Dear Norm: How Do You Defend Those People? (Part 3,223)

Dear Norm:

How do you defend those people?

No, I don’t mean “how can you live with yourself ensuring due process for people who have done really really bad things” or anything like that. I mean, how do you actually do it? When you have a client accused of something awful, and he/she has next to nothing by way of a defense, how do you defend them anyway?

Sincerely,

Asking for a Friend

 

Dear Asking:

This question hits close to home. As mentioned in previous posts, I’m in the midst of the most serious trial tour that I’ve ever had. Every so often, you hear a story in the news where your jaw drops and then you check the locks on all your windows and doors… and then you call your grandma to tell her to check the locks on all her windows and doors… I will spare you the details, but suffice to say I have a new client who did something very, very bad. Because he was arrested at the scene of the crime, there is no identification issue or shoddy detective work that will let me claim that someone other than my totally innocent client must have done this heinous thing.  With all of the different charges and enhancements, this client faces a sentence of more than 100 years to life.

So where does a public defender start in defending this client?

First, I mentally prepare myself for the very real possibility that I will be stuck taking this case to trial, despite the lack of defense and withering, death-ray stares that my client and I will face from the jury during the entirety of the trial. The assigned prosecutor may not want to make my client any sort of plea bargain. “This defendant is the worst of the worst,” Mr./Ms. District Attorney may say, “and he deserves nothing short of a life sentence.” This may be true, but it does not relieve me of my ethical obligation to safeguard my client’s rights unless he is offered something in exchange for giving them up. It is not in my client’s legal best interests to simply plead to a life sentence out of hopelessness, and I will never tell him to do so.

Second, I drastically recalibrate my sense of what a “victory” would be in a case like this. I assemble all of the facts that weigh in favor of conviction, find the handful of “good facts” that weighs against a particular charge/allegation, and then decide which charges or enhancements I can argue against with a straight face; even in the deeply horrendous cases, prosecutors still overreach and charge more things than they might be able to prove. Then, I ask myself “so if by some improbable happenstance I manage to beat the charges I’m contesting, what does my client get?” For the client described above, I define “victory” as beating the two enhancements that carried a mandatory life sentence so that, in theory, I can try to convince a judge not to impose a discretionary life sentence on the remaining charges. Yes, “victory” is a relative term.

Third, I must earn enough trust from this client so that if an opportunity does come for him to save his own life, he’ll heed my advice and seize that opportunity. I sit with him in the jail interview room and listen to his half-hearted denials of guilt. Rather than cross-examine him and dissect his claims for implausibility, I gently remind him that ultimately, a jury would be asked to compare the victims’ word, the medical evidence, the photographs, and the client’s first version of events that he shared with the police to this new, second version of events that he now offers me. I see his face sink, ever so slightly, with realization; I have succeeded in grounding my client in the reality of the evidence against him without moral judgement or direct confrontation.

Fourth, I must give the client something that he gets to decide for himself. Clients hurt themselves most when they feel out of control over their legal situation; such clients feel “railroaded” and see their public defender as just another piece of the machine that is pushing them toward a certain outcome. When this happens, the client resists the public defender’s advice just for the sake of resisting the process as a whole. I remind the client that the decision to go to trial and the decision to testify are his and his alone, but I also remind him that he has the power to set a more realistic goal for himself. For example, for a client looking at a life sentence, pleading to any kind of determinate prison term, even if that sentence is dozens upon dozens of years, is still better than a “life” sentence; prisoners with (theoretical) release dates are categorized differently and are housed in less restrictive settings; such a situation would still guarantee a “life” sentence as a practical matter, but the quality of that “life” in prison would be substantially better. With this in mind, I tell the client that he has the power to “offer” the district attorney a plea to many dozens of years in lieu of a life sentence in exchange for not making the victims testify in court.

Before trial is the time to get creative to do whatever I can to make my client’s experience better for him. Like I said above, any sentence with a number is better than “life.” But there might be other things to consider. A coworker once told me a story of a man accused of felony child abuse causing death, a charge that carries a sentence of 25-life. Unlike first or second-degree murder, the crime of fatal child abuse does not require any particular intent, let alone the intent to kill that is required for a murder charge. Regardless, my coworker’s client agreed to plead to one count of second degree murder. Why? Because not only does second-degree murder carry a lesser sentence (15-life), but the charge itself would guarantee a less dangerous time in prison than a charge of child abuse causing death. This was arguably a better outcome (When your cellmate asks you, “So whadda ya in for?” What would you prefer to tell him?), and the client had the clarity of mind to make this deal because it was something that he felt he had the power to do in the universe of drastically-narrowed possibilities in which he found himself.

Fifth, I can make a pitch to the District Attorney on behalf of my client. The key is to remind the DA that a person is not born with the urge to…God, I can’t even say it, but such a person can only be made. Granted, most people with terrible childhoods and mild mental retardation do not go on to do the things that my client did. However, a substantial part of my client’s childhood was spent holding a gun in a closet and listening for signs his mother’s john was getting out of control. We can’t pretend that this had no impact at all on the adult he became. I can make the argument that if my client does not deserve mercy now, he probably did at some point in his life, and the things that happened to him in between were rarely, if ever, under his control to prevent.

Sixth, if this case does go to trial, there are a handful of tricks for losing with style and dignity.

  • Consider waiving opening statement; opening statements can be treacherous things in that if you promise the jury that the evidence will sound a certain way, there is a real possibility that the evidence will come in much worse than expected. Sometimes it is best to say nothing up front, let the wave of awful wash over you, and then attempt damage control during closing argument. Also, defenses sometimes “pop up” if the district attorney screws something up.
  • During the victims’ tearful testimony, get the information you need from them as gently as possible. During closing argument, accuse the district attorney of exploiting emotion and sympathy while holding yourself out as the sober, rational alternative.
  • Make objections under the United States Constitution, and not just the California Evidence Code; maybe your client will have a chance at tying up the system in federal post-conviction litigation if he preserves a “federal issue” in the record.

 

Finally, I document every decision that I make in the case as well as the reasons for it. My client will be convicted, an appellate lawyer will be running a fine-tooth comb through the record of the trial, and if I screwed something up so badly that my representation was constitutionally defective, then appellate counsel can (and should) argue this to the appellate court. Before actually presenting this argument to the court, appellate counsel will contact  me informally and ask me questions about why I decided to conduct this client’s defense the way that I did. As unbelievable as it may sound, this will not be my last truly awful case, and not every decision or its rationale will burn itself into my mind. If can’t defend myself, my client’s next lawyer will argue that I didn’t defend my client either.

