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

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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

An Afternoon With Judge Goodhair

Seven police officers sat behind me as I questioned one of their colleagues in Judge Goodhair’s courtroom. Witnesses in a case are normally excluded from the courtroom when another witness is testifying, so I knew that these seven other cops were here to get a search warrant signed by Judge Goodhair. In the past, I have seen officers enter Judge Goodhair’s chambers with a thick stack of affidavits and then leave, warrant in hand, in far too little time for him to have read that stack of materials. Word had traveled quickly within the Santa Asphalt police department.

The officer who sat on the witness stand had been called to testify at a motion to suppress evidence for violations of my client’s Fourth Amendment rights. I did my best to piece together the officer’s story. In the early early morning–about 2:00 AM–neighbors reported a drive-by shooting, the target being my client’s home. At 10:30 AM,  the Santa Asphalt Police Department decided to respond in force to this very urgent situation. Out of grave concern for potential gunshot victims, the SAPD ordered my client and his two roommates to walk backwards out of the apartment one-at-a-time, each with their hands on top of their head. Each was then handcuffed and put in the back of separate squad cars. The SAPD’s continued search for gunshot victims took them into the back corner of my client’s sock drawer, where they found 50 pills of MDMA in need of immediate medical assistance.

My opposing counsel was maybe two years out of law school. Every important decision about the case thus far had been made not by him, but by his supervisor in the narcotics unit of the district attorney’s office. He was a nice kid, and I knew that he couldn’t just come out and say that his office needed to keep their conviction rates up in order to continue receiving grants from the United States Department of Justice, and that was why he simply couldn’t let my client do rehab instead of jail time. But he was perfectly pleasant and always memorialized the discovery that he had given me thus far in writing. I played along when he explained that he couldn’t give me what I had asked for in way of plea bargain because it was “too serious a case.”

I’m still not sure if he understood that he was being tasked to defend the SAPD’s behavior as a perfectly reasonable reaction in the context of a possible emergency medical situation.

With a premise so absurd, could the final part of my cross-examination of this officer not be? I resume my questioning:

Q: Officer, you testified that you believed that the clothing in the dresser was men’s clothing, correct?

A: Yes.

Q: And you testified that you believed this based on your “training and experience.”

A: Yes, that’s right.

He just couldn’t help himself.

“Training and experience” is one of the things that an “expert witness” can rely upon to testify to her “expert opinion” and have that opinion weigh as evidence in court. I assume this officer learned that in one of the many trainings the District Attorney’s office gives to local police agencies. From what I can infer from the testimony of 70% of the police officers in my jurisdiction, those trainings teach police to simply sprinkle the phrase “based on my training and experience” over whatever speculative bullshit they feel like spouting in order to turn their guesswork into admissible evidence.

This works most of the time, but not today.

Q: Can you describe for us the training that you had in the police academy on the defining features of men’s clothing.

Silence

A: Can you repeat the question?

Time bought for the cop to think of his answer

Q: When did you learn in the police academy how to identify men’s clothing?

Same question, different phrasing; let’s see how quick on his feet this guy is

A: Well, we had many trainings where senior officers would dress in civilian clothes and pose as suspects. They would wear men’s clothes or women’s clothes, depending on whether they were male or female. And so I got to see what clothing would be men’s clothing or women’s clothing.

Q: So these trainings were not actually ABOUT the nuances of gendered clothing items?

A: No.

Q: Was there a test you had to pass at the end of it?

A: No.

Q: Are you a member of any organizations devoted to forensic clothes typing?

A: Uh, no.

Yes, yes I did make this man answer these questions on the record before he was excused from the stand. Tee hee.

I looked up to the bench and I knew I had won–there was no way for Judge Goodhair to rule that the warrantless search of my client’s home was related to a potential medical emergency, not when the responding officer (the men’s clothing expert) responded to my client’s home 8 hours after the shooting, pausing to collect and photograph shell casings along the way to my client’s door. Judge Goodhair was going to have to throw out a whole bunch of hard-earned dope in front of a room full of cops, many of whom were there for his rubber stamp on search warrants of their own.

Judge Goodhair granted my motion and threw out the evidence. I reassured my client that yes, his case was dismissed and no, he would not have to drug test any more. My client was relieved to know it suddenly didn’t matter anymore whether the probation department’s urine tests could detect bath salts. The opposing counsel began to explain to his officer why the evidence had been thrown out. The other officers remained impressively poker-faced. A private defense lawyer sitting in back gave me a thumbs-up. I noted that it was only March, and that I might have just gotten my year’s worth of external validation in one afternoon.

And I remembered that sometimes a court of law can also be a court of justice.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre 

Norm Reviews: Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black (OITNB) is the newest program in Netflix’s burgeoning foray into original content. The premise is based upon the true story of Piper Kerman, a self-described WASP from Boston who, during an “adventurous, lost soul phase” after college, helped her girlfriend (a heroin dealer) sneak a suitcase of drug money into a foreign country. Ten years later (the statute of limitations of that particular crime is 12 years, by the way), Kerman is living a respectable life and engaged to Larry Smith, a writer. She is now an advocate for women’s prison reform.

The premise itself is a commentary on the overreach of tough-on-crime drug laws. It challenges our belief that “nice people” can never wind up behind bars. In fact, they often do. Perhaps more often than the average American might think.

Every episode of OITNB spends time focusing on one or two of the other inmates who share the prison with Piper. These flashback sequences often reveal how an otherwise “nice” person might find themselves serving a prison sentence. During the first few episodes, I find the flashbacks work just a little too hard to evoke sympathy from the audience. Later into the series, these sequences improve noticeably and are some of the show’s best moments. “I am in here because I am no different from anybody else in here,” Piper says during a visit with her mother. This is the sentiment that these sequences are clearly trying to invoke, and they are largely successful.

At the same time, OITNB manages to make prison feel closer than many of its viewers might have thought by illustrating the frightening overreach of this country’s war on drugs. Drug use and addiction lay at the heart of several characters’ back stories, as are the federal sentencing guidelines that give judges little power to do anything but send non-violent drug offenders to prison.

OITNB does not shy away from the subject of abuse by correctional officers. I appreciate OITNB’s desire to show the unsuspecting viewer at home the many indignities and abuses that female inmates across the country suffer at the hands of bent COs. OITNB shows COs fathering children with inmates, selling them dope, trading them dope for sexual favors, turning a deliberate blind eyes to inmate-on-inmate violence, and a slew of other crimes and sins that likely have corresponding true stories from real prisons. But the small cast of CO characters forces OINTB to have all of them display at least two of these behaviors apiece. The viewer at home should see this as creative liberty taken for the sake of compelling television (which OITNB certainly is) and not as unfair slandering of corrections officers.

What impressed me most about OITNB was the way it kept Piper’s personal story parallel to her prison experience. In one scene, Larry’s parents try to persuade him not to follow through with his marriage to Piper. They urge Larry to wait to see what Piper is like after having served her prison term. The sentiment behind their words is, doubtlessly, a sentiment that many of the viewers at home would have if their sons or daughters decided to marry someone who has yet to finish serving a prison term. Larry’s parents assume that prison, dank, disgusting, and violent place that it is, will make Piper a worse person, a person to whom they do not want their son shackled for life. Everyone who sympathizes with this feeling should then ask themselves what, exactly, is the purpose of our prisons if they make people worse than before they went in?

Even when a person leaves prison largely intact, that person is often no more prepared or able to avoid prison in the future. Only two characters leave the prison during the first season of OITNB, but one of them returns within two episodes. Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson spends two episodes preparing for a parole hearing that wins her an early release. However, after her release, she finds that the only distant relative willing to take her in makes her sleep on the floor, and allows the use of her floor for one or two nights at a time. Taystee returns to prison after committing a new crime with the intent of returning to prison because, ultimately, it was easier than life outside. Although I appreciate OITNB’s attempt at showing how a lack of outside support contributes to the revolving door that is our prison system, I have never, in my years of representing current, former, and future prisoners, met a person who wanted to return to jail. Perhaps my range of experience is too narrow.

One character in the series commits a rather sensational crime. She arrives to court ready to see her public defender, but a private lawyer seduces her into accepting his services — without pay. This is interesting because it is one of only two places in the season where public defenders are mentioned at all. The private attorney preys upon her distrust of public defenders so that he can represent her for his own selfish reasons. I can tell you that the counsel she received was very poor quality.

In the final two episodes of OITNB, four major characters accuse Piper of being a bad person. These people include her fiance, her lover, and her fellow inmates. Their reasons vary, but they all stem from actions by Piper that, at the time, were totally understandable. This occurs simultaneously with a subplot in which a senior prison official teaches a junior corrections officer to stop thinking of the inmates as human beings. It made me wonder how different the prison experience would be if it were not so preoccupied with telling the inmates that they are “bad people.” Bad actions can be corrected; bad people cannot. With the rate of recidivism so high, one almost wonders if those in charge benefit from that revolving door.

Overall, OITNB has truths to offer its viewers about a population that is largely invisible and voiceless. I hope its message reaches lots of other people through the lure of high quality television. If you enjoy reading this blog and are interested in what happens to my clients after they’re my clients, you should check it out.

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Superior Orders

Do you know what’s even more difficult than dealing with someone who is outraged? It’s even more difficult to deal with someone who refuses to acknowledge that they are outraged and thus acting outrageously.

No, these are not clients that I’m talking about. This peculiarly irritating behavior only comes up when prosecutors find out that my client is an immigrant.

Unlike the prosecution, I don’t have the luxury of ignoring the immigration consequences that my clients face; the Supreme Court’s decision in Padilla v. Kentucky warns that my representation will be constitutionally defective if I fail to warn my client what the Feds will do to him because of any plea bargain. Immigration laws are barbed with hidden hooks that make someone deportable or excludable from the United States based on a single criminal case: domestic violence, substance abuse, and receiving a sentence of 1 year or more are all bases for deportation regardless of the length of time my client has been in the U.S. This is true whether they came willingly or were brought here by their parents, and whether or not they have any waking memories of their “home country.”

Thus, I’m obligated to ask the DA to make concessions that may minimize my client’s immigration consequences without denying the DA the punishment or charge that they want. Examples of these include:

  1. Asking for a sentence of 364 days in cases where the DA asks for 1 year. Believe it or not, this makes a difference in how the immigration courts classify my client’s conviction.
  2. In drug cases, asking the DA to amend the charging document so that it does not state the specific substance my client possessed.
  3. Offering to have my client plea to what may be a more serious charge because, for whatever reason, the immigration laws will look on it more kindly. For example, in a domestic violence case where your client hits his wife and then demands that she not call the police, he may be better off in immigration court after having pled to witness intimidation instead of a domestic violence charge.

These differences may seem minor, but they mean the world to my clients. In contrast, none of the examples above cost the DAs anything at all. However, my requests for these types of concessions are almost always denied.

My best example: a client of mine who had been in the U.S. for more than twenty years and the father of three American citizens, fell on hard times when his bedroom furniture store went under. A friend told him that he could make ends meet by selling small amounts of cocaine. Unbeknownst to him, this same friend was working as a “confidential informant” for the local narco cops. As a result, the only drug deals that this client ever completed were to undercover cops posing as buyers. This happened three times, resulting in three sales charges.

This client languished in custody for many, many months. He did not want a trial, because he had no defense. However, he did not want to plea because he knew that he would be deported back to the failed state from whence he came and never allowed to return.

I asked the DA for a number of comparatively minor things. The DA wanted a sentence of three years for cocaine sales. I offered three consecutive terms of 364 days (one per count) and requested that any reference to the specific controlled substance be deleted from the charging document.

Now, at this point, I must acknowledge that there are many (some of whom may be reading this) who would say that a cocaine dealer should not be given any mercy from the immigration authorities and should face the full consequences of their behavior. I understand why some would say that. And if the DA had simply responded to me by saying, “No, I want your drug dealer client to be deported,” I wouldn’t have been nearly as angry as I was.

What infuriated me was the sanctimonious, yet cowardly pretense of hearing the DA tell me he did not want my client deported, but that he had “no choice” in his actions. The first line of defense for a DA who does not actually want to take responsibility for a situation is to blame his or her supervisor. Again, my client is my ultimate boss; the DA has no client, and so their supervisors often fill that role. And it seems that an implicit part of a deputy district attorney’s job is to protect their supervisors from sounding too obvious when taking actions that say, “we want your client deported.”

I think this is why the response I got for this particular client sounded something like this:

Well Norm, I’ve asked my supervisor. I told my supervisor that your client has been here since before he could drive, and that his entire family are American citizens. But based on the facts of this particular case, we just don’t see a reason to treat your client differently from how we would treat a citizen.

I wished that he would have simply cut the shit and just said that they knew that my client would be deported and that they thought he and his family deserved it for slinging dope to an undercover cop. Because my client was, in fact, going to be treated differently for being a non-citizen; the trivial changes that I proposed would have made it more likely that he would be treated like a citizen. Refusing my proposal under the pretense of treating people fairly was, at best, slight-of-hand and, at worst, transparent bullshit.

Take ownership of the motives for your actions so that they can be discussed openly. That’s what is supposed to happen in a democracy, right? Apparently not, if you don’t have the right papers.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Transcript of His Honor’s Handwashing Liturgy, or The Defendant’s Romero Motion is Denied

Under California’s Three Strikes law, defendants with two or more serious or violent felony convictions receive a minimum sentence of 25 years-to-life for a third serious or violent felony. However, the defense may argue a Romero motion, which asks the judge not to apply the Three Strikes law during sentencing. In his deliberation, the judge considers the facts of the current case, the defendant’s criminal history, and the defendant’s “character, background, and prospects.” The hearing on a Romero motion, which is infrequently granted, follows a ritualistic pattern.

And, in my head, the ritual goes something like this.

Commencement

His Honor:    Ave, Ave, now comes the formerly Accused, now Convicted, presenting himself for the Court’s mercy, garbed in the county-issued vestments of both protective custody and maximum security. Cursed is the snitch, for stitches he shall receive. Cursed is he who requires maximum security, and let him learn to correct his lawless ways whilst surrounded by those as dangerous as he. Counsel! Appearances, please!

Attorney for the District: Ave, Your Honor, for I represent the People of the State of California who are other than the Accused, now Convicted. We now present unto thee our young Acolyte, who is in his third year of law school, and who has been honing his skill in the sacred arts of shooting fish in barrels and confiscating sugary confections from the hands of babes.

Acolyte: Ave, Your Honor.

Norm:    Ave, Ave, Your Honor, Norm DeGuerre for the Accused, now Convicted.

His Honor:    Brother DeGuerre, thy Client presents himself as a supplicant before me, or would if his wrists were not bound by chains to his waist. Thy Client seeks the blessings of St. Romero, who many years ago, prayed for relief and received the miracle of mercy, for the court sentenced him as though he bore not the stains of having prior “strike” convictions. The Accused, now Convicted has been convicted of Robbery, and shall face a sentence of life despite the recently-passed Prop. 36.

Norm: Aye, Your Honor.

His Honor: We shall now begin the Recitation of Terrible Childhood.

Norm:    Aye, Your Honor, I draw thy Honor’s attention to the absence of family or loved ones, who have missed all court dates for the Accused, now Convicted since his junior year of high school. Scars of flesh and wounds of spirit have rent my client into a hastily-assembled scarecrow of the man he could have been had he more money and one caring, competent adult.

His Honor: Now, the Affirmation of Chronic Substance Abuse.

Norm:    Not since the party at Thy Honor’s law firm in 1982, when Thy Honor’s partners removed the mirror from Thy Honor’s office restroom, has such heroic quantities of Columbia’s Finest been consumed as was during the Convicted’s term on parole. But alas, the Convicted snorts not to celebrate, but to forget; and the Convicted spends not his disposable income, but his only income. Thy Honor’s campaign for the bench inspired thee to begin the 12-step purification rituals; alas, the Convicted has no campaigning or politicking for which to abstain.

His Honor: And now, the Plea to the Angels of the Eighth Amendment, in which Counsel will condemn the proposed life sentence as cruel and unusual. Make the plea now so that the Accused, now Convicted’s appellate counsel may brief later what I shall now ignore.

Norm: Your Honor, the Accused, now Convicted did violate the Seventh Commandment, in that he did take two tall-boys of St. Mickey’s Ale out of the refrigerator at the Try-N-Save liquor store, and did try to smite the security guard who declared him a “fucker” and who attempted in vain to wrest the tall-boys from the Convicted’s shaking hands. But your Honor may bestow St. Romero’s blessings for this nefarious misdeed and sentence him to 20 years, and not for the entirety of his life. After all, is the consummation of malt liquor not already a cruel and unusual enough punishment for Thy Honor?

His Honor: And now, Acolyte, commence the Padding of Thy Resume.

Acolyte: Your Honor, I entreat Thee first to gaze in horror upon the tattoos upon the Convicted’s face: Eww. Shine thine eyes upon the Convicted’s numerous parole violations, for they show the Convicted needs more time in prison so that he can learn the lessons that prison failed to teach. And Your Honor, if ye would, muster stale outrage for his burglary conviction from 1992 and his making of criminal threats from 1996, for in those years the Accused, now Convicted did take a Panasonic television set and later hurt someone’s feelings with empty promises of violence.

His Honor: Counsel, prepare thyselves for my ruling:

The conclave of voters hath spoken, and they hath spoken that Three Strikes shall be the law. Terrified they were of rapists stealing children from their homes in the dark of night, and so it shall be that the Wrath of Three Strikes shall smite those at whom we are merely angry as well as those of whom we are scared. If St. Romero’s mercy were granted to all whose woes would have been lifted during childhood by the healing touch of more money and one skilled parent, Three Strikes would smite hardly anyone at all. The plea for St. Romero’s mercy has failed, and the Convicted, now Sentenced shall dwell in a pit of despair to be determined by the Department of Corrections of the State of California. This pit shalt not be within 12 hours ride by Greyhound coach of his family, because really, Brother DeGuerre, as you’ve so pointed out, what are the chances of their visiting anyway? Also, this pit shalt not be rendered humane through adequate taxes, because the conclave of voters hates those. Verily, the conclave despises rendering unto Caesar sufficient ducats to pay for the sentencing laws they demand.

