Keeping Score in Room 113

May 24, 2015

BaltimoreGraffiti.14If ever I fancied the notion of becoming a judge, I changed my mind after spending another day in domestic violence court last week.

The judge in Room 113 of D.C. Superior Court – where civil protection orders are handled – is two things that I am not. First, she is very smart. This is the second case I have tried in front of her. She does not miss a thing. When a trial is broken up, as it often must be, she can recall material facts from a couple of weeks ago. Second, she is very patient. With cranky, scared, and confused litigants before her all day long, she treats everyone with respect.

Lawyers spend most of the time we are in the room waiting for our case to be called. This means that we have lots of time to collect our thoughts followed by only brief periods in which we are on. The judge, by contrast, is always on. In cases in which the parties are not represented by counsel, she must also act as both prosecutor and defense attorney.

One of the things I like about this type of case is that, as a defense attorney, you always have lots of material to work with. In a stranger-on-stranger assault or robbery, you may be dealing with a single issue: the identity of the perpetrator, for example. By contrast, there is always back story in a domestic case. This means that, as a defense attorney, you will always have something on the petitioner. Because nobody is perfect. And domestic partners have long memories. They tend to keep score. The problem for the judge in Room 113 is that this back story – all of this anger and angst — finds its way into the proceedings.

The judge came over recently from the criminal defense calendar. I can’t help wondering how she likes her new assignment.

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Disliking the Victim

May 14, 2015

I wanted to hit him myself.

This is what I tell my client after speaking with the complainant in a simple assault case. My client is accused of punching the complainant in the face.

The complainant turns out to be a first-class jerk. I call him up before the arraignment to find out what happened. I also express concern for his injuries. This, I have found, is the trick to get people talking: People love to talk about how they have been harmed.

Instead, the guy tries to shake us down for money. “I have talked with some of my lawyer friends,” he tell me. “And this is going to end up costing your client a fortune. First he is going to have to pay your fee. And then there will be a civil case. On an hourly basis, that is going to cost him even more.”

I always hate peoples’ “lawyer friends.” They tend to give such bad advice.

I take a moment to process what I am hearing. “Are you asking us to pay you off?” I ask him.

“Well,” he says. “I don’t have any sons. But if one of my daughters got herself into trouble like this, I would say that $30,000 would be a fair price to be done with it.”

There is another moment of silence as each of us thinks this over. You see the part about wishing I could hit him too? Or thinking that my client really should have hit him twice – and harder both times?

“I have to tell you,” I say to him. “I think you may have misunderstood the purpose of my call.”

“Very well,” he concludes. “See you in court.”

If there is at least a good basis for my “dislike” of the victim in this case, I am disturbed by the negative reaction I have to the complainant in another case. My client is accused of participating in the robbery of the woman’s self-phone and then beating her when she resisted.  According to the medical records, the woman was diagnosed with a “bilateral nasal fracture” (i.e., a broken nose) and a fracture of the “left ocular/orbital floor” that required surgery.

Maybe there is some psychological thing going on here – some subconscious compulsion to demonize my opponent — but I dislike the complainant the moment I see a photo of her. Her nose is bandaged and both of her eyes are black. She is wearing a T-shirt with the words “Love” written across it. And she has this hurt puppy dog look on her face – a look that is at once noble and pathetic.   I like her even less when she refers to the group of people who attacked her as a pack of wild dogs and then lectures the judge on the need to hold “this type of person” accountable.

When did I become this inured to the suffering of other people?

My wife tells me I have changed a lot since I became a criminal defense attorney. She may be right. I’m not sure she meant that as a compliment.

“You Look Thinner In Real Life”

May 5, 2015

Grey Gardner

If ever I thought a person’s vanity might diminish with age, I have proven myself wrong: I am every bit as vain today as I have ever been. The problem is that the vanity now leads mostly to humiliation. And things are only getting worse.

So I am particularly pleased whenever I hear something positive about my physical appearance.

People often approach me at the courthouse to comment on something I have written here. I like this. For example, Grey Gardner told me the other day that his girlfriend – a public defender in New York — is a reader. I am a big fan of Grey, who is a first-rate lawyer and also a classy guy. So this was a compliment by extension. And a prosecutor told me recently that she was halfway into a blog entry before she realized she was the person who had inspired the post. Fortunately I was not criticizing her.

And then there was yesterday.

I wish I could remember my colleague’s name but he approached me as I was leaving the building. Asking me to confirm my identity, he told me he enjoyed the back-and-forth between me, my brother, and my brother-in-law in the comments section. That was nice. But what really made my day was what followed: “I wasn’t sure whether it was you or not,” he told me. “You look thinner in real life.”

Now come on: How often do you hear something like that?

I will be updating my website soon to make it more friendly for mobile devices. Maybe I should update my photograph at the same time. After all, moments pass.  Things will only be going downhill from here.

Please Call Me “Sir”

May 1, 2015

I went into a bank this morning wearing sweat pants, and the guy greeting people at the front door called me “Buddy.” I am sure that, had I been wearing a suit, he would have called me “sir.”

As a younger man, I used to hang out with my cousin and his friends. Let’s just say that if you saw my cousin on the street, you would have assumed he was a homeless man.

Clerks at respectable establishments would cringe the moment we walked through the door. We were much more welcome at other places. Walking into a Seven-Eleven, for example, I felt like George Costanza in the Seinfeld episode in which he is suddenly accepted into an exclusive club – in George’s case, a good-looking people’s establishment. There was, as it turned out, a whole world that had been hidden to me.

Hanging out with my cousin was thus an education for me. As a white male, maybe I was not as attuned as I should have been as to how people might react to me on the basis of my appearance alone.

Or maybe it was like Eddie Murphy getting onto a public bus in white face with only white people already on board.  “Pay?” the bus driver says with surprise.  “Are you kidding me? You know that paying is only for black people, right?”

Baltimore Was Never Burning

April 29, 2015

The pizza delivery guy is really upset. He has $250 worth of pizza in the backseat of his car, and his next destination – after leaving our house – is smack dab in the middle of the riots. “I can’t believe my boss,” he tells me. “He is an idiot. He agreed to be paid in cash for this order. There is no way I am ever going to get that money.”

For a moment I can’t help thinking of this poor guy handing out pizzas to a group of young people jumping on police cars at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania Avenues trying to collect his money. I am also reminded of that scene in Bananas in which Woody Allen goes into a restaurant and orders 1,000 sandwiches for his army – with mayonnaise on the side.

And then it occurs to me. I am not the only person with the telephone number of our local pizza place on speed dial. And the other person – my pizza-loving wife – is sitting in a church basement with other community organizers just a block from the epicenter of the unrest. It is she who has ordered the pizza. And, notwithstanding the delivery guy’s concerns, it is she who does in fact pay for it.

* * * * *

In a comment to yesterday’s post, Tyler Suchman sums up the City of Baltimore better than I ever could:   “Baltimore strikes me as a city with strong community leaders and an overwhelming desire to rise above the unrest. Clearly the vast majority of citizens want to protect the city in which so many people have invested their blood, sweats and tears.”

Call me a sap but I have a tendency to look for the positive in every situation. On the morning of September 11, 2001 in D.C., with smoke from the Pentagon rising over the river and reports that other planes were still on their way, I witnessed the greatest traffic jam I have ever seen, caused by all the people trying to get out of the city at the same time before the next disaster struck. At the same time, I had never seen people in D.C. be so nice to each other. It was the opposite of road rage, and it was one of the most affirming things I have ever seen.

Notwithstanding the property damage and injuries, there are similar positives to come out of this experience. It was not only the sight of Muslim and Christian men interposing themselves between the demonstrators and riot police. It was not just the citizens who appeared the next morning with brooms and garbage cans to start cleaning up the debris. It was also that sense of a community – the shared approach of like-minded and responsible people pulling together to dress the city’s wounds.

The burnt out cars are being towed; the streets swept of debris. The banks and the drug stores will open again. If there were a physical manifestation of dignity, it would look a lot like this.

Tending My Own Garden in Baltimore

April 28, 2015
ChipSomodevilla/Getty Images

ChipSomodevilla/Getty Images

My wife and I live two blocks from North Avenue in Baltimore.  Our house is a short walk from the main events of last night.

The helicopters have been annoying, and they are back now, suggesting that something is going on again today. But, contrary to the way things are being portrayed on T.V., the looting and the violence have been pretty localized; contained to a few areas of the city.

On Saturday, my wife and I marched down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Inner Harbor with well over 1,000 other citizens from the city. It was a diverse and peaceful group of people.   There were no police. There was no looting or violence.  All those people have gone home.

What you see on T.V. are the actions of a small group of agitators. Preening for the cameras, possibly hoping for a Youtube video that goes viral, these young men do not represent anyone but themselves.

Sometimes, despite the preaching and moralizing on Facebook, there is no lesson. Sometimes things are just the way they are.

Funeral Service for Louis Barnett to be Held April 21

April 17, 2015

Louis Barnett died on April 13, 2015 of a pulmonary aneurysm. My understanding is that Barnett and his wife were in the midst of a home renovation when his wife found him at the bottom of the basement stairs.

A funeral service will be held in Tuesday, April 21, 2015, at the First Baptist Church of Highland Park, 6801 Sheriff Road, Landover MD 20785. The viewing is from 9:00 am to 11:00 am, with the service to be held at 11:00 am.

Barnett’s family has asked that any flowers should be sent to J.B. Jenkins Funeral Home at 7474 Landover Road, Hyattsville, MD, 20785, Tel # 301-322-2300.

Every Prosecutor Should Experience the Humiliation and Discomfort of an Arrest

April 14, 2015

Your client is charged with Leaving After Colliding – Property Damage.  This is the technical way of saying that he is charged with “hit-and-run” or “leaving the scene of an accident” as the offense is known in other jurisdictions.

Your client is a professional with a pristine driving record. He has never been arrested before. He rear-ends another vehicle while approaching a stop light at a very low speed, causing only minor damage to his own car. Both drivers get out and an argument ensues. Your client returns home and immediately reports the collision to his insurance company, accepting full responsibility for the accident. The other driver files a police report.*

You have spent a long time cultivating your relationship with the police officer who is investigating this case.  Leaving-after-colliding is one of the few charges in which you can do this.  Normally you don’t know about the case until after your client has already been charged – at which point most officers will immediately clam up.

In this type of case, however, police notify the owner of the car that his vehicle was involved in a hit-and-run and ask him/her to come down to the district building for questioning.  If the owner is smart, he will call a lawyer.  And at this point in the investigation there is no prosecutor assigned to the case – in other words, there is no one to interpose him- or herself between you and the officer.  Moreover, with you and the officer each trying to tease out information from the other, the officer is only too willing to talk.

In this particular case, the officer promised to alert you the moment the arrest warrant is issued so that your client can turn himself in.  You need to get your client to the district building early in the morning on a day that is not normally busy. This way you can be sure he will make the cut-off time for arraignments that afternoon.  Otherwise, he might end up spending the night in custody.  If he misses the cut-off time on a Saturday, he could spend two nights in jail.

You have also talked with the prosecutor who has been assigned to this case.  He won’t dismiss the case.  But he does agree to be flexible on the turn-in arrangements. Why should your client spend an entire day in lockup when everyone knows he will come to court for the arraignment?  I will call you this afternoon, the prosecutor says, so that we can work out the details.

There is no phone call from the prosecutor.  Nor is there an alert from the police officer.  Instead, police officers arrive at your client’s home the next morning while he is still sleeping.  He is led out of his house in handcuffs, in full view of his neighbors, to where a squadron of police cars awaits him.  He is taken to the Third District where he is searched.  He spends a couple of hours lying on a cold metal bench in an unheated cell.  He is then taken to the central cellblock at 300 Indiana Avenue where he is searched again, photographed, fingerprinted and placed in another cell.

Your client is shackled to four other prisoners and loaded into a cramped van to be transported the 300 feet from the Daly building to D.C. Superior Court.  He is searched yet again – this time forced to remove his pants in an open hallway for a gloved officer to inspect his private areas.  He sits in a holding cell in the basement there for an hour or so, submitting a urine sample. He is then released to the “bullpen” where he hangs out for a couple of hours with 70 to 80 other cranky, smelly people, many of whom are there for serious offenses. Finally, your client spends the next four hours, hands and feet tightly shackled, in a crowded cell behind the courtroom waiting for his case to be called for arraignment.

I have always envied clients the experience of having gone through this process. How can you tell your clients what they should expect when you have never experienced it for yourself?  More importantly than defense lawyers doing it would be to incorporate the experience as part of training for new prosecutors.  They should know what it feels like.

Prosecutors should appreciate the economic inefficiency of it all from a societal standpoint – from the unplanned day off from work for the person who was arrested to the time of every police officer who had to supervise him over the 10 hours he was in custody – when police could have simply set a court date for him to appear voluntarily. Prosecutors should also be forced to experience the humiliation and discomfort.  Maybe then they would not be so careless, so cavalier, in performing their jobs.

*The facts of this hypothetical are fictional.

Bob Dylan at the Lyric

April 12, 2015

My wife and I have tickets to see Bob Dylan at the Lyric.

This is good news. I like Bob Dylan. And although my wife may not be terribly enthusiastic about his music, she is always happy to go out. Besides, the Lyric is just a couple of blocks from our house. We won’t need to worry about parking.

* * * * *

The (youngish) mother of a juvenile client hears me tell Wayne my investigator about the concert.  “Bob Dylan,” she says.  “Isn’t he the guy who sings the song about knowing when to hold them and knowing when to fold them”?

“No,” I say.  “That is Kenny Rogers.”

Dylan wrote so many classic songs.  It is hard for me to choose which ones to mention.  “The Times They Are A Changing. I tell her.  “All Along the WatchtowerIt’s A Hard Rain That’s Gonna FallKnocking on Heaven’s Door.”

She looks at me.  Then she breaks into the Kenny Rogers song.  Just in case Wayne and I forgot what it sounds like.

* * * * *

The Lyric is a small venue and we have good seats. Still, everything is so dimly lit that we can barely see anything.  This is an older crowd.  Don’t they know older people need more light to see?

* * * * *

I had read that Dylan views his music as very fluid.  You will be very disappointed, the article said, if you expect a song to sound like it did on one of his albums.

Sure enough, he is half way into his fourth song – only one of four songs the entire evening that I recognize – before I realize he is singing “Tangled Up in Blue.”

Heading for another joint/We always did feel the same/We just saw it from a different point of view/Tangled up in blue.

The nasal sneer is there. It is the words I can’t understand.

And he is half way into his first encore – an upbeat, jazzy version of Blowing In the Wind — before I realize that there is no way this spindly little man tottering from microphone to the keyboards and then back again could ever match the legend.

The song is as good as it has ever been.  Maybe better.  And yet the song that influenced a generation of people, a song that helped define an era, can hardly fill this little auditorium.  The world has gotten so much bigger.  There are so many other songs.

We clap and wait for another encore. The lights go up. We make our way to the exit. Thank goodness we don’t need to worry about finding our car.

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