Does that sound simple enough?

 

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

“Staying Billable,” or “Norm Reviews: The Six-Minute Solution”

Saint Asphalt, my county’s namesake, lived in what is now Eastern Luxembourg in the 15th century. She was known for her extreme compassion for the poor and her miraculous efforts on their behalf are what eventually led to her sainthood. Saint Asphalt would take a person’s problem, dig a hole in the ground, put the problem in the hole, and then cover it all up with bits of rock and dirt. Miraculously, the problem ceased to exist. So many of her followers came to her for help that eventually the small city she lived in turned into a hardened shell, with absolutely no problems. No problems whatsoever.

In this post, I would like to speak a little about anxiety. I know that my writing has been a little lean for the past year or so. That is because I have been on a “rest assignment” rather than an exciting “trial tour.” My office regularly rotates attorneys through assignments to help them avoid burnout. While I enjoyed the lower stress and regular office hours, finding interesting material to write about was quite a challenge. I found myself using the new lifestyle to gain some perspective on my inner being as I continued to adjust to life as a family-man.

I decided to use my “rest” time for some internal renovation; I resolved to deal once and for all with the anxiety that would sometimes paralyze me at work.

“Well of course you’re anxious; you have an incredibly stressful job!” This is what well-meaning colleagues told me when I worked up the courage to confide.  So I would stop talking and leave the topic to smolder like a dumpster fire. I replayed their chipper explanation in my head as, “My feelings are normal. Why should I think I’m entitled to feel anything other than terrible all the time?” Which then turned into, “I have to stop feeling this way. My feelings bore people. ” Which turned into, “My feelings are a weakness, and I’d better keep them hidden.” Which invariably turned into, “My feelings are literally Hitler right now.” It wasn’t until I began paying a professional by-the-hour, twice-per-week that I actually told someone what I meant by anxiety. While it’s true that my job is indeed stressful, when I stayed too long at this shallow interpretation, I found that I lost intimacy with my deeper feelings, with what was really going on inside of me.

Let me illustrate by telling you about one focus point around which my anxiety would swirl: the red blinking light on my desk phone that warned of a new voicemail. I hated checking my voicemail. One red blinking light was an angry message from a client who was mad at me because I was too busy being in trial to visit him at the jail. Another red blinking light would be from the family of the client whose trial I had just finished, and I would have to deliver the message framed as “happy news” that their son would be out before they turned 70. Another blinking red light would be from the DA, and she would have more bad news for me or for someone else that I would have to deliver.

One constructive way to deal with this issue would be to check the voicemail right away, make the return phone call or calls first thing in the morning and just be done with it. That’s not exactly what I did. I tended to wait for when I would have adequate emotional space to handle such difficult conversations, and then make the return calls at that time. Of course, what ended up happening was that the damn blinking red light of doom would menace me all day until it was time to go home, where I knew it was still blinking, waiting for me first thing in the morning.

Then there were the piles of files on my desk. There was never any time to open a calendar and triage the most important and urgent tasks first; everything is important and everything should have been done yesterday! So I grabbed the nearest thing and worked on it until I could, in a better conscience, stuff it away in a drawer so that I would not have to look at it any more. I repeated this until about midday when my mind would start to wander to something, anything else. I would take a short break to regroup, end up by distracting myself for far too long, then after my hurried snap-to, I continued to shuffle the remaining piles as quickly as possible until it was time to go home. I left work with a crushing sense of defeat and dread for the next day. I tried to avoid talking to anyone that I didn’t have to. I worried that if I spoke to anyone for too long, they would find out. They would find out that I was a terrible, terrible fraud. That I was a scarecrow held together by duct tape into a surprisingly passable resemblance of a good lawyer and functioning person. And O! The shame! Such shame behind that mask of adequate functionality!

I speak glibly about this now. It took me a few months of speaking to a professional to realize that I was the one doing this to myself. Not my clients, not opposing counsel, not the blinking red light of doom; it was me making myself miserable.

Tolstoy famously said that happy families are happy for the same reasons, while each unhappy family is miserable in its own unique way. From my reading, I learned that the psychologist, John Gottman, proved less-famously that the opposite is true; happiness allows for unique and individualized relationships between people, while misery makes our interactions more rigid and thus more predictable. The widespread misery of lawyers is noted in legal circles with an almost blasé boredom; every few weeks a new story appears about how lawyers have the highest rates of suicide, divorce, and substance abuse of any group of professionals. The state bar’s required 1.5 hours of education on the topic has done little to stem that tide.

I believe that lawyers’ collective unhappiness splinters off into a handful of predictable flavors. Mine has been anxiety, and so this led me to pick up Scott Rogers’ book “The Six-Minute Solution” in recent weeks; Mr. Rogers’ primer on “mindfulness for lawyers” has quite a few good things to offer, but also accidently reveals a surprising amount about the collective state of unhappiness among anxious lawyers.

Mindfulness has become vogue enough to where law schools now offer courses on it. “The Six-Minute Solution” presents mindfulness as a blend of Eastern meditative practice and cognitive-behavioral therapy. The lynchpin of mindfulness is sitting in stillness and quiet. Thoughts will inevitably float through your bubble; Rogers anticipates that many of these thoughts will be about the seemingly more productive things that you should be doing (finger wag) instead of sitting still doing nothing. However, the anxious lawyer returns to stillness by recognizing this guilty notion as a thought, nothing more, no more important than any of the many thousands of thoughts that pass uninvited through one’s head every day.

Rogers warns us that the mind will not readily slip away and leave us in our calm silence. By observing our anxious thoughts as mere thoughts, we then wander into deeper, less transient thoughts: thoughts about ourselves as people that give rise to the scolding surface thoughts that come during the first few moments of stillness. Rogers borrows a term from cognitive behavioral therapy and calls these automatic thoughts. Automatic thoughts are thoughts we have about ourselves; many of them are negative, and most of them are the result of repeated patterns of interactions that we have had with others. These thoughts come so quick that sometimes we don’t perceive them as a thought, more of an internalized self-projection we assume is true. I’m not good enough/smart enough for this job. Everyone else has their shit together except for me. I’m a fraud and everyone will find out sooner or later. According to Rogers, repeated mindfulness practice can lead to serious examination and confrontation with these destructive automatic thoughts, and that process begins by seeing them, experiencing them, and recognizing them as mere thoughts, and nothing more.

Rogers’ book is one of many available on the topic of mindfulness, but is one of the few directed specifically at lawyers. Rogers makes several stylistic choices that arguably reveals more about his audience than it does about his subject matter.

Rogers presents mindfulness concepts in one–and only one–format. First, a mindfulness concept or meditative practice is presented in reference to some sort of legal principle or concept (presumably to make it memorable for the reader). Second, the concept is presented. Third, Rogers presents references to scientific journals to prove the long-term effectiveness of mindfulness techniques. These three steps repeat once per page, and all but a couple of concepts require more than one page.

If we assume that this is an effective method for reaching his audience, what does it say about his audience? How skeptical must his audience be to need reassurance on each and every page that neuroscientists have given these concepts appropriate levels of peer-reviewed scrutiny and, thankfully, can reassure us that they aren’t snake oil? Personally, I have found lawyers, in general, to be a very skeptical group of people. I myself see no problem with skepticism, but I know–don’t ask me how I know this–that skepticism slides easily into cynicism and distrust. Lawyers, as a group, show profound distrust of any self-care technique that doesn’t involve booze or Crossfit-levels of pain. In this regard, I think that Rogers understands his audience.

I did find curious his frequent reliance on legal concepts that I haven’t had to use since law school. For example, Rogers offers one particular meditative practice that involves specific patterns of breathing and hand placement that he calls “The Learned Hand” technique. Who was Learned Hand? In law school, every lawyer is taught that the Honorable Learned Hand was a very smart, very important judge who wrote very smart things about…well, like 99% of lawyers, I haven’t the foggiest idea of what Learned Hand was actually famous for. But like many of the legal concepts that Rogers uses to introduce his mindfulness techniques, the phrase “Learned Hand” takes the reader back to law school more than anything else. Is Rogers really relying on these tired law school tropes to teach his concepts, or is he trying to take the reader back to a time in his life when being a lawyer was a dream and a goal, rather than a source of pain?

I do have but one grievance with Rogers’ book. The main obstacle to lawyers caring for their own well-being is the myth that they just don’t have time to care for their own well-being, especially when they’re at work. Rogers gives quiet support to this myth by reassuring the reader of just how little time his techniques require. He does this as early as the title of the book; six minutes is equal to 0.1 hours, and it’s the minimum unit in which a lawyer bills a client for her time. Surely this is not coincidental; Rogers reassures his reader that his techniques will only consume the absolute minimal amount of time that is worth anything at all to a lawyer. I believe this phrasing gives tacit support to the idea that a lawyer is only worth his or her billable time. Rogers even reassures his reader that she can practice certain mindfulness breathing exercises while talking to a client or while in court! It is certainly efficient to be able to bill a client for the time that you spend taping your sanity back together, and I believe Rogers’ encouragement of this behavior somewhat undercuts his message.

While “The Six-Minute Solution” is an approachable, easily digestible introduction to mindfulness, overcoming anxiety takes far more time than it will take the reader to finish this book and the 0.1 hours per day putting it into practice. My suggestion, if you’re looking for mindfulness resources, is to start with Rogers, and then keep going. For the first time in many years, I finally feel as though I’ve gotten my head above water and I gave a lot more attention to my self-care than six minutes per day.

So what did I finally do to overcome my anxiety? Well, like I said before, I started seeing a therapist. Hmmm. Yes, I see. I found a form of exercise I enjoyed. En garde! I cleaned out all the clutter in my office once and for all. Does this old file on my desk spark joy? And I make a list every Friday afternoon with the tasks I have to do for the following week. Interview rooms at the jail full? On to the next task! I’m also more sensitive to things that contributed to my anxiety and I’m proactive about dealing with them. This box of paper transcripts I keep kicking under my desk will upload or die! Now, I find that I have plenty of time to plan and organize, and no time to waste on anxious worry.

Do any other lawyers out there relate? What helped you? I would love to hear more ways to overcome anxiety in the comments.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

 

Sworn to Silence

The public defender who hired me warned that most of our attempts to help our clients will fail, despite our very best efforts. But she went on to say that even when all of our efforts fall short, a defendant’s public defender can and must always be the client’s voice in the courtroom; even as all the grinding parts of the machine line up against the accused, his or her public defender will always stand beside them and insist, with intelligence and passion, that the person on the receiving end has wants, needs, and interests that must be heard.

This is a story of how I may have failed to be a voice for a uniquely vulnerable client. Let’s call her Letty.

Letty ran away from her parents’ home in Dingy Suburb two weeks after her 18th birthday. Unfortunately, Letty had a less-than chivalrous boyfriend with a pitiful attempt at a moustache (let’s call him Dirt Lip). Dirt Lip promised Letty that they would “make it” on their own with the help of an older friend who lived two-hours away in Big City.

Dirt Lip’s “older friend” was a heavily-tattooed East Coast gang member who had decided to seek his fortune –and meth– out West. Older Friend explained to the young couple that he “looked after” three other girls. By “looked after,” he meant that he kept them stocked with crystal meth, reminded them of the number of Johns they had to service to pay him back for the dope, and handled their money for them to ensure that he was compensated for the hotel rooms, the drugs, and his time as their “security.” Dirt Lip assured Letty that this was nothing at all like pimping, and pointed out that unless they could find some way to pay the older friend back for the hotel room that he had booked for them –without asking first– Letty might have to follow the girls’ lead and make some quick cash.

Thankfully for Letty, Older Friend’s taillight failed to come on as he drove her and Dirt Lip back to their hotel. Before the highway patrolman could even begin to open his book of tickets, Letty blurted out as much of her story as he could to the surprised officer before he told everyone to be quiet and get out of the car. The officer quickly noticed that everyone was high, arrested them, and found Older Friend’s half-ounce of crystal behind the driver’s seat.

Per local custom, our district attorney decided to accuse everyone in the car of possessing the meth with intent to sell or distribute. Dirt Lip was a juvenile, so he never found his way into my courtroom; Older Friend hired a real lawyer, and Letty came to me.

The courtroom stood mostly empty when I arrived for our pre-trial hearing; I was the first lawyer there. Letty sat handcuffed in the jury box, swimming in her ill-fitting orange jail uniform. I began with my well-rehearsed “Trust Me Quickly” routine: handshake, business card, assurances that I am, in fact, a real lawyer, explanations of the charges, and our reasons for being in court that day. Letty responses ranged from “yeahs” to nods without eye-contact; I wasn’t entirely sure that she understood everything or cared about the parts that she did understand.

The DA and Older Friend’s lawyer came in together  before I could begin discussing her options for going forward. Older Friend’s lawyer was laughing at his own joke and he was wearing a tie with golf balls on it. The DA looked to me from across the room, pointed his thumb out the courtroom door, and mouthed something that I took to be “can we talk outside?”

I winced. Even if I included the squirrels fighting over dropped french fries on the sidewalk outside the courthouse, this DA was not my favorite mammal in the area. I promised my client that I would let her know everything that happened outside upon my return. I followed the DA outside.

“So I’ve decided to add pimping and human trafficking charges against the codefendant.”

“I can certainly see why,” I replied. Normally at this point in the conversation, this DA would have threatened to add extra charges against my client if she decided not to plea guilty to something. So I waited to hear what was coming next.

“I’d like your client to testify against him.”

“That can’t happen so long as you’re accusing her of possessing her pimp’s crystal meth,” I said in the blandest tone possible. Despite my attempt to balance diplomacy with candor, the DA still sucked in his lip like he had done whenever a defense lawyer offended him.

“If she testifies today, I won’t object to her being released from custody without bail before her next court date.”

“And…?”

“And I’ll ask my supervisor whether we can reduce her charge to simple possession.”

I’ll ask my supervisor is easily my least favorite phrase that prosecutors give me. The ABA’s model ethics rules assure us that the individual prosecutor is the one who wields the power to decide what charges the state levies at a person; this allows the individual prosecutor to  tailor a just outcome. But individual DAs work for an elected District Attorney, and that elected District Attorney has tough-on-crime campaigns to run. To ensure that no individual prosecutor does something to undermine this stance, he or she must get approval from their supervisors to ensure that their individual actions harmonize with the administration’s marching orders.

“So…you want my client to waive her 5th Amendment rights and testify without any actual promises in return?”

The DA sucked his lip again. “Well, if she doesn’t I’m going to add misdemeanor prostitution charges against her after the hearing.” Here was the threat I was waiting for! On a side note, I have met many men who manage to have successful careers despite a complete lack of people skills, obliviousness to the norms of common courtesy, and deafness to the human consequences that their seemingly-mundane decisions have on others; many titans of the tech world thrive despite and because of these deficits. But during this conversation, I felt a pang of rage at the fact that a person can miss the sick irony of charging someone you believe to be a victim of human trafficking with prostitution and still thrive as a prosecutor. I assured the DA, in my blandest Swiss diplomat tone, that I would convey his “offer” to my client.

I sat beside my client again and resisted my urge to tell her which part of the human body best exemplified our prosecutor. Her eyes widened with fear at the prospect of testifying against her codefendant, but they shone when I mentioned the pre-trial release. “I get to go home today?”

“Hold on, please. It’s not that simple,” I warned, but I feared that I was too late. Her hungry look reminded me of a talk that I had attended some months before, where a doctor told me that the brain chemistry of a person withdrawing from methamphetamine is nearly identical to that of a person who has become delirious from starvation. The DA isn’t actually promising you anything, I told her, and that since the evidence against her was so weak, she should continue to fight the charges against her. If her cooperation is so valuable to the prosecution, she should not give up any of her rights without something equally valuable in return; a promise by the DA to “talk to his supervisor” did not strike me as equally valuable.

I tried so, so hard to persuade without bullying. But I did insist, multiple times, that going along with the DA was not actually in her best interest. When she finally agreed to go forward with the day’s hearing and fight the charges, her shoulders slumped in seeming defeat….and I feared that at that moment, I had become the bully that I thought I was protecting her from.

But I had no time to backtrack; the judge was going to take the bench any minute and I could not afford to have her rescind what I thought was the wiser decision, even if she made it for the wrong reasons. The DA flushed when I told him that my client had decided not to help him.

“All rise.”

Today’s judge left his chambers and took the bench. He called our case and asked whether all three of the lawyers were ready to proceed. The DA then called his first witness.

My client. He called my client as his first witness.

“You honor,” the DA intoned with as much solemnity as he could muster, “We will be asking the court to grant her immunity for the testimony that she is about to give today.” Normally, immunity is a gift; in exchange for testimony, the defendant is granted immunity from having any of that testimony used against her. She would also be immune to any new evidence that law enforcement discovered thanks to her testimony. However, it did not feel like a gift; the DA couldn’t get what he wanted by persuasion or bargaining, so he was going to take it from her.

My client turned to me as though someone had asked her in classical Arabic to perform surgery. “What am I supposed to do?!”

“Nothing bad is going to happen to you,” I whispered, just loudly enough for the other lawyers to hear. “The DA’s deciding he’s going to steal what he wants from you since you’re not willing to just give it to him for free. We’ll go up together, and all you have to do is answer the questions honestly.” I then leaned in closer and lowered my voice to an actual whisper. “Just don’t blurt out anything about anything illegal you did beyond this case.”

I kept pace with my client as she shuffled up to the witness stand. I pulled her chair out for her and sat next to her. I had never sat in a witness stand before; the courtroom looked less like a solemn chamber of justice and more like a big, cluttered, dreary office cubicle. The judge had too many windows open on his computer screen and struggled to find the one that would show him the court reporter’s transcript in real time. The court clerk had bins of paper clips, a half dozen family photos, and a carpet of post-it notes across the surface of her desk; her potted vine seemed oddly perky given its steady diet of fluorescent light. The codefendant’s Real Lawyer scratched his chin very seriously and wrote illegible things on his legal pad even when no one was saying anything. The DA shuffled some things at his desk and began.

Stone by stone, the DA elicited the walkway of sorrows that had brought my client into her current circumstance. However, the DA seemed utterly incapable of asking a non-leading question. “And so Mr. [Older Friend] brought you drugs?” “And later that day your boyfriend made an ad for you on Craigslist?” Being in the witness stand, I was a mere advisor and spectator and could not object to his line of questioning. As my client muttered “yes” to each question, I found myself wondering why exactly his questions angered me so. Was it the sloppy in-court technique? Was I feeling a hyper-competitive urge to shut down my opponent with objections? Was I just irrationally angry at the way the DA’s eyes narrowed at the end of every question, as though he was trying to spot lies in my client’s one-word answers?

Though I would have answered “yes” to all of these questions, the biggest reason came together during our closing arguments after the hearing. “Your honor, I question whether Mr. DeGuerre’s client is telling us the whole truth,” the DA mused as he began to argue why the judge should use her testimony to believe that codefendant was a pimp, but to disbelieve that she had no power or control over the Older Friend’s dope. My client had spent the past hour-and-a-half agreeing to all of the words that the DA had put into her mouth, and he had the unfiltered gall to challenge whether she had told the truth?!

What I realized hit me hard; at no time that morning did my client have her story or wishes spoken out loud. I had assumed that Letty’s first desire was to do whatever it took to free herself from pre-trial custody and blaze another pipe full of crystal, and I had insisted that her rights (in the abstract) were more valuable than the chance to get high sooner. She grudgingly adopted this view long enough for me to it repeat for the DA as my client’s stated position. I don’t necessarily regret having done this, but to this day I do not feel good about it. And then when she did get the chance to testify, she spent her entire time on the witness stand agreeing out loud to another man’s words.

Thankfully, the judge found that the DA did not have enough evidence against my client and set her free; my advice was thankfully in her short-term best interest as well. But if he had decided that the state had presented enough evidence to warrant a jury trial, my client would have sat in custody for months. If I knew with a clean conscience that this is what my client preferred, I wouldn’t waste a second thought. But to this day, no one really knows what Letty wanted because she never really got to tell anybody. From her history of drug use and evident desperation, I assumed that she would have said, “I’ll do whatever lets me open my own jail cell as quickly as possible.” Past experience tells me that when clients with drug histories do whatever gets them them out of jail faster, they inevitably return; they often relapse and either miss court dates or violate the terms of their probation. They end up picking up new charges and, in their renewed desperation, take even worse deals to get out faster. In order to talk someone out of this, I have to assume that the abstract notion of “rights” have actual value, and that this abstraction is more valid than the actual, tangible need to get free and make the withdrawals go away. But is this true? What am I supposed to do when my client’s voice is at odds with her best interest? If that day’s hearing had turned out differently, the abstract notion of “rights” would have meant very little to the real person fighting the shakes in a real jail cell.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

The Warrant Exception: A Fourth Amendment Field Report

Most of my cases involve some kind of search. My clients have had their homes raided by squads of police officers sporting surplus military weaponry. Their underwear drawers, pants pockets, and backpacks have been turned inside out. They have been ordered to sit on curbs in handcuffs beside their cars while their neighbors looked on. In the most extreme cases, the long arm of the law has pulled its nitrile gloves tight across the knuckles in its search for contraband.

Given the invasive nature of these searches, should a police officer be able to carry them out whenever he or she wants? Shouldn’t a neutral, detached member of the judiciary take a look at the officer’s’ reasons for wanting to do these things, consider whether those reasons amount to probable cause and sign a warrant stating that the officer’s behavior will pass Constitutional muster? I would only need two hands to count the number of times my clients have seen a warrant before a search, but I would still have fingers to spare.

And yet as a matter of law, any search without a warrant is presumed to be illegal. This rule, along with the rules requiring Miranda warnings and appointed counsel for the accused, came from a bygone era of Supreme Court jurisprudence. In later years, the Rehnquist Court found many of these rules too protective of the accused. Rather than overturning these rules, the High Court decided to puncture them with exceptions that police can rely on to justify their behavior. In most cases, the police succeed because the “exceptions” cover the vast majority of times my clients have been searched. Searches done with a warrant are now the exception, not the rule.

My client (let’s call him “Client”) lived in a duplex in one of those unincorporated areas between good-sized cities; an older residential neighborhood with too many cars parked in the driveway and no sidewalks. Client shared the duplex with his wife, his brother-in-law and his brother-in-law’s indoor marijuana grow, which he tended with help from a friend who lived elsewhere (let’s call him “Parolee”).

One day, Parolee addressed his finished product to the wrong ZIP code and accidentally mailed a big box of marijuana to the other side of the state. Detectives from far away soon began following my client and his family because they lived at the return address on the package. They engineered a “consensual encounter” with Client and Parolee on the sidewalk in front their home just as they were about to unlock the door and go inside. For 15-20 minutes they peppered Parolee with questions to find out whether he lived in the duplex (if he had lived there, the detectives could have searched without a warrant). Parolee, who had accepted a totally voluntary invitation to sit on the curb between two police cars, continued to insist that he did not live there.

So the cops went with their Plan B; they tracked down Client’s wife in the maternity ward of the nearby hospital, waited until after she had given birth, confronted her as she was learning to nurse her infant, and convinced her to sign their consent form. I will point out here that Client and his wife have very limited English skills; I had never spoken with Client without an interpreter. The officers claimed that all of their interactions with Client and his very new family were consensual, and that Client and his postpartum wife could have ended the encounter at any time.

Now if I pretended to be a member of my local bench, I would say that living at the return address on a big box of pot is probable cause to search Client’s home and sign that warrant. If I were the on-call judge, available 24/7 to sign emergency warrants, I might have even signed it outside of business hours.

So why harass a new mother and her newborn baby instead of simply asking a judge for a warrant? If you have given birth, or have been at a birth, you know what a special and vulnerable time it is for the mother. The miracle of life is exhausting, messy, painful, and overwhelming; between hospital gowns and nursing, it leaves little room for modesty. These detectives had chosen to drive hundreds of miles to interfere with something sacred rather than seek a warrant from a judge.

That’s the part that gets me; they didn’t have to, they chose to. Why?

And if cops can bust in on a woman learning to express colostrum, what can’t they do?

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

A Reluctant Call for Mercy Killing: This Lawyer’s Opinion

The time has come for the criminal defense community to rethink its well-rehearsed response to the following question:

What would happen if every defendant who wanted a trial got one?

Michelle Alexander at the New York Times posed this question in 2012…or more accurately, Ms. Alexander interviewed a former defendant named Susan Burton, and it was Ms. Burton who posed this question. Ms. Burton had served multiple jail terms for drug related offenses. Each time, she got out by accepting the prosecuting attorney’s plea bargain. Each time she got out after serving the sentence she agreed to serve, the state released her back into the under-served, over-policed neighborhood from whence she came. Her status as a convicted felon barred her from job and housing options, and her freedom lasted only as long as it took for the police to find another reason to drag her back in.

Ms. Burton’s story is too common. The criminal court system in the United States jails a larger fraction of its citizens than does any other system in the world. The numbers of imprisoned African American men are the most shocking and shameful; the United States jails more people than were jailed in the Soviet Union during the heyday of Stalinism, and the United States jails a greater percent of its African American men than the percent of Soviet citizens held in the gulag.

Ms. Burton’s question strikes the beast in its one weak spot; the people who promote this mass brutality don’t want it badly enough to pay for it.

Before the federal courts intervened, California’s prisons were stuffed to 175% of their designed capacity. The state later passed several laws designed to reduce the swelling: California’s infamous Three Strikes law now only applies to those whose “third strike” is serious or violent, prisoners can serve their time for property and drug crimes in local jails instead of state prisons, and simple possession of any drug is now a misdemeanor. These reforms came not because California suddenly realized that narcotics had long since won the War on Drugs or that all life was too valuable to take from someone for just any felony; they came because California had neither the money to build more prisons nor the stomach to raise taxes for that purpose..

California’s death penalty will likely share the same fate; Judge Cormac Carney ruled in 2014 that California’s death penalty was unconstitutional because the state did not provide enough funds to hire competent defense counsel who would “exhaust” all of the appellate options for the condemned so that he could be executed. There were no appeals to the inherent worth of every human life, even ones who have taken other lives from us, and California was not overcome with the shame that should come from being among the last regimes in the industrialized world that practices capital punishment. California still wants to kill people, just not enough to pay for the due process that must come beforehand.

At the trial court level, more than 90% of all criminal cases resolve by plea bargain and not by trial. As Ms. Burton pointed out: if every defendant demanded a speedy trial, the courts would collapse under the weight of all those rights happening at once. Cases would be dismissed for lack of court resources and the regime of mass incarceration would become too expensive for the courts to bear. So what would happen if every defendant who wanted a trial received one?

I posed this question on social media (on Twitter @normdeguerreesq): if bringing the system to its knees is in our clients’ best interest, why aren’t we doing it? This got a little bit of attention, but the response makes me think that the question wasn’t interpreted the way I had intended. Mark Draughn at Windy Pundit and Mark Bennett at Defending People wrote answers to a slightly different question: why don’t we just take every case to trial so that the system buckles under the pressure? Both writers responded with the same answer that every young public defender hears from her supervisor when she daydreams aloud about using her massive stack of case files to bring the system to its knees by trying every case.

Both Mr. Draughn and Mr. Bennett seem to interpret my tweets as though I had suggested that every defendant should choose to go to jury trial. Such a tactic would most certainly be unethical if recommended to all defendants regardless of their individual situations. Ethically, a lawyer is bound to pursue the best interests of each individual client and not her clients as a population. There are some philosophical discussions to be had about whether or not the interests of the many would actually benefit the interests of the few, but this is not a conversation for boots-on-the-ground lawyers like myself and it is most certainly not a call to action I advocate. The defendants who will be hurt with a stiffer sentence after trial should be encouraged to plea, as should those who – for whatever reason – are being offered a sweet deal by the DA. I use my experience as a PD to advise my clients whether or not a deal is worth taking.

However, I am not asking whether we should encourage every defendant to go to trial. I am asking, what would happen if every defendant who wants a trial got one? The difference between these two questions is subtle but important.

To answer this question, the lawyer must accept that being a defendant’s attorney entails being his voice of reason behind closed doors and the voice of his client’s best interest in the courtroom. Despite the histories of poor choices that often land a client’s file on our desks, the decision of whether she wants a trial is hers and hers alone, and that choice must be respected so long as the lawyer has shared his honest, candid professional opinion about the merits of any plea deal and the risks of going to trial. If there is a concern regarding client’s competence to stand trial, that decision is referred to medical doctors and judges. So long as my client is competent, as her lawyer, I treat her that way.

Too many lawyers can’t bring themselves to honor a client’s decision with which they disagree. I have heard public defenders and private lawyers yell at their clients in the courthouse hallways and berate them for not accepting their plea bargains. These lawyers win their guilty pleas, but not because the plea bargain was that much better than the likely post-trial sentence and certainly not because the client has finally accepted his lawyer’s wisdom. These clients still want a trial but no longer believe that their lawyers will actually fight for them. It is this situation I am speaking to.

For every client who wants a trial to get one, the defense bar will have to remind themselves that their clients are the ultimate masters of their own fates. The attorneys who fear trial for whatever reason will have to grow a spine and polish their skills or otherwise find a new line of work. The charred and crispy public defenders who have been doing their jobs for too long to try cases will need to step aside, take their pensions, and make room for new blood.

Finally, and most importantly, we must remind ourselves that Constitutional rights have value, and they should not be surrendered unless the accused is being offered something of comparable value. We need to remind ourselves this when we are tempted to tell a client to plea simply because he is guilty. A client’s guilt is largely irrelevant to whether a plea bargain is in his best interest; what matters is whether the state can prove it and whether the proposed plea is lower than the likely post-trial outcome. If the answer to either question is “no,” then the client’s case should be tried.

Frankly, many lawyers need to recalibrate their sense of whether a plea bargain is actually worth taking. Ms. Alexander’s article has a particularly vivid example of a plea bargain that probably looked more attractive than a trial…at first:

Take the case of Erma Faye Stewart, a single African-American mother of two who was arrested at age 30 in a drug sweep in Hearne, Tex., in 2000. In jail, with no one to care for her two young children, she began to panic. Though she maintained her innocence, her court-appointed lawyer told her to plead guilty, since the prosecutor offered probation. Ms. Stewart spent a month in jail, and then relented to a plea. She was sentenced to 10 years’ probation and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine. Then her real punishment began: upon her release, Ms. Stewart was saddled with a felony record; she was destitute, barred from food stamps and evicted from public housing. Once they were homeless, Ms. Stewart’s children were taken away and placed in foster care. In the end, she lost everything even though she took the deal.