We will now commence the Washing of Hands. The conclave of voters has spoken, and this court shall not accept responsibility for their frenzied whims, nor the perceived disproportion of the court’s sentence to the defendant’s conduct. Verily, as all in attendance can see, I myself learned to make principled decisions long ago. I am only giving the defendant ample opportunity to learn the same lessons.

This concludes the Washing of Hands. You are now dismissed.

Go in peace, serve the Lord.

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

On the Twelfth Day of Rehab, My P.O. Gave To Me…

The United States has long since lost the “War on Drugs,” and no drug demonstrates the futility of fighting addiction with cops and courts better than crystal meth does. Crystal meth floods the brain with the pleasure chemicals – primarily dopamine – that most of us receive only in the tiniest doses (a six-second orgasm, petting a kitten, etc). Once a person experiences physical withdrawal symptoms, their brain activity will have undergone a permanent change that cannot be “undone.” Brain scans of serious addicts in withdrawal show that meth addicts have the same brain chemistry as someone delirious from starvation. Long term users sometimes lose the ability to produce their own dopamine without the aid of crystal meth.

This means that a serious addict can become chemically unable to feel joy. That is, unless they can get one more hit.

Cops, courts, and prisons cannot frighten people out of using crystal meth. You cannot expect someone who is thinking like a delirious starving person, to rationally weigh the pros and cons of meth vs. prison time before scoring their next hit. For the addict, feeling pleasure for at least a little while is preferable to the dull, gray drone of sober existence.

And let us not forget the many thousands who use narcotics to “self-medicate” for undiagnosed mental illness. Drug addiction must be treated as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue. It is so treated in more civilized parts of the world.

To California’s credit, a half-way solution is becoming increasingly popular. Many jurisdictions are experimenting with specialty drug-treatment courts. Combined with California’s Proposition 36, which allows drug offenders to participate in outpatient drug treatment in lieu of jail time, drug-treatment courts (DTCs) are a well-meaning attempt at treating the root of most of my clients’ criminal behavior. However, criminal sanctions (including jail time or state prison sentences) will follow failure to comply with treatment, which includes relapse. Little accounting is made of the fact that relapse is almost universal, even for those who eventually overcome their addictions. The vast majority of those participating in Prop. 36 in my jurisdiction are doing so because of crystal meth.

Is half-way better than no-way at all? People more informed than I may have statistics. But it sure doesn’t feel that way.

Despite the eerie resemblance that this whole dance bears to a regular-old-adversarial process, the judges like to say that DTC is “collaborative.” Everyone has the defendant’s best interests at heart, and everyone wants the defendant to succeed. The adversarial justice system is calling an armistice! Isn’t that great? We’re all working together to help these poor folks overcome the disease of addiction.

Today, a client of mine is being remanded into custody. She missed two scheduled drug tests. This gave the judge an opportunity to spout some of the other things that the DTC judges like to say:

“So, counsel, don’t you see how you’re undermining that goal by telling your client to remain silent when I ask her why her last urine test came up dirty? To make matters worse, she missed her previous two urine tests. Lack of funds is no excuse: Maybe she would have been able to afford them if she got a part-time job at Chipotle like the lady whose case we just called. Doesn’t she want a part-time job too?”

After all, urine tests only cost five-hours worth of minimum wage labor. Does that sound like a reasonable slice of the pie graph for you, judge? Is it possible that the dreariness of laboring at a fast food restaurant for five hours to pay for urine tests is a big part of why she uses in the first place? Also, don’t tell me with a straight face (“your Honor”) that the Fifth Amendment undermines your goals.

When this particular client is remanded for her malfeasance on probation, she walks past the “inspirational” posters that somebody thinks are mandatory in every DTC courtroom. At some point, the administrative office of courts must have walked through the building and said “You know what will help the repeat-molest victim not to take drugs every time she feels her uncle’s hands on her? A picture of some guy staring at a sunset from a sailboat with the word “POSSIBILITIES” emblazoned underneath it.” As my client is lead away, I can only gawk as I watch a judge try to fight a mental/public health epidemic by shaming and handcuffing the patients in a forum that eerily resembles an optometrist’s waiting room.

I regret to inform her that I can’t get her out by Christmas. Yes, she should have known better. But what is our excuse?

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre