05 May 2005

What a More Typical Day in a Virginian Court is Like

Get to court at 8:30 a.m. for a client charged with petit larceny of someone's cell phone. Client never came to see me and is not in the courtroom. After waiting a little bit the clerk calls the case. The judge issues a capias and sets another date. When I walk out in the hall one of the complaining witnesses walks up to me and tells me that my client isn't going to be found. “She's in hiding; the FBI is looking for her.”

Then I go up to the circuit court and arrive a hour early because my client had left a message the day before asking me to talk with him before court. When I get there they call my client's case early (before I get a chance to talk to him) because he needs to be transported back to Alexandria ASAP because he has a trial tomorrow. The prosecutor asks for a continuance because he is missing bank documents and the records keeper needed to introduce them.

I get up and say something along these lines:

“Your honor, they barely squeaked this dog through a preliminary hearing. At that time Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Smith tasked Detective Jones with investigating this case. I've spoken twice with Detective Jones and the case doesn't seem to have gone anywhere. We came to court two weeks ago and Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Green told you they'd have their witnesses here today. They've had plenty of time to get their case together, I move for dismissal.”

The prosecutor gets up and points out that while he wasn't the prosecutor either time before the last case was continued because my client wasn't brought to court. I walk back over to the podium and point out that the prosecutor claimed at the last court date that they had only found out my client was in Alexandria the day before court and therefore had not been able to have him shipped – this, despite the fact that he'd only been in Alexandria the entire time and was shipped for both his pretrial hearing and his preliminary.

The prosecutor then tells the judge he got the case handed to him two days before and found the flaws when it was given to him. He says he doesn't need the Detective - that he knows who and what records he needs to subpoena. He asks for a sixty day continuance.

The judge asks the prosecutor if my client is being held on other charges (yes, otherwise he'd be in the local jail rather than Alexandria). Then he grants the continuance “over Defense's strenuous objection.” It's set for July and he tells the prosecutor that there will be no more continuances.

The continuance isn't too surprising. The Virginia General Assembly has defined by statute the constitutional guarantee of speedy trial to mean 5 months after the preliminary hearing if the Defendant is locked up. As long as the prosecution gets the case in within that time period most continuances seem to be granted. The comment about no further continuances was redundant because the 5 months will be up within days of the continuance date; still, I'm glad to have it just in case the prosecutor tries to get an extra day or two for some reason.

In the afternoon I go to the Circuit Court for a client who's pleading guilty. At the preliminary hearing he agreed to plead guilty to grand larceny if the theft of a credit card charge was dropped.

I go back into lockup and we fill out the 40+ question form which has to be filled out to make sure my client understands what he's doing. This used to be done verbally by the judge in the courtroom when the defendant pled guilty. A couple years ago the judges decided that rather than do this the attorneys should have their clients fill the questions before court so we all get the courthouse and run into the lockup area and spend 15 minutes doing these questions with our clients. Then some of the judges ask the client about half the questions anyway after you hand them the paper (although, over time they have started asking fewer questions).

Anyway, we finish the paperwork and the prosecutor calls my client out. The clerk reads the charge; Client pleads guilty. The judge asks him if he signed the document asserting that he understood the rights he is waiving. Client say, “Yessir.” The prosecutor gets up and summarizes the evidence and then the judge asks me if I agree that the evidence would have been available and sufficient to establish guilt. “Yes, your honor.” Judge finds my client guilty. I waive the presentence report and ask to set the case for sentencing in a week or two. The prosecutor agrees to do the sentencing guidelines because if the probation officer did them it would take a couple months (not sure why that is since it only takes me about 20-30 minutes; then again, I'm not allowed to do the guidelines for the court). We set the hearing for the next week.

I run back down to the general district court where a client is scheduled for a preliminary hearing and trial on a misdemeanor. The misdemeanor isn't going to stick; it wouldn't have stuck 3 years ago if he'd just come to court. But no, he didn't appear and when the police finally caught up with him the search at the jail revealed methadone. The felony possession of drugs as an inmate is definitely going to stick.

The prosecutor tells me right from the start that she's going to drop the misdemeanor. I go back and talk to Client. He is what is referred to as the dreaded “difficult client.” Reason doesn't work, leaving and coming back doesn't work, leaving again and coming back doesn't work . . . Finally, one time while Client is yelling at me I let loose and start yelling back. He pops up and “fronts” me. He puts his chest toward me, juts his jaw towards me, and looks me in the eye. I stand there for a second and tell him, “Sit down.” He does and suddenly he's my best friend. The screaming and yelling becomes calm, friendly conversation.

All that over, I go out and talk the prosecutor into allowing my client to have a bond. She agrees to a $20,000 bond if my client will waive his preliminary hearing; client had no bond and I've already got the lab report and know what the deputy is going to say so there's no real reason for the prelim. Client comes out, waives his hearing, and the bond is set. Client is happy as he is taken back into lockup. Client's mother jumps up and walks briskly out of the courtroom (she didn't want him to bond out).

And thus ends a typical court date.

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