Defense ex Machina

“For the benefit of the uninitiated, “dump truck” is a term commonly used by criminal defendants when complaining about the public defender. The origins of the phrase are somewhat obscure. However, it probably means that in the eyes of the defendant the public defender is simply trying to dump him rather than afford him a vigorous defense. It is an odd phenomenon familiar to all trial judges who handle arraignment calendars that some criminal defendants have a deep distrust for the public defender. This erupts from time to time in savage abuse to these long-suffering but dedicated lawyers. It is almost a truism that a criminal defendant would rather have the most inept private counsel than the most skilled and capable public defender. Often the arraigning judge appoints the public defender only to watch in silent horror as the defendant’s family, having hocked the family jewels, hire a lawyer for him, sometimes a marginal misfit who is allowed to represent him only because of some ghastly mistake on the part of the Bar Examiners[.]”

People v. Huffman

71 Cal.App.3d 63

Although I love what I do, there are days when it feels like the most utterly thankless post that a lawyer can hold.

I can’t possibly hold this against the clients. Our clients have any number of personal, psychological, medical, and economic problems. Often, we are merely the nearest target when they get the urge to rage against some part of the machine. The client themselves have many, many reasons to distrust their public defender. Here are a few, in order of most ridiculous to the most understandable.

1) The client has been trading stories with a “jailhouse lawyer.” The jailhouse lawyer flatters himself a person of great legal knowledge because he has had three or four “legal inquiries” answered from the staff attorneys at the jail’s in-house legal library. Granted, his legal acumen was not sharp enough to keep him from fellating a 9-year-old, or fracturing a rival gang-member’s skull before stealing his bicycle. However, he knows that all of his misfortunes were due to the fact that his “public pretender” was screwing him. That is why he asserted his Sixth Amendment right to represent himself. Also, representing yourself gives one a sweet supply of postage stamps, which can be traded with other inmates for $3.00 bags of Cheez-its from the jail commissary.

Because, you know, fuck his baby’s mamma for not putting more money on his books.

2) The public defender always tells him that he should plead guilty. Granted, constantly receiving bad news from the one person who is Constitutionally-obligated to be on “your side” is very, very troubling. However, let us not forget that the public defender can (and must) represent everybody who cannot afford a lawyer. This includes the person who confessed to everything on tape (free legal advice: don’t tell your lawyer that “I didn’t do shit” after confessing everything to the police…you need to reverse the order of things). This includes the people who stab a rival gang member in broad daylight, masturbate in front of a bus full of school children, and/or commit a robbery in front of every single one of Best Buy’s many-dozen high-definition security cameras. In short, we don’t have the luxury of dumping the dogshit cases. Private lawyers get to pick-and-choose their clients. We don’t get to decline representation simply because we are tired of giving bad news.

However, this perspective is often not welcome to the individual client. Go figure.

3) The public defender is always so busy, and sometimes doesn’t even talk to me before I see him in court.

This is truly a regrettable state of affairs. Too many public defenders take it for granted that the vast majority of misdemeanor and felony cases are boilerplate. They tend to have the same issues and the same sorts of defenses.

How many different ways can you steal a car? How many different ways can you beat someone up after drinking too much? How many different ways can you be found with meth in your pocket?

Unfortunately, sometimes public defenders forget that every single client is an individual person. For them, their pending case is the most stressful, awful, agonizing part of their lives at that moment. The last thing they want to be told is that their case is “pretty basic” and that cases “like theirs” are worth “X years/months” in custody. Sometimes, us lawyers need gentle reminders (or perhaps more abrupt reminders) that every client we have is an individual who deserves to be treated as such. Even if their case is “basic” and predictable, we shouldn’t necessarily let them know that. Also, assuming that every case of a certain type is “the same” blinds us to the very nuances that we might use to give our clients a better defense.

However, most of the time when our clients complain of issues of “service” they don’t realize that the Public Defender Office is run to provide the very best AND the most efficient legal counsel possible. The customer service is not always first class, but a coach ticket is all they need to arrive at the same exact place. At the end of the day, do you want the lawyer that gives you warm nuts or the one that gets you the best deal?

4) My public defender is a “dump truck” who just wants me to plea.

