Ode to a legal career

Jamison KoehlerLaw Practice, Miscellaneous, Opinions/Cases

When I last wrote about my niece Emma, she was an all-Ivy scholar and athlete, the leading scorer and captain of her college soccer team.

Since that ground-breaking blog entry of 2012, Emma has played professional soccer.  She is still, as I described her back then, pretty, smart, personable and modest, a woman who not only knows how to take a joke but also how to deliver one. 

She has gotten married to a wonderful man.  She is the most gifted poet I know.  And she has earned a law degree and is completing a Ph.D in English.   

(She misunderstood her parents when she was growing up:  They told her to be a doctor OR a lawyer). 

When I say how good Emma would be at the practice of law, her mother — my little sister — points out that Emma is really an academic at heart.    

This is for Emma.  This is me not bragging, not being a “helicopter uncle.”  This is me not butting in.  This is my ode to a legal career. 


Emma’s grandparents on my side were both English teachers.

We could spend an entire meal – the seven of us crowded around the tiny dining room table at 54 Hills Road – debating the evils of using adjectives or adverbs or discussing the nuances of a particular poem or word.

I remember us all being in tears as my mother recited from memory the words to “Little Boy Blue” by Eugene Field. 

A writer friend was jealous to learn about the poetry and fiction readings we did every summer at our family get-togethers at Cape Cod.    

This is also the family that went to Amsterdam so that my father – a Milton scholar – could view first-hand the “Adam and Eve” painting by Peter Paul Rubens.  

The guard at the museum was concerned about the large American family who spent so much time looking at a single detail on a single painting. 

To this day, my siblings and I still debate whether the look in the lion’s eye was the “light” or “glint” or “glare” of “knowledge coming on.” 


Of all 13 cousins, only two – Emma and my nephew Ray – have followed the path of their grandparents by pursuing a career in English. 

Emma wrote her senior thesis in college about her grandfather, my father, a disciple of William Carlos Williams.

I understand Emma’s love of language, how she can admire a poet’s choice of one word or one phrase over another.  At the same time, with apologies to my sister for butting in, I cannot help noting the more practical applications of this interest.

Some people use lawsuits to effect national or global changes.  

To bastardize Archimedes’ saying, give me the right word and I can change the world. 

As for me, I deal not with issues of national importance.  Instead, working bottom up instead of top down, I try to improve the world one person at a time.


Similar to my father, who wrote an entire book inspired by a single phrase used by William Carlos Williams, I had a case last year in which my client’s future depended on the interpretation of a single passage in a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

My client was taken into custody in the hallway on the second floor of the home he shared with his family.  Once he had identified himself as the person named in the arrest warrant and had been put into handcuffs, police went into the adjoining bedroom where they recovered the firearm in plain view on a nightstand by his bed.

The question is whether police had legal authority to go into his bedroom after he had been identified and secured.  If they did, the firearm was admissible at trial and he would be convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. 

If they did not, the government would be precluded from introducing at trial the firearm (speaking of Milton) as the “tainted fruit of the forbidden tree.” Left without this critical piece of evidence, the government would have had no choice but to dismiss the charges.  My client would be a free man. 


According to the U.S. Supreme Court in Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 325 (1990), one exception to the warrant requirement permits a “quick and limited search of the premises” in connection with an arrest to protect the safety of officers and others.

Here is the operative language from the decision:

The “protective sweep” exception applies to “closets and other spaces immediately adjoining the place of arrest from which an attack could be immediately launched.”

Think about this:  Supreme Court justices are no fools.  They pick their words carefully.  They know that the words they use will be dissected and argued by fine legal minds with the fate of thousands of people hanging in the balance. 

“Closets and other spaces.”

Ejusdem generis – or “of the same kind or class” – is a long-standing principle of statutory construction suggesting that words are known by the company they keep. 

The Supreme Court could have used the word “room.”  It chose not to. 

“Immediately adjoining the place of arrest.”

My client’s bedroom, with the firearm in plain view on the nightstand table, adjoined the hallway. 

But did it immediately adjoin the hallway?

To me, the Court’s use of an adverb to narrow the phrase suggested it only intended this exception to apply to “closets and spaces” that were appurtenant to the room in question.  (I should note that “appurtenant” was my word, not the Supreme Court’s.)

A linen closet off the hallway – maybe even a bathroom – would qualify.  Because they belonged to the hallway in a way a bedroom would not.


In the end, I lost the argument and my motion to suppress was denied.  My client (who has consented to me writing about him and his case) pled guilty and is now serving 18 months. 

When he is released, my client will return to a neighborhood that blames him for the fact that the person who was convicted of shooting at him was sentenced to even more time. 

Although I did not win the case, I did have the satisfaction of knowing that I made a difference in this young man’s life.  We began as strangers from very different walks of life, navigating our relationship within the confines of an interview room at the D.C. jail. 

Now he emails me from prison, calling me “my guy” and using heart emojis. 

This kind of detail cheers me up whenever, feeling the pressure, I begin to question my own career choice. 


I understand that I may be subject to “affirmation bias,” the validating, self-justifying belief that if it is right for me, it must be right for others.

I also recognize that the life of a criminal lawyer may not be for everyone.  In fact, chatting with a colleague the other day as we endured yet another long delay at the jail, I realize that even those of us who have chosen this area of the law can burn out.   

“I am tired of doing felony ones,” my colleague tells me as he waits to meet with his Murder One client. “Give me a good misdemeanor case any day in which, win or lose, the client goes home at the end of the day.”

But there are many other types of law, and I know that Emma would succeed at any one of them if, in the end, that is the path she chooses. 

In the meantime, this is me hoping. 

This is me leaving it to someone else to champion the word “appurtenant” when dealing with the phrase “closets and other spaces” in Maryland v. Buie.   

And, when you really get down to it, this is me attempting to justify my own chosen career path.