Friday, March 27, 2009

Curmudgeon works the other side of Legal Street

I don't mean to suggest that I've turned to a life of crime.

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a mortgage banker.

No, today I made one of my very rare visits to a criminal courtroom.

Non-lawyers may be surprised to hear that not all lawyers do all things. Many lawyers never go to court at all. My father seldom did. I regularly go to court -- but almost always on civil (that is, not criminal) matters.

My venture to the other side of Legal Street today was prompted by an inquiry from someone in the neighborhood. Her daughter went to grammar school with Younger Daughter and they're still good friends. Younger Daughter's friend was picked up for shoplifting recently. She was charged, under our retail theft statute, with a Class A misdemeanor. That can result in up to 364 days in jail or a fine of $2,500 or both. And there is a civil liability component under the retail theft statute as well.

The girl's mother was distraught. And I was rather stern with my client, or so Younger Daughter told me that my client told her. "You know," my client told Younger Daughter, "I thought I would be talking to your dad, like I've done lots of times, but he was so harsh." This made me feel pretty good. Maybe her parents hadn't gotten through to her about the severity of the situation -- after all, who listens to their parents at 20? -- but perhaps I had. When she got called in at work, though, because her arrest had triggered some flag in a computer, and she was told her continued employment was contingent on the outcome of this case, that definitely made an impression. (How many times can I say it? This Internet thing is a decidedly mixed blessing.)

One of the guys that I share my Undisclosed Location with has a son who used to be a prosecutor; he now does criminal defense work. I called him up to ask if I was in over my head. He told me he was pretty sure I could handle it... and then he told me e..x..a..c..t..l..y what to say and how to say it. I'm holding up my notes right now in front of the screen so you can see them. See?

I usually go to court in Chicago's Loop. Today, though, I was in a 'branch court' attached to a police station on Chicago's West Side. Much of the surrounding area looks like it has been bombed.

But I didn't pick up on that air of despair as I have on those few occasions where I've gone to the main Criminal Courthouse at 26th & California (and then only as prospective juror). If Disneyland is the 'happiest place on Earth,' 26th & Cal is the unhappiest. This place wasn't nearly as awful.

I got to court early. I have internalized only one rule of criminal defense practice, but it is an important one: Find the prosecutor as soon as possible and make nice. Unfortunately, today the prosecutor didn't come out until the judge did, so there was no opportunity to kibitz with her. However, I did schmooze with a younger lawyer who seemed to know the territory. Better still, after he left the State's Attorney's office he'd worked for both a prominent plaintiffs' lawyer and a respected insurance defense firm. It took him only a few years to realize he didn't like all the paperwork that rules my little corner of the legal world. He went back, then, to criminal work, this time for the defense. But, in the meantime, he'd acquired the civil dialect. He spoke my language; we could communicate.

He basically reaffirmed everything that the my colleague's son had told me -- but this guy was telling me in real time, while I was shaking like a leaf.

Yes, I admit to being nervous. I was out of my comfort zone. And when something bad happens in one of my cases, (a) I pretty much know it's going to happen, and why and (b) only money is lost, not liberty.

But the case was called and justice, apparently, was served. I repeated the ritualistic formulas in which I had been instructed, the State's Attorney said something and the judge said something else and, after dismissing my client and her much-relieved mother, I went back and asked my new friend if what I thought had happened had in fact happened. He said it had.

Another splendid victory!


Kacey said...

Is justice done if you know your defendant is guilty and you found a way around the law to get her off? Hopefully, she will take this court action seriously and change her ways before she spends time in the slammer. Gee, are you going to encourage Younger Daughter to pick her friends more carefully? You may have been shaking, but I bet you were good!

The Curmudgeon said...

Kacey -- sure, the kid was guilty. She did something stupid and she deserved to get called out on it. I was disappointed that I was the only one (other than her own parents) who was really harsh about it. A good scare can remind kids not to do dumb things in future.

I can see this is something I have to come back to soon.

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

having a son that is an addict i have had some time sitting in that room. the jails are so overcrowded they really have to do something HORRIBLE to see inside. is that good? i don't know...

smiles, bee

Shelby said...

"I went back and asked my new friend if what I thought had happened had in fact happened. He said it had."

do it every day.. assume it's going your way unless told otherwise - another of my motto-esques.

I hope the young girl grasped the severity of her actions - sounds like you read her the riot act.. makes me proud.

Shelby said...

well I have to add something to what Kacey said, "Is justice done if you know your defendant is guilty and you found a way around the law to get her off?"

You did not find a way around the law to get her off.. you provided a much needed legal counsel to someone needing help through the navigation of the legal system.

Even criminals are deserving of a good and just defense - to protect their rights. Without that - then it's not true justice.

It must be that way for true justice to prevail.