As sad is it makes me to say it, some public defenders are dump trucks. Burnout is common in any helping profession. They have too many cases, and their supervisor doesn’t stop giving them more simply because they have too many open cases at the moment. Sometimes your public defender is a relic from the days when smart/capable/idealistic lawyers rarely went into public defense. Sometimes they are no longer capable of seeing a client as an irreplaceable individual.

I sorely wish I could fire those people myself. But I cannot.

That being said, so-called “dump trucks” are a tiny minority of the talented, dedicated public servants with whom I have served. And it pains me when I see a defendant proudly “fire” his hard working public defender for some putz who hasn’t tried a case in his entire career.

Sometimes this guy is skilled at giving enemas of sunshine to clients who are desperate for good news, and confuse braggadocio with a realistic assessment of possible results for their case. Even more sadly, sometimes these clients trust this lawyer more because they speak their native language (Spanish, Hmong, Vietnamese, etc) and they assume that one of “their own” will look out for them more closely than the well-meaning white person who keeps them waiting for hours until the court-appointed interpreter arrives.

What kills me is that I and other public defenders CHOSE to be public defenders because we love doing jury trials. If you are truly innocent, or if the state is simply trying to railroad you, your public defender will try your case and do it well, because we don’t need our clients to fork over the $50,000 that a decent private lawyer would charge to do a trial-by-jury. We end up doing DOZENS of them throughout a career, and we love it. Your private lawyer is probably scared shitless because he has never had to actually don his war paint and argue your innocence in front of a jury.

And he definitely hasn’t had to do it for the guilty-as-sin clients that we represent.

On Behalf of the County of…

At some point during my time on the juvie team, I became the de facto spokesperson for the county whenever a parent is owed an apology. To illustrate:

Three Spanish-speaking mothers arrived promptly at 8:30 in the morning for their children’s court date. All three women had sons in custody, and for all three, this would be the first time seeing their sons after the arrest.

Through the combined efforts of no fewer than ten county employees, all three mothers would find themselves waiting until 1:30 in the afternoon to finally learn what would happen in their sons’ cases. Let’s start with our court reporter who works so hard on her Milf-Madness Cross-fit routine that she does not roll into court until 9:00. Why can’t she work as hard to keep her court schedule as tight as her ass? Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s deputy in the courtroom next door took it upon himself to request transportation for all of his department’s minors from juvenile hall at 8:00; this tied up the one and only holding cell that our two departments share even before these kids’ attorneys had a chance to talk to them. Why do I bother to make it a point to visit my in-custody clients in jail and show up early when I have court appearances? I just need a single-minded deputy working on my side! Thus, the attorneys in the department next door had to meet, greet, advise and assist their clients while in that holding cell, thus adding to the time that we, in the other department (yes, deputy, there is more than one department) had to wait until our minors could be brought over.

And has anyone seen the Spanish interpreter? The judge has a lunch to get to at 12:00, sharp! What do you mean the DA isn’t ready on the next case?! If he has the time to prepare such a lengthy and detailed excuse, wouldn’t it be easier just to prepare for the case? The judge isn’t the only one to whom you owe an apology, you know. And if you see the court reporter down at the coffee cart, can we get her back in the courtroom, please?

And so when the remaining cases are trailed to 1:30, why am I the only one who feels the need to explain to these three mothers that their sons’ cases just couldn’t be heard this morning? Was I tacitly “nominated” by a basic sense of decency? I’m sure the deputy next door feels the need to give an explanation. Oh, he knocked off for lunch already?  What about the DA? He represents “The People,” right? Ah, he means “His People.” That leaves the judge: You’re not shy about expressing your annoyance in court, are ya, Judge? Oh right, you’re only responsible for making decisions, not for dealing with the fall out. As the courtroom empties for lunch, I find I’m the only one left besides the three mothers whose helpless pairs of eyes follow my every move. How do I find myself serving as the ombudsman for the county? I put my three years of high school Spanish classes to use and talk to them without the aid of an interpreter.

Now off I go to eat the sandwich I brought from home at my desk. Maybe I’ll be able to get enough office work done in the 45 minutes before I go back so that I don’t have to explain to my wife later why I’m so late…

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre