Monday, June 23, 2014

On picking your fights

I was in municipal court for a client fighting a traffic ticket in a Houston suburb last Thursday. The court wants defendants in the courtroom to answer an 8:00 a.m. docket call on trial settings. They also want attorneys to call in if they are going to be running more than a few minutes late.

There were a couple of attorneys in attendance whom I knew - or at least recognized. There was one attorney in particular who I used to run into a great deal in Houston that was there.

Around 9:00 a.m. the judge announced which cases would be proceeding to trial and which cases would be reset (based in large measure on the number of jurors who were present). My client's case was the first one up.

In the meantime the attorney I recognized from Houston was upset because his client's trial date was being reset. The judge informed the attorney that neither he nor his client were in court on time and that the officer who issued the ticket had been released at 8:02 a.m. when no one answered the docket.

The attorney laughed and drew the judge's ire. She asked him if he found something funny and he told her that releasing an officer two minutes after docket call was ridiculous. He added that his client was in the building at 8:00 a.m. What followed wasn't so much as a discussion of the situation but an unnecessary escalation of a disagreement.

The attorney told the judge it was ridiculous not to hold the officer until a late call of the docket was made. He also pointed out that when a person is charged with failure to appear the charge does not recite that the defendant missed docket call, the charge states that the defendant failed to appear on the date in question.

The attorney then asked the judge for her bar card number so that he could file a complaint with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. He later added that the court's bailiff had supposedly been rude to his client.

Now the attorney had a point. The entire process was a joke. However, I question his decision to fight on that ground on that day. His client's case had been reset. Yes, his client ended up wasting his time coming to court because of a silly rule; but, he lived to fight another day. Every reset in municipal court affords the officer another chance to miss court, get fired, get indicted, retire or forget the facts of the case.

Furthermore, it's not like his client had been charged with failing to appear in court. It's not as if his client were somehow convicted of the offense for showing up late (if he was late). I understand they were ready to go, but getting reset is far from the end of the world.

My client witnessed the entire episode and was appalled that someone would talk to a judge that way. I told her that there is a time and a place to stand up to a black-robed prosecutor judge but that this definitely wasn't it.

The entire episode could have been handled with a hell of a lot more tact. If you're going to stand up to the judge, it needs to be a fight worth having. Those fights can be beneficial in the long run if the judge realizes that you will not allow yourself to be steamrolled. But picking fights on issues that don't call for a fight can have just the opposite effect.

As an aside, my client was charged with running a stop sign. The stop sign in question was about a car length from the intersection. My client pulled up to the intersection, where she could see the cross traffic and stopped before turning. The officer told her (incorrectly) that she violated the law when she didn't stop behind the stop sign.

The judge, the prosecutor and I were talking about the case and we decided to let the judge watch the video to see what she thought. She watched it and told me that my client didn't want her deciding the case. So now we were ready for trial. The prosecutor and the officer went into a back room for a few minutes before coming out and telling us the case was being dismissed.

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