Thursday, April 3, 2014

"Justice" of the peace?

Oh, where to begin?

The other morning I had a client in traffic court out in West Houston (Precinct 5, Place 2 for those keeping score). He's a "frequent flier" and he, and his friends and family, provide a nice bit of pocket change over the course of the year.

He was cited for failure to control speed - he rear-ended another vehicle on the highway.

The driver of the other car showed up in court. The prosecutor chatted with him. I then went to the back room to chat with the prosecutor.

The case was simple enough. The driver of the other car had to slow down for traffic and my client hit him from behind. The damage to the other driver's car had been repaired and he wasn't out of pocket. But the prosecutor wasn't willing to let the case go so she offered my client a 90-day deferral with a fine of $50 plus court costs. If my client managed to go 90 days without getting another ticket in that court the case would be dismissed.

He took the deal.

So I had him stand in line for the clerks and headed downtown to take care of a couple of cases at the criminal courthouse. Before I ever made it to the freeway (just a few miles), I got a call from my client. In broken English he told me that the clerk said he would have to pay more money and take a defensive driving class. I told him that wasn't our deal. Eventually the clerk got on the phone and I explained to her what the agreement was. I thought the matter was resolved.

I was wrong.

On my way downtown I got another call from my client. They wanted him to pay more money and take the defensive driving class. I told him to wait for me. I told him it would be a couple of hours before I could get back to the courthouse.

As I was parking my car downtown I got yet another call from my client. He told me that the clerk said he needed to go back and talk to the prosecutor. I told him he was to do no such thing.

I then called the court and the phone was answered by an intern who had absolutely no clue as to what she was doing. She tried to explain to me (after speaking to someone else) that the court's standard offer would require my client to pay a higher fine and take a defensive driving class. I told her that wasn't the deal the prosecutor had made with us and that if that's how they wanted to play then we would just go to trial.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I was not the best behaved person on the phone. I was pissed and I said some things I shouldn't have said. In no way would I try to imply that my choice of language was either professional or appropriate. But this situation was ridiculous.

I called my client back and told him to meet me at the courthouse at 1pm - the scheduled time for the actual trial docket.

I was quite surprised when I got to the courthouse at 1pm and my client handed me a reset form with a new trial date. I was even more surprised when the clerk behind the window told me that prosecutor had left for the day. I asked to see the jacket so I could get the information on the other driver.

So I sat and waited. And waited. A supervisor finally came out and told me the file was with the judge and he was at lunch and they were trying to get his attention (oops, I think that's the equivalent of being sent to the principal's office). By this time I had wasted nearly 30 minutes at the courthouse and I had had enough. I told her no thank you and my client and I left.

One of two situations occurred behind the scenes that morning - but neither was handled according to the law. Either the clerk took it upon herself to change the terms of the plea bargain agreement or the judge rejected the deal. If the clerk did the deed then she was practicing law without a license. She may also have altered a government document. The clerk had no business getting involved in the plea agreement between the district attorney and my client. The ADA reviewed the case, spoke with the witness and discussed the matter with me before making her offer. She made an offer that she thought was reasonable and appropriate given the circumstances. The clerk, on the other hand, just sat behind a window and called out "next."

The clerk was also out of line when she told my client that he needed to speak to the district attorney about the deal. He was represented by counsel. The clerk knew he was represented by counsel. The clerk also knew (after speaking with my client) that English wasn't his first language. That makes her conduct even more deplorable.

The alternative was that the judge rejected the offer when it came across his desk. If that was the case then my client (and me) should have been told the court rejected the offer and my client had the right to withdraw his plea. That didn't happen. No one from the court ever called me to say that the judge rejected the offer.

Yes, attorneys tend to gum up the works in traffic court - whether it be municipal or justice - but, if you love the Constitution, that's a good thing. Judges would probably prefer that attorneys didn't get involved - we tend to lower the overall revenue of the court by our meddling. But if the court's are going to have so-called "standard offers" then the attorneys representing the state are no longer acting as attorneys - they are nothing more than glorified clerks.

This is the result of judicial efficiency being placed higher on the pedestal than fairness and equity. This is what happens when a court develops an attitude of us-against-them when it comes to dealing with criminal defendants.

This just goes to prove, that in the courthouse, there is no justice. There's "just us."

1 comment:

Lee said...

If they want to be trusted and taken seriously prosecutors need to be held to their agreements. I think your prosecutor was writing checks that the court couldn't or didn't want to cash.

The clerk seriously told your client to talk to the prosecutor....? OMG & WTF? No one should ever do such a thing.