ambivalent imbroglio home
August 12, 2004

Two Days

My summer internship ends tomorrow, Friday the 13th. Is the date somehow significant?

Strangely, I don't really want this job to end. It would be great if I could continue doing it through school for 10-20 hours/week or something, but I just can't see how that's going to be possible. This fall will be full with EJF, NLG, and ACS obligations and activities, not to mention some journal work, plus class, plus novel-writing through november. Oh, and then there's are all that career research I should probably be doing and all those resumes I should probably send out. Isn't now the time I'm supposed to be getting clerkship applications ready if that's something I want to do?

It's going to be one crazy fall, no doubt about it.

Posted 06:59 AM | Comments (1)

August 11, 2004

Confidence to Defend

A lesson of this summer: It takes a lot of confidence to be a public defender. Very often, the odds are against you and you're going to lose. Sometimes your client is actually guilty, sometimes your client will have confessed whether he/she was guilty or not, sometimes the evidence will be so stacked against you that your client's guilt or innocence appears irrelevant. And at all times the state has a formidable array of resources amassed against you — primarily the police with their investigative authority thinking they work for the prosecutors, and the prosecutors themselves, who may have significant advantages via the laws of discovery in your jurisdiction, via their cozy relationship with the police and w/certain judges, and just through the supposed moral force of "representing the interests of the state." If you're a defender, these are the main forces against which you must struggle every day. And that struggle is not done quietly in your office, or via briefs and motions you have the time to write at your liesure. Some of your work will be there, but a great part of your work will be going to court every single day, facing the police, the prosecutors, the judges, complaining witnesses -- all of them (except, theoretically, the judge) there for one reason and one reason alone: To tell you you're just plain wrong. There you stand, just you and your client (and if you're lucky, a witness or two willing to testify on behalf of your client), and your job is to convince a judge or jury that regardless of what all these people are saying, your client should not be punished (or, in some cases, should be punished very little).

If you don't have a lot of confidence in yourself, in your knowledge of the law, in your role as a public defender -- if your confidence in any of these weakens or fails, you will be toast.

Posted 06:43 AM | Comments (4)

August 06, 2004

So many things

So much has been happening at work the last few weeks and I just haven't had the time to write about it, but I promise I will do so this weekend. Coming your way: an explanation of the "drinking privilege," notes from a visit to federal court, some comments from Federal Public Defender Ken Troccoli on his work for Zacharias Moussaui, thoughts on a career in criminal defense from Jonathan Shapiro (who has been defending John Mohammed, the D.C. sniper), and the case of Wilbert Lee Evans — an example of just how high the deck of justice can be stacked against criminal defendants.

Meanwhile, I have a half dozen or more new gems in the Blawg Wisdom hopper; if you've passed something my way, don't worry, I'll be posting it soon! Thanks again to everyone for their help with this, and if you write or read advice about law school, please do pass it along.

Posted 07:14 AM

August 03, 2004

Private v. Public Defenders

One lesson I've learned this summer as an intern for a public defender is that, if you qualify (which means, if you're poor to penniless), you're likely going to get better representation from a public defender than you'll get from a private defense attorney.

But wait! Before I get pilloried by private defense attorneys, let me qualify that. Different jurisdictions may be different; I only know about the one I'm working in where time and again this summer I've seen private defense attorneys forget things or pass up opportunities that the public defenders would never miss. The public defenders work in the same courts every day, they develop relationships with the prosecutors and learn how to "pitch" cases in order to secure the most favorable plea offers, and they know the everyday criminal procedure inside and out so they can give their clients the benefit of every possible loophole or trick available. Also, because they're in the same courts before the same judges every day, they learn what kind of arguments work best with different judges, how to read the judges' moods to know how far they can push, how to read the subtle signs judges send when they want to hear more on an issue or when they want you to shut up. (Sometimes this can make all the difference; if you talk too long, you may just anger the judge and he'll decide to rule against you just because you annoyed him by talking too much about something he'd already made up his mind about.)

In contrast, private practitioners often just don't seem to know what's going on. They don't understand court procedure, when to speak, when to stand, where to go to file papers, what papers need to be filed or signed or by whom or at what time. Of course, this varies a great deal; a lot of private defenders are simply excellent. Also, some private defenders are much better with certain types of cases in which they specialize, such as capital cases, or rape or other serious offenses.

However, there's one more drawback to private defense attorneys: the profit problem. Since private defenders sometimes bill by the hour, it's to their advantage to drag cases out, while the client just wants the case to end. For example, a private defender might encourage her client to go to trial, even if there's little chance this will help the client. Public defenders have the same incentive as their clients—both want to get the case over and done with as soon as possible. The client wants this because no one likes the uncertainty of unsettled criminal charges against them. The defender wants this because he/she is busy and needs to make time for the next case.

I'm told that many private defenders charge a flat fee according to the type of crime a client is charged with; in such a case, the private defender has the same incentive to end the case quickly as the client does. That's a good thing.

On the other side of the coin, private defenders can potentially make a lot more money than their public counterparts. However, at least in the jurisdiction I've been working in, you don't always get what you pay for; in this jurisdiction, the cheaper defense is the best defense. That's the kind of economy I can love.

Posted 10:14 AM | Comments (4)

August 02, 2004

WIR #7-8: That switch in your head

I'm way behind in my Week In Review series, which I hoped would be a weekly summary of the highlights of my experience as an intern for a local public defender's office. Somehow, just after week 7, I dropped the ball, and now memories of those weeks are hazy.

I do recall that I got to speak with a couple of clients who are mentally ill, which isn't that unusual since many of our clients are arguably mentally ill to one degree or another. My experience has been that these clients require a lot of patience, and to a large extent they just want to be listened to and to get some affirmation for what they're thinking and going through. I went to jail and talked to one client who's now serving the last three months of a year-long sentence and he was very distraught that he'd been forgotten, that no one outside the jail cared about him or even knew where he was, and that maybe he'd never get out because did they even know why he was in there, anyway? It was a little strange, actually, because I and two attorneys had to do some research to figure out exactly why he was there, and for a little while we thought he had, indeed, been forgotten—it looked like he'd served his time and we couldn't see any reason he was still in jail. Turns out, we were missing some records, he's supposed to be there, all is as it was supposed to be. And once we figured all of that out, and I explained it to him, he calmed down. We haven't heard from him since (he hasn't called the office to ask for help). Part of helping people as a public defender really is listening, providing reassurance, and just letting them know they're not alone. Sometimes that's the best you can do.

Somewhere around week seven or eight I also got to see videotape of a supposed "confession" one of out clients made to the police. I can't say anything about it, really, except that it was shocking the tactics the police used to get this person to say exactly what they wanted him to say. Truth is irrelevant on this tape; the police had an agenda and they hammered on it until their agenda became the "suspect's" agenda. I wish every law student could see something like this in his/her first year of law school. But I also wish I had some basis for comparison. Is this normal police conduct, or was is this an unusual interrogation? The attorneys in our office can't say for sure since this is among the first taped confession they've received from the cops. The attorneys are more or less outraged about it, as well, so I feel like my shock has some basis.

But watching this video and thinking about it got me to thinking: It's like people have a little switch in their mind. It's something like a fear switch, or a guilty switch, or a trust-in-the-system switch. Whatever variable it's switching, it works like this:

Person A views a video like this and says, "Oh my gosh! That's horrifying! We can't allow the police to treat people that way!"

Person B views the same video and says: "That guy was lying all along. The way he acted in that video shows he was lying when he said he didn't do it. That's awesome police work that they finally got him to admit his crime. Thank goodness we have such great police!"

Some people can switch back and forth in their minds between being Person A and Person B, and this is a valuable skill. I can kind of do it; it's interesting to try to imagine what the prosecutor is going to say about this tape, to guess which little bits he/she will pick on to convince him/herself that the police acted appropriately.

Other people don't even realize they have such a switch in their head; they're permanently programmed one way or the other. Where this programming comes from would be an interesting question to explore, but what matters is where the switch is set in people making policy and law. If Person A (i.e. a public defender) is making policy, defendants might get more of a fair shake. If Person B (hello John Ashcroft) is making policy, kiss your civil rights and liberties goodbye.

Note: We have a huge prison industry in our country; more people per capita are in prison here than in any other country in the world, I think . So how did we end up w/so many people switched to Person B?

Posted 06:42 AM

Who do you work for?

A question for anyone who has worked in a law firm as a summer associate: How often did you do work (research, writing, document review, whatever) without knowing who, exactly, you were working for?

I ask because I was talking to a friend who's spent the summer at a big firm and she says she generally didn't know who she was working for. She just got assignments to research this or that topic of law based on a general fact pattern. Is this a common experience? I understand you're usually not allowed to tell people outside your firm who you're working for, but do you generally know, even though you can't talk about it?

And if summer associates often don't know who they're working for, is it common for junior associates to also be ignorant of such details? I'm guessing the answer is "no," but can anyone give any confirmation of that?

Posted 05:50 AM | Comments (3)

July 24, 2004

I Got Nothin'

That's what John Stewart always says on "The Daily Show": I got nothin'. Of course, he's always got something. I, on the other hand, really do have nothing. It's a summer Saturday. We had a good week at the public defender's office last week: "My" attorney won an important stage in the main case we've been working on, and I managed to make it through the conclusion of our mock trial exercises without embarrassing myself too badly. The most unanimous feedback was that I look and sound trustworthy, cool, and calm; juries will believe what I say. I hope that's true.

So today is kickback day. Tomorrow is catch-up time: financial aid paperwork, fall interview program (I have to decide whether to even participate), and general housecleaning in preparation for a move. That's right: L. and I are moving next month—heading about 10 blocks away so we can save $300/month. So the fun never stops.

But that's tomorrow. Tonight we're off to try the famed Pizzeria Paradiso, followed by a screening of the latest greatest Hollywood blockbuster, The Bourne Supremacy. I do enjoy Matt Damon in tight shirts, don't you?

Posted 05:45 PM

July 22, 2004

Crime Lab Tour

As part of the summer internship, we visited a local crime lab yesterday where I learned the following:

  • Forensic specialists can sometimes determine whether a light bulb (like a headlight) was on or off when a car crashed.
  • They can sometimes also tell how fast it was going when it crashed.
  • They can sometimes recover a serial number after it's been filed off of a gun. When the serial number is punched on the gun, it disturbs the steel molecules below the actual numbers it punches, so even after you've filed off the visible numbers, disturbed (weakened) molecules remain. The forensics people can use muratic acid (I think) to dissolve those weakened molecules, which often gives them a faint trace of the serial number someone tried to obliterate.
  • On the door of the gun lab there was an NRA bumper sticker that read, "Charleton Heston Is My President" next to a big NRA logo. We asked if that was a joke. They didn't think our question was funny.
I also learned a tiny bit about the following databases: NIBIN (guns; compares pictures of cartridge cases), CODIS (dna), AFIS (fingerprints), and IAFIS (the newer fingerprint database via FBI). They played stupid when we asked them if they thought fingerprint evidence was scientific or reliable. It's not. (Sorry, I don't have time to find better links to back up that claim. If you know more about the fingerprint controversy, please share!)

Bottom line: CSI it ain't, but we knew that already, didn't we?

Posted 07:15 AM | Comments (6)

July 16, 2004

Traffic Court

Traffic court was packet yesterday, with 246 cases on the docket. The judge was moving at a breathless pace, with everyone else (the clerk, deputies, attorneys, and accused) hopping to try to keep up. I wasn't the only one sitting on the edge of my seat trying not to miss any of the action. Many of the cases were disposed of quickly with guilty pleas and fines, no-show witnesses (in which case the judge often dismissed the charge entirely), or traffic school as a "punishment" instead of a fine. As most people perhaps know already, traffic school is a great option if you just have a speeding ticket or something and it's your first one or your first in a long time. If you go to court on a traffic ticket, it never hurts to ask if you could take traffic school and see if that will help you out.

Watching traffic court has taught me that a "guilty with explanation" plea rarely helps any more than a "guilty" plea—the judge may listen to your explanation, but she's probably not hearing it, meaning it won't make your sentence any lighter. I guess sometimes it does, but most of the time guilty is guilty, and the judge doesn't really care beyond that. With 214 cases to dispose of, a judge doesn't have time to care.

Another thing I've learned is that you really really should know the potential penalty you're facing before you decide to plead guilty. I saw a guy yesterday waive his right to a lawyer, then plead guilty to driving on a suspended license, then get a recommended 60 days in jail (w/30 suspended, so only 30 to actually serve) and a year additional license suspension! The guy's head was spinning when he heard the state asking for that sentence, and he begged for a lawyer. The judge had mercy on him and decided to continue the case and give the guy a chance to find a lawyer before he got thrown in jail. That was very nice of the judge, but she didn't have to do that—the guy had signed a waiver of his right to an attorney, then he found he was helpless and facing a relatively huge penalty. (Thirty days in jail is no laughing matter.)

So those are my little lessons in traffic court: Just because you think your offense isn't serious, don't think the judge or the state will see it your way. Whatever your excuses, they probably don't care. Know what you're getting into before you go to court, or get a lawyer who does.

A final lesson that's really a reminder: You just don't want to get caught up in the justice system if there's anything you can do to keep from it. Perhaps it's as just as it can be, but that's not very just, so you don't want to take your chances. Keep your record clean, or your whole life could be sent down the drain b/c the law just doesn't have to care about your complex circumstances. It may care, but it doesn't have to. Is it possible that the two most merciless systems in our society are the justice system and the consumer credit system? You mess up a little in either one, you might be paying for it the rest of your life. Gotta love that.

Posted 05:59 AM | Comments (3)

July 15, 2004

Police Humor

The police department was kind enough to give me an instruction sheet when I signed up for the ride-along so I'd know where to go, what to wear, hot to behave, what to expect generally. It contained very helpful information, and I appreciated it, but the "what not to wear" advice is a bit cute:

Please dress comfortably and dress appropriate for the weather. Ladies, we do ask that you not wear short shorts and no halter-tops. Men, so that we not exclude you, if you are so inclined to wear either, please refrain from wearing these items as well.

Right. Why not just say "no short shorts or halter tops" and leave the gender out of it? I think this, too, provides another little hint into the mind of the typical police department or police force. It displays and old-fashioned sensibility about how things are or ought to be, and a sort of alienation from or bewildered misunderstanding of the way the world works today.

Oh, but they're on the technological cutting edge.

Posted 06:16 AM

July 14, 2004

Messing With "Them"

The police ride-along was fascinating. It was just what it sounds like—I rode along w/an officer as he did his daily duties. It wasn't a very exciting or busy day, but even the routine calls were interesting since I'd never been on any call at all before. We responded to:

  • A shoplifting call where a woman allegedly stuffed over $100 worth of steak into her purse and walked out of a grocery store. The officer said he recently busted someone who pushed an entire cartfull of merchandise out to her car w/out paying for it. If you're going to shoplift, do it in style. (But note: If the value of the stuff you're taking exceeds a certain amount—$200 in our jursidiction—you'll be charged w/a felony instead of a misdemeanor). No arrest; suspect long gone.
  • A call about a suspicious person where we found a guy sleeping in the middle of a restaurant parking lot, just laying on the asphalt between parked cars. The guy said he had a mental disability and was on his way to see his counsellor when he just got distracted and decided he wanted a warm place to sleep. Apparently the asphalt fit the bill. Very strange. No arrest—the cops were pretty nice to the guy.
  • A call about a woman asking a parking cop where she could buy crack. I kid you not. When we got there and talked to her, it seemed fairly clear she was high. No arrest; just threats.
  • A call about a 13-year-old boy threatening a 9-year-old boy to get the younger kid to give him money. What can the police do about this? Next to nothing, but that doesn't stop them from trying. No arrest; just threats.
So no, nothing too exciting. We also spent close to two hours filing a report (fun! not.), and lots of time driving around "messing with" homeless people and people who like to hang out on park benches and street corners.

I have some thoughts on the experience that I don't have time to share, including the awesome technology at the disposal of the police (they've got laptops in every cruiser that are always online), as well as the way police dehumanize the people they "mess with" or otherwise interact with. I think perhaps my cop's world is divided into three kinds of people: Us (cops), Citizens (people who aren't cops and aren't criminals), and Them (criminals and poor people who are basically criminals waiting to commit crimes). After the ride-along, one of my fellow interns asked how it was and I said the cop I was riding with seemed like a nice guy. She responded by saying she's not going to take a ride-along because it seems like everyone who comes back from one has a better opinion of the cops. I suggested that might not be such a bad thing. Her response:

Why is it ok for the cops to dehumanize the people they arrest so they'll be able to do their jobs easier, but it's not ok for me to dehumanize the cops in order to do my job [as a defense attorney] easier?

It's a great question. But wouldn't it be nice if we could figure out a system where nobody had to dehumanize anyone else in order to sleep at night?

Posted 07:25 AM | Comments (4)

July 12, 2004

Police Ride-Along

Hey, I'm going to spend tomorrow morning riding around the dirty streets with some of our city's finest (police persons, that is), so here's your chance: What have you always wanted to ask a cop (but were always afraid to ask)? Send your questions in ASAP (before about 7 a.m. tomorrow morning) and I'll ask them. Of course, if asking your question will get me locked up or otherwise jeopardize my office's "good" relationship with the police, I may have to decline, but that should still leave plenty of leeway. Sorry about the short notice, but if you read this before 7 a.m. Tuesday, send me a question and I'll have an answer for you tomorrow night.

One of my fellow interns recently did a ride-along and her host started talking about what a great "polygraphist" the department has. She was a little surprised to hear this, but was even more shocked when the cop gushed: "Yeah, he's so good he'll have you confessing to all kinds of things you never did! He just asks you some questions, and pretty soon you don't even know whether you did those things or not -- he's that good!" I doubt I'll get any great material like that (or if I'll be allowed to write it down if I do), but we can hope.

Posted 09:27 PM

June 29, 2004

WIR#5 & 6: Awe, Anger & Radical Lawyers

The past two weeks have been packed with information and learning experiences—so much so that I haven't been able to keep up with them here very well. Here's the short story: In week 5 I started to feel like maybe going to law school wasn't a mistake after all. I started to feel more attached to the work and began seeing myself, potentially, as a public defender some day. That week, I really started to feel like it was a job I could both do well, and enjoy doing. In week 6, those positive feelings were still there, but they were tempered by the doubts I've had since week 1—worries that I'm not really very good at this, and so would not like to make this my career. I'm chalking this roller-coaster impression up to the old cliche that "the more you know the more you realize how little you know." That can be humbling, but it least it means you're still learning. And boy, am I learning.

For example, I'm learning just how much an experienced defense attorney can know, and it's awe-inspiring. Two weeks ago I accompanied the attorney I work with to the jail to interview a new client. In the space of five minutes my attorney expertly fielded her client's complex questions about how the involvement of federal agencies in his case might affect his chances to plea, whether a drug store would really be able to produce the video they say they have, how other charges in other jurisdictions might interact with the charges we were dealing with, and more. This was a potentially complex case, and this client's questions kind of made my head spin, but my attorney handled them w/out the confidence that only comes from experience. I sat in awe, hoping someday I would have that kind of experience under my belt so I could be as effortlessly helpful as she is.

Another lesson that I'm learning again and again and again is how little police actually know, and the levels to which they will stoop to get even the most meaningless of convictions. The show how little they know when they appear in court and have nothing to say except what they wrote in their reports, which are themselves often full of gaping holes that they then fill with speculations masquerading as "fact" when they're on the witness stand. Half the time it seems police witnesses show up to testify at trial and can't even remember the case. They're coached by the prosecutors, and look to them for advice and help answering questions. They apparently think they're on the same "team" with the prosecution. So much for presumed innocent, etc.

The levels to which police stoop are just chilling. I probably shouldn't say much more on this right now since much of my horror stems from cases still in litigation, but I will say that after six weeks in a public defender's office I'm convinced that the legal fiction of "custodial" interrogations (meaning you're in custody, not free to leave) v. "non-custodial" interrogations (meaning theoretically you can leave at any time) makes a mockery of justice. Do you have any clue what I'm talking about? If not, you prove my point. If so, pat yourself on the back. Now see if you're able to keep your wits about you enough the next time the police interrogate you to remember to rely on your rights to their full extent—especially when the police start lying to you.

I've also learned that the police and prosecutors team up to harrass certain people for very stupid crimes. At the top of that list are the crimes of stealing two flowers from a flower pot, and the crime of impermissible horn honking. Yeah, that's right; in our jurisdiction there's a statute that says you can only honk your car horn in order to give a "reasonable warning." Guess who decides what a reasonable warning is. Hint: If you're black and in a neighborhood known for drug sales/use, your definition of reasonable probably won't count for much.

I've learned how trivial much of legal practice (and especially law school) can seem to a criminal lawyer. This hit home last week when I sat in on a civil appeal that just seemed incredibly pointless. Who cares who gets the house (in a divorce) when someone down the hall may be going to jail for life thanks to police misconduct? (And yes, I realize police aren't always acting improperly, but I'll bet you'd be shocked to learn how often and to what degree they really are.) Off the top of my head, it seems much of torts, contracts, property law, and civil procedure focused on trivialities, while crimlaw and conlaw (and legal writing, of course) were what was important. I know those other classes were valuable and I'm glad I've been through them, but it's a perspective thing. If you're a defense attorney, your clients won't generally care much about torts law—they just want to stay out of jail.

So far, the summer internship is great for big picture perspective like this. Both from my attorney and my co-interns (some of whom are part of "Section Three" at Georgetown, which sounds like the critically contextualized law curriculum I dreamed of but have not found at all at GW), I'm also learning a little bit about being a "radical lawyer." I hope to learn more about what this means to them, but reading just about anything by Duncan Kennedy looks like a good place to start.

Finally, I and my fellow interns have begun weekly "Mock Trial" exercises led by the attorneys in the office. So far we've covered interviewing a client, voire dire, and making opening statements. It's incredibly helpful to hear advice on these things from attorneys who do them every day.

Posted 06:31 AM | Comments (1)

June 14, 2004

WIR #4: Back to Reality

The "retreat" was a crazy and refreshing time. I learned that "Jesus is the ultimate public defender" (um...!?!) and that practicing law does not prevent a person from also singing karaoke to Bon Jovi or doing "interpretive dances" to Journey. In all, a very enlightening and exhausting weekend. I feel like I need a vacation from my vacation.

This Week In Review was supposed to feature some thoughts on the interaction between prosecutors and defenders, the joys of 5th Amendment research (big lessons: police lie and the law rewards them for it; this Supreme Court thinks people are born knowing what it means to have the right to remain silent—see e.g. its decision in Alvarado), and perhaps something about the process of criminal appeals. However, that will have to wait for another day. How can Monday morning come so quickly?

Posted 05:49 AM | Comments (1)

June 10, 2004

Non-Firm Summer Lunch

While Jeremy humorously recounts the way summer associates scramble to get free lunches from their firm, my non-firm summer job has bought me (and the other summer interns) lunch only one time in three weeks. Pizza. Good pizza. We loved it.

Meanwhile, Sam says lunches with firm partners can be awkward. Not a problem in our public defender's office; even the head attorney—the Public Defender—is cool and easy to talk to. The general lunch deal is most of the interns bring a bag lunch, while the attorneys go get something from a local "budget" establishment (top contenders: Chipotle, Subway, Popeye's, local non-chain sandwich shops). Then everyone takes their food to the conference room and we all eat together. It's really the best part of the day, and so far there hasn't been a single awkward moment.

So although some people may be making thousands of dollars this summer working at firms, see what they have to put up with? Stressful email competitions to get a place at the table, and awkward silences with partners. You're not likely to have these problems at your public interest summer internship. In fact, if you're like me, you won't even have a computer or an email address/program with which to compete in an email competition. (I can't believe how little our office uses email, but then, most accused criminals who qualify for a public defender aren't going to have email, are they?)

Yep. The public interest summer legal job. That's where the fun is!

Posted 06:40 AM | Comments (2)

June 09, 2004

Ironing Is Wrong

I've often been told I'm a master of the obvious, and in that role I'm here to tell you that the act of ironing clothing has got to be among the most pointless and just plain wrong activities available to modern humans. There is something very sick and wrong with a culture that requires clothes to be free of wrinkles, and places such a premium on this that it requires hours and hours of horrifyingly tedious work in order to ensure that no wrinkle sees the inside of any workplace with a "business casual" or "business" dress-code. What, praytell, is so awful about a few wrinkles? Ironing is so pointless it makes me want to scream!

Perhaps I will develop a very short but scathing explanation for why I think anyone who notices or cares about wrinkles is an asinine moron. Then, I will wear very wrinkled clothes—I will never lift an iron again. When anyone comments on how wrinkled or rumpled I look, I will lay into them with my short but scathing explanation of why I think they are an asinine moron. Don't you think this would be a great way to win friends and influence people?

Posted 05:16 AM | Comments (10)

June 07, 2004

WIR #3: When clients are crazy

Week three of the public defender summer internship was short but eventful. I feel I'm settling in a little, getting more comfortable with feeling lost, perhaps. After three weeks, I'm impressed and surprised with the human pace of the work. The attorneys in the office stay quite busy and there seems to be plenty of work to keep a posse of interns busy, as well, yet only a handful of the attorneys seem to stay late or come in too early, and the atmosphere of the office is serious but not oppressive or too fast-paced. I'm sure not all public defenders enjoy this kind of pace, and I'm sure it feels different as an attorney than it does as an intern, but so far it seems that the promise is true that this sort of law practice is less all-consuming of time and energy than BigLaw.

Highlights of this week included some fireworks in court, a crash course in criminal procedure, and a visit to jail.

The fireworks in court were shocking, really, from the perspective of someone learning about and considering becoming a public defender. First, I watched as one of our attorneys (a public defender) entered the lockup adjacent to the courtroom to confer with a client prior to that client's appearance in court. Through the closed door, we could hear the client yelling at the attorney, and several minutes later she emerged looking stunned and on the verge of tears. She immediately left the courtroom, and I soon learned that outside in the hall she had passed the verge and was crying, after her client verbally attacked her competence and intelligence. Apparently she didn't feel physically threatened because the client was restrained in his cell, but she was still seriously shaken by his yelling. Later, after the attorney had recovered, her client emerged and asked to represent himself. I'm told that usually this judge would be loathe to grant such a request, and would usually order the public defender to act as assistant counsel to the pro se defendant. Not this time. The judge lectured the client on how stupid he was for giving up such good representation, and then granted his request. The public defender didn't mind.

The same day, one of "my" attorney's clients (by "my" attorney, I mean the attorney I'm working for this summer) showed up for trial in an apparently "altered" state of mind. Long story short, he tried to dismiss his own charges by signing a dismissal order as if he were the judge. "But that has no authority," my attorney told him.

"No authority?" he asked. "I put my copyright on there, it's authority."

"But the judge will know he didn't sign it."

"I am the judge!"

Ok. So my attorney told the client she was going to have to raise the question of his competence before the judge, the client got angry and said he was going to ask for different counsel, my attorney said fine. Then, while waiting for the case to be called, the client decided to leave the courthouse. He just took off. Not a good day.

I rushed through that story, but trust me, it was a pretty crazy experience. How can you help people as an attorney if they try so hard to make it impossible for you to help them?

The crash course in crim pro was just that, about four hours covering the basics of how to run a case from the time an attorney meets a client to trial. I was shocked by the degree to which state legislatures are free to depart from federal rules and procedures, and the degree to which states are free to stack the deck against defendants when it comes to rules of evidence and discovery. Although prosecutors have an ethical duty to provide all exculpatory evidence to the defense, they don't always do so. What's worse, according to our attorney-teacher, they're probably less likely to do so in bigger cases.

People are gonna tell the truth in a traffic case. But they might not tell the truth in a murder case—there's too much at stake.

This is consistent with small and large reminders I've picked up in the past few weeks that people working in law enforcement and criminal prosecution don't always care too much about the truth. In just three weeks, I've seen police lie on the witness stand, and I've heard prosecutors bully defense attorneys over very minor issues. Such things certainly diminish whatever respect I had for the criminal justice system, but they also increase the incentive to go into criminal defense—the need for good defenders is real.

Finally, the jail. Unfortunately, the jail will have to wait because I have to run to work. I'm sure I'll be visiting the jail again before the summer's over so I'll say more about it after I've been more than once.

I also wanted to send good wishes to my fellow 1Ls and beyond who are doing fascinating legal jobs elsewhere, but I've run out of time to track down the links so instead I'll just say: Have a good week, everyone!

See also: WIR #1 and WIR #2.

Posted 05:43 AM

June 04, 2004

CrimPro Crash Course

Today promises to be the most important day of the summer internship thus far: The lead attorney in our office (the public defender) will be giving us a 4-hour crash course in criminal procedure. More than half of my fellow interns are rising 3Ls who have had CrimPro already, so they're not looking forward to this. The rest of us, the so-called "rising 2Ls," are waiting with baited breath for all of the stuff we've been observing/working on to start to make more sense. How does the puzzle fit together? I hope to know a lot more about that by this afternoon.

Meanwhile, two more quick lessons from court: First, don't smoke PCP before showing up for your trial. Second, don't spend the 10 minutes in lockup before your hearing verbally abusing the attorney who is about to be an advocate on your behalf. After that kind of behavior (which could be heard throughout the courtroom even through the heavy lockup door), the judge is not likely to find you very credible when you then ask to be released because you're not a threatening person.

Posted 05:59 AM

June 03, 2004

Lessons from court

One of the great benefits of my summer position is the time I get to spend in court. So far, it seems I spend 1-4 hours in court, 2-3 days each week, depending on what my attorney has going on and how many times I'm doing advisements. In just the first couple of weeks I've learned a huge amount about procedure, what the different people in court do, how prosecutors and defense attorneys interact, the powerful role of the sheriff's deputies, and how to advise a pro se (representing him/herself) misdemeanor defendant to ask for 90 days to pay court costs. I'm sure just sitting in court is increasing my comfort level being there, and that can only be a good thing for when I have to go before a judge as an attorney. And even if that day never comes, I'm sure the experience is also paving the way for a much easier time next year in Criminal Procedure class. I knew it would be, but after a couple of weeks, I can say for sure that spending time in court is a great thing for a law student.

Read on for a few other little anecdotal lessons I've learned from being in court...

1) Do not procrastinate: In the process of moving from one apartment to another, the defendant or a friend who was helping placed three dresser drawers in the back (hatchback) of his car. Three-four weeks later, the defendant was pulled over for driving with a cracked windshield. He readily consented to a police search of his car, and police quickly found two crack pipes and a couple of syringes among the random items in one of the drawers. The defendant was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia. He claimed the drawers were "junk" drawers filled with items he never used, which is why he left them in his car so long—it was all stuff he didn't really need. He also claimed he had no clue where the pipes came from, but suspected a former girlfriend had hidden them there and forgotten about them. Perhaps the defendant was lying, but he's also been working at a good job for 40-50 hours/week for the last five years and has otherwise stayed out of trouble, so he doesn't seem like a big crackhead. Bottom line: If the defendant had simply cleaned out his car when he moved, he never would have been charged with anything more than driving with a cracked windshield. Next time you're moving, finish the job or you may end up in court!

2) Do not bring crack or crack-smoking paraphernalia with you to court: I mentioned this one the other day, but it's a valuable lesson worth repeating. The defendant was appearing in court for trial on a traffic violation. She was sentenced to 10 days in jail when and deputies took her into custody and inventoried her possessions they found crack and drug paraphernalia. Now she faces possession charges. And this sounds insane, but it's not the first time it's happened in this court. People, come one! When you go to court, leave your crack at home!

3) Don't be completely insane in court: If a defendant wants to speak in court, a defense attorney has to let him or her do so. Here, a defendant spontaneously asked a police witness, "Does your self remember when my self told you that I'm the light of the world and I control the planets telepathically?" Needless to say, this wasn't really a positive move for the defense.

4) When your objection is overruled, you've challenged that ruling, and the judge has stood firm, don't raise the same objection again five seconds later—even when you're right. This happened to a prosecutor and the judge exploded from the bench. Swinging around in his chair to glare bullets at the prosecutor, his face red as a beet, the judge shouted, "I guess what you'd like is that everything against the defendant comes in, but nothing in his favor should ever enter this room. Is that right? The prosecutor was basically speechless, and the rest of the court was frozen in shock. After a moment, the prosecutor tried to begin an explanation, but the judge cut her off. "Your objection has been overruled. Do you have any power to overrule that ?" The prosecutor sat down, and the judge swung back to listen to the defense attorney, who did a great job continuing as if nothing had happened. Perhaps you had to be there, but trust me, it was an electric moment. A judge shouting down a prosecutor in a courtroom on behalf of the defendant!? Of course, the judge ruled for the prosecution, but still, it was a priceless thing to see.

5) If you steal someone's purse and cell phone, don't immediately use the phone to call 911 to brag about it to the police. This isn't from court, exactly, just a story my attorney told me. A defendant actually did this. The 911 call is hilarious.

Posted 05:22 AM | Comments (3)

June 01, 2004

WIR #2: Advisements, Orientation, Investigations

Last week was only the second week of my summer public defender internship. It feels like I started about a month ago, but last week was only week two. At this rate, it's going to be a long summer—not because I'm not liking the job, but simply because the 11-hour days make such a demanding schedule that my mind and body is rebelling against. That aside, last week was highlighted by two days of advisements, an orientation session for interns, an office barbecue, and my first "in the field" experience trying to find and interview witnesses for a case.

Advisements are interesting, but I feel pretty useless doing them. As interns, we basically go to court to sit through arraignments and make sure defendants who want and qualify for a public defender get our contact and information and we get theirs. It seems some people are surprised to learn that public defenders aren't free, and that not everyone can get a public defender—the service is only available to people below a certain income threshold. If you make too much money, you can still get a court-appointed attorney, but you'll get a private attorney who has agreed to be called upon by the court for those purposes. Also, even if you get a public defender, you may still have to pay a nominal fee for your attorney—but only if you lose. In advisements, the judge advises the accused of their charges and asks for their plea. If they plead not guilty, the judge asks if they have an attorney or if they'd like the court to appoint one for them. If they ask for court-appointed counsel, the judge asks them some income questions and they fill out some paperwork. Once all that's complete and they qualify, interns like me will get more contact information from them, and make sure they understand they need to call our office soon so the public defenders can help them with their case. Then they ask us questions about their chances and the charges against them and what kind of jail time they might be facing. This is the frustrating part because my only answer is: Call this number and your attorney can answer all your questions. It's so nice to be helpful.

The orientation session was another exercise in how much I don't know, with the lead attorney giving us a fact pattern and asking us to think of all the factual and legal questions we'd want to ask if faced with this case. I spotted a good, oh, 5% of the issues. Why was I chosen for this job? The fact that many of my fellow interns claimed to be just about as clueless as I was only made it slightly better. The good news: The attorneys know we know nothing, so, as I was advised before beginning, they're unlikely to give us enough rope to hang ourselves. Little lessons learned: You have no reasonable expectation of privacy in a telephone number so a search of your phone records is generally ok. Search warrants generally require probable cause, but if a tenant has abandoned an apt., a search may be ok w/out probable cause because the tenant has relinquished his/her 14th Amendment right to privacy. It's very hard to win an argument that police used impermissibly suggestive ID procedures to identify witnesses. You can't ever suppress an arrest; you can only suppress illegal fruits (evidence) of an arrest. (I don't think I ever thought of trying to suppress an arrest, but apparently many people think of it, and it's not an option.)

The bottom line lesson of the orientation: We don't judge, we defend. We don't put people in jail, we try to keep them out—no matter what.

Quickly, the investigation assignment was also frustrating. I guess when you walk around a neighborhood asking random people if they have any information about a recent crime, the odds are rather low you're going to find someone who A) knows something worth listening to, and B) wants to tell you about it. So we spent about three hours and got about nothing for our time. Still, it was interesting, and I got the feeling that with more practice I might be able to learn to approach people in ways that might lead to better results. I'm sure I'll get more chances to try. That said, I don't think I have a bright future as a private investigator.

Today begins week #3, and although it will be a short week, it will be busy, including more advisements, filing a notice of appeal, and possibly beginning work on the appeal. I'm sure I'll also spend more time in court, about which more soon, including the invaluable lesson learned last week: Do not, under any circumstances, take your crack cocaine with you when you go to court. (IANAL (I am not a lawyer) and YMMV, but trust me, taking crack to court is just not a good idea.)

Posted 06:09 AM | Comments (3)

May 26, 2004


The pace of work is beginning to accelerate. Monday was advisements again—the only time I'm allowed to go behind the bar in a courtroom until I pass the bar. (Ok, there are other exceptions to that rule, but for now, that's all I can do.) We only had one taker, and he had questions I couldn't answer. It's so sad to be so unhelpful. Other than that, more research, phone calls, and a visit to the juvenile detention center to interview a client.

The office is holding a couple of training events in the next couple of days for the interns, all of whom have finally started. Today will also include a neighborhood investigation, searching for witnesses and general info about a case. Oh, and a fun assignment for techno-discovery along the lines of this post from Scheherazade. There could be a future in this for me. I don't have all the techno-expertise necessary to read the metadata in Word documents or recover transcripts of chat sessions, but it's definitely something I'd like to learn.

Posted 05:56 AM

May 24, 2004

Week In Review #1

With one week of my summer internship under my belt and the second about to begin, things are still too new and the learning curve too steep to have a solid impression of the job. Thus far, I love the people, the office environment (except for the internet access, about which you know I'll say more), and the overall mission of the public defender's office. On the other hand, I feel uncomfortably unqualified to be doing some of the things they've asked me to do, a feeling made worse by the fact that real people with real charges facing real jail-time may be depending on my ability to complete my assignments quickly and well. I rather doubt there will ever be a time this week when a client's fate will really rest in my hands, but the pressure of real consequences for the client remains.

The first week's impressions were mostly big-picture like that, and fell into two main areas:

First, public defenders (at least those in this office) are handicapped when it comes to doing internet research and using technology. I learned that one reason this office likes law student interns is that we generally come with Lexis and/or Westlaw passwords. The office subscribes to a service that aggregates all the state's court decisions, as well as material from federal district and Supreme Court cases, so the attorneys do most of their research through that. However, if they need to venture beyond that database, I guess they either have to pay