Pet Peeves: On Prosecutors and Professionalism

by Jamison Koehler on August 28, 2013

Whenever you walk into a store, it doesn’t matter how busy the staff may be, the clerk should immediately acknowledge your presence.  Good afternoon, sir, the clerk should say.  I will be right with you.

You forgive a lot once these words have been spoken. Please, you respond graciously.  Take your time.  And you mean it.

The same principle should apply to prosecutors in their dealings with defense attorneys.

Most prosecutors in D.C. are pleasant and professional. But there are exceptions.

I am always annoyed by prosecutors who stroll into the courtroom moments before the judge takes the bench.  This results in a rush of defense attorneys toward counsel table seeking to speak with the prosecutors before our cases are called.  It makes our job that much more difficult.  And then the judge chastises us for not having worked out more of these issues in advance.

But that is not what this blog entry is about.  The prosecutors in the instance that prompted this post – two assistant U.S. attorneys – arrived in plenty of time.  And the docket was light that day so there were few people in the room.

So I sat in the front row as the prosecutors took out their files and arranged them on the table.  I know that prosecutors hate it when you approach them before they are ready.  I also allowed plenty of time for police officers and other witnesses to check in.  It was only after I saw the prosecutors start to re-arrange their files that I approached.

And here’s my beef:  It doesn’t matter how new you are.  Or how many trials you have scheduled for the day.  You need to acknowledge a person’s presence.  Even a simple nod will do.

Someone from my first career with the federal government told me upon her retirement that I never once failed to stand up to greet her whenever she came into my office.  She was older, she said.  She was a woman.  She was a clerical worker.  And she was African-American.  That’s why, she said, she particularly appreciated this.  She said she wanted to write a thank you letter to my mother.

This is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me.  It is also what I expect in return in the way store clerks deal with me.  It is what I expect from prosecutors.  Nobody wants to be invisible.  Nobody wants to be marginalized.

This is not about ego.  Or at least it is not just about ego.  You do this not because you are worried about your reputation or because you might encounter defense counsel later in court or in life.  You do this because it is the right thing, the basic thing, to do. This is Human Relations 101.  You treat everyone with courtesy no matter who they are.  You treat everyone with respect no matter who you are.

Postscript:  I ran into one of the prosecutors this morning who inspired this post.  Grateful to her for having giving me material to write about, I smiled at her.  She stared straight ahead. Apparently, she is having another bad day.

5 Comments on “Pet Peeves: On Prosecutors and Professionalism

  1. I find this galling as well, and see it as a manifestation of youthful arrogance. But I try not to get upset, and rather memorize the name and face. Some AUSAs will leave the office and never be heard from again. Others will cross my path in the future, at which time I will find a way to remind them of their discourtesy.

  2. SHG:

    Youthful arrogance, yes. Also youthful ineptitude.

    Many years ago, I snapped at a more senior co-worker while under pressure to complete an assignment. I was completely justified in being annoyed with him. At the same time, he was absolutely right in telling me that there was no excuse for being rude.

  3. Good post. When I worked as a prosecutor, I tried to have my docket outlined, and proposed offers listed out, before I left my office. That way, I could resolve cases before the judge arrived. It helped move things along; the judge was happy because we worked quickly, the attorneys were happy because it helped them better represent their clients, and my boss was happy because it made our office look prepared.

    That said, I disagree with Scott. It has nothing to do with youth. Some people never learn that professional courtesy goes a long way – one day, their office will need a favor from you, perhaps, and the relationship you build matters.

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  5. Alas, this post brings back a dark memory of the mentality of certain disturbing wielders of prosecutorial power. In my career, I have worked in three different prosecutorial offices. There is no excuse for a prosecutor to abuse his or her authority by ignoring the very people they are meant to serve.

    It has been more than a few years since I “did time” in a Commonwealth Attorney’s office in a Virginia city. I am still disturbed to this day how I was admonished by my supervisor during my initial days as an Assistant Commonwealth Attorney. When he found me in the courtroom, “shooting the breeze,” getting to know the members of the defense bar, he took me aside and said, “We don’t talk to them, they’re scum.” I responded with a stare of disbelief. Thereafter, I made it a point to avoid him.

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