession of alcohol charge dropped by the prosecutor, pled guilty to a misdemeanor failure to appear in court and got a $50 fine.

By the time I got back to my office it was 2:30 – ½ hour after my Friday open office hours had supposedly begun. A 3L whom I had employed to do some work for me had dropped by at 2 pm to return some papers and get paid. He slipped the papers under the door, left without getting his due, and I felt like a jerk. The rest of the afternoon nobody came by the office despite the fact that I had set specific appointments for two clients during that time.

And that's what a vacation week is like for a criminal defense attorney. C'est la vie.

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