Too many lawyers toss aside their client’s misgivings about their plea bargains. “Yet another example of my client’s bad decision making,” they may tell themselves. These lawyers need to remember that unlike their clients, they themselves have never had to live with the consequences of a plea bargain. Probation is no “bargain” if the client cannot or will not jump through the many hoops that come with it. A plea for a short prison term might end up doubling or tripling the client’s next prison term; lawyers may be selling a life sentence on an installment plan. Millions of defendants and their lawyers continue to cooperate with mass incarceration by surrendering their rights, but this amiable cooperation has lead to record numbers of people serving record numbers of years in prison. This tells me that most defense lawyers have been very, very wrong about whether plea bargains are worth taking.

As Ms. Alexander’s article points out, not every defendant needs to go to trial for sparks and flames to fly from the joints of the mass incarceration machine; I believe that the system is so underfunded that defense lawyers could collapse it simply by providing their clients the information and confidence to make their own informed choice and then honoring that choice. What could possibly be controversial or unethical about that?

Many of my peers continue to wring their hands and fret at the idea of making social change through individual representation. “If the police are running amok and if the laws are unjust, then they must be reformed and rebuilt,” these lawyers might say. These lawyers, like Cicero in the days of the old Roman republic, believe that appeals to mercy, decency, and reason will bring out the best in their fellow citizens; justice and reform are just one long dialogue away. But I believe that every institution works they way it does because someone benefits from the status quo, and that someone is most likely in power and will resist any efforts at change. Stabbing the monster in its one weak spot and starving it of resources remains the best tactic; this is why generations of new public defenders continue to ask, what would happen if every client who wanted a trial got one?

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

The Thin Blue Curtain

Dozens of cars whooshed over my head every second; I first heard the engine, followed by thunks of axles bumping over seams in the freeway, and then the air as it tried in vain to catch up in their wake. The lamps fifty feet above the cars were the only light sources; only a little of it snuck past the overpass and made the journey down to where I sat, in a police car, beneath the highway. I was left sitting in a memory of light, like the image that remained when you finally turn off an old television that had been on for too long.

This light left too many shadows. The nearby shipping depots and body shops had long since become “mixed use” developments, which meant they were only used for discussion during city council meetings. They loomed like sad bamboo around the Hotel Antillia – squeezing it against the two-lane road that ran along the freeway above.

Officer Timmons turned on the spotlight mounted to the side of his police car as he pulled into the hotel’s horseshoe parking lot and shined it on the single-story rows of hotel rooms ran along either side. Each room had a front door that opened into the attached carport, swallowing the doors and cars underneath in shadow until the spotlight punched through. The spotlight darted from car window, to front door, to the lone window allotted to each room, and then on to the next room.

This was not the first hotel parking lot that we had roamed that evening – we were looking for anyone who had left their room to smoke, or talk to other guests, or sit in their car. Officer Timmons was free to chat with anyone he saw in public, and if that person happened to be high, getting high, holding an open container, or on probation or parole, Officer Timmons would then further intervene into their evening.

“Outstanding.” I heard Officer Timmons as he braked to the right of a red Corolla in one of the hotel’s parking spaces. No need to undo the seatbelt – Officer Timmons had been in and out of his car so often that night he no longer bothered to fasten it. I peered through the passenger window in hopes of seeing what Officer Timmons had spotted in a matter of split-seconds; a woman’s head shot up from the driver’s lap just as the driver tried to sink lower behind the back of his seat.

“Let me guess, it’s not what it looks like,” Officer Timmons said as the driver blinked in confusion at the officer’s flashlight. Both he and his passenger handed over their IDs without being asked. Officer Timmons read each card as the driver spilled the entire saga of how he and his lady friend wound up in that parking lot.

I rolled down my window just a bit, and pressed my ear to the crack.

“You see, officer, I know that this isn’t the right place to be doing this, but she’s married with two kids, and my room wasn’t free because me and two other guys chipped in to pay the $54 it cost to rent a room and they got back early, and there really wasn’t anywhere we could go, and no one was around, and besides, I have every right to be here because it’s a public parking lot.”

“Yes sir, that’s the problem, you’re doing this in a public parking lot,” Officer Timmons said, the threads of his patience holding steadfast.

Meanwhile, the dispatcher chirped over the car radio and into Officer Timmons’ earpiece. No wants, no warrants, and neither party was on probation.

“Alright, I’m going to be back in a half hour to see if you two are still out here. Take what you’re doing inside, or I’ll take you in,” Officer Timmons warned before returning their IDs. “I can’t have you out here making yourselves targets for whoever might want to jack [rob] you while you two are distracted.” He slid back into the police car and continued his inspection of the Antillia parking lot; the two men who had been chatting across the lot through their respective windows had long since closed their curtains.

My night with the Sequoia Meadow Police Department followed much the same pattern. Officer Timmons had no sergeant or commanding officer dictating where he should patrol, and so he spent the time between calls roaming secluded, poorly lit public spaces. We rolled through the Honduran neighborhood to let the local gangs know that the SMPD was out and about. We shined spotlights into empty parking garages and parks that closed to the public at sunset. We visited the boarded-up meth house across from the union hall, whose tenants had scattered after one of them hanged himself inside. We also found the time to swing by the homes in the hills with three-car garages because, according to Officer Timmons, several of the owners had complained that they don’t “feel safe” without a “visible police presence.”

At around 1:00 a.m., Officer Timmons drove toward the entrance to the SMPD’s parking lot in order to drop me off before his lunch break. On one side were the steel skeletons of new, “affordable” $800,000 2-bedroom condos. On the other side, the gray glass façade of a large investment firm; signs and arrows guided drivers to the designated limousine parking. Officer Timmons wished me a good night and dropped me off at my car. He pulled away and went to grab lunch, which at that time of night was going to come from either a convenience store or a drive-through.

I nearly missed my exit home while driving back from Sequoia Meadow; I had gotten lost in thought. In 7 hours, Officer Timmons would finish his shift and begin his hour-long commute to the home where he and his family could actually afford to live on a police officer’s salary. Officer Timmons will have spent the remainder of his shift continuing to roam the semi-secluded public spaces of the city, looking for people who lack the privacy and/or good sense to indulge their vices indoors. If their crimes are serious enough, Officer Timmons will arrest them; otherwise, he will shoo them away back into the shadows for their own safety. This will also save Officer Timmons from having to drive back to Sequoia Meadow on one of his days off to testify in court.

“The system is broken,” Officer Timmons had told me as we filled his tank with gas at the beginning of our ride-along. I had nodded politely, assuming that his reasons for thinking that would be completely opposed to my own. But as the evening unfurled, I learned that our opinions overlapped to a surprising degree. Jails and prisons take first-offenders and hardens them by subjecting them to an environment of constant fear. The defendants who go in hardened become permanently lost. Those who avoid jail are simply ignored like a cigarette butt on the sidewalk; dopers and hookers are cited, released, rearrested when they fail to come to court, and then re-released, and then they go right back to old habits once they serve their time.

Officer Timmons has to figure out whether the psychotic homeless man is off his meds, on the right meds, or on enough meds and if he guesses incorrectly, the doctors release him to go right back to exposing himself before Officer Timmons’ shift ends. Sometimes, Officer Timmons finds a man leaning against the side of a building, too drunk to stand but awake enough to almost answer his questions. This man would be too drunk to safely book into the jail but unless Officer Timmons can prove the man’s identity, he cannot take him to the “drunk tank” to sober up. The last option is to call for first responders. But then Officer Timmons has to decide how urgent the situation is before calling it in; a “Code 1” (lowest priority) is unlikely to get any response at all, while a “Code 3” was reserved for life threatening emergencies.

These stories came back to me during my drive home. Officer Timmons represents the boundary between the have-nots and have-mores. Sequoia Meadow’s criminal class invited police intervention solely because they lacked the private space to commit their crimes away from prying eyes. In a matter of seconds, Officer Timmons must decide whether he has a legal basis for intruding into someone’s evening. Once he does, he then has to balance what is necessary to keep the city looking safe to the well-heeled residents while rationing the few crumbs-worth of public resources at his disposal. He has only three options to choose from; jailing someone temporarily removes their unsightly activities from public view, but often makes a bad person worse before releasing them back into the world. Calling upon other public resources, such as hospitals or firefighters, cost a tremendous amount of time and money. Sadly, the most efficient solution is to shoo the problem back into the shadows so that the citizens of Sequoia Meadow can tell themselves that it isn’t there. Afterward, Officer Timmons leaves the city to return to where he can actually afford to live.

Making people feel safe without making things better: this is what Officer Timmons meant when he said that the “system is broken.” Despite everything I had seen, I never quite appreciated just how bad things really are.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Grandma, Should I Plea? (A Largely True Story)

“I have an idea – humor me on this.”

I would never have imagined saying these words to a client on the eve of trial. We were in court for a last-minute settlement conference. The jury panel would show up the next day. My client was about to make the most important decision of his life.

I showed my client a quarter that I had pulled from my pocket: “Heads you go to trial, tails you take the deal and go home today.”

My client’s grandmother sat in the first row of the courtroom. She clearly wanted to see what I was going to do next and she did not look at all alarmed at the proposition I had just made her grandson. Meanwhile, the district attorney paced in the back of the courtroom with his cell phone against his ear, trying to postpone a fundraiser for his upcoming political campaign.

Before we had come back into the courtroom, while we were in the courtroom’s attached holding cell, my client had asked me if he could ask his grandma her opinion on whether he should take the district attorney’s plea bargain or go to trial. I told him that he could, and I offered to tell the DA to do his campaigning outside the courtroom. “Fuck it, I ain’t got anything to hide. I didn’t do this and he can hear me say it.” I considered that a knowing and intelligent waiver of attorney client privilege.

My client’s resolve liquified – more than a little – after discussing his options with his grandma across the courtroom guard rail.

My client expressly asked me to share my impressions of his case with his grandma, so I gave them to her. She understood that my client was so drunk on the night of the incident that he had no idea that his friend was going to pull a knife, or that he was going to stick it in the chest of his sister’s ex-boyfriend who happened to be at that same party. She knew that he fled the scene only because he was afraid that the other people at the party were going to come after him for what his friend had done, and besides, the stabber was also my client’s ride to the party. She understood that her grandson had not heard his friend call out the name of his gang before sticking his knife between the victim’s ribs.

She also knew what the DA was going to argue: the red belt my client had worn in high school, the picture of him beneath a flag depicting a gang-related symbol that he used for his Tinder profile, and the red shoelaces on his Nike Cortez shoes proved that he and his friend were members of the same semi-organized criminal gang, and that they orchestrated this stabbing specifically to spread fear of their gang. She didn’t need me to tell her the tilted ratio of frightened white people swimming in our local jury pool, or that these same white people might believe the DA’s outlandish theory. If the gang enhancement were to be found true on top of the assault charges, my client would spend the next 24 years in prison. The only bright side would be that at his age, my client would be released by the time he was 42, with not an insignificant amount of life left to live.

I explained to the grandma that my client had one key that would let him go home; if he pled to just one of the several violent felonies he was accused of and admitted that he did it “for the benefit of a criminal street gang,” he would be released that day. The catch was that my client would be on gang probation for 5 years, and that gang P.O.s carried side arms and pat-searched the probationer and anyone in the home whenever they came for their unannounced visits. If they found any reason to violate his probation, he could wind up serving those 24 years anyway.

He was hopelessly torn, so I suggested the coin flip.

I tossed the coin into the air. It spun. I caught it as it fell. I slapped it against the top of my left hand. I failed to notice that the DA had hung up the phone and was no longer talking. I began to lift my fingers, as though I was about to pull away my hand and show the coin face underneath, but I did not pull my hand away.

“Now admit it – there is one side that you want to see more than the other.”

My client pulled in his lower lip, and nodded. “I want a trial,” he said. I kept eye contact with him while putting the quarter back in my pocket.

“You’re not going to show me what it was?” My client asked.

“No. Why does it matter? We were never going to decide this with a coin flip.”

My client sighed, straightened his back, and nodded his head again. His grandmother beamed with pride while her hands still clutched the guard rail in fear. Both thanked me for helping with his decision.

I had gotten the coin flip idea from an old episode of Frasier – I doubt that they would have wanted to know that.

Now, if you readers are wondering what happened in this case, whether he won or lost, I ask you whether that matters, and whether a decision that important should be determined by win or loss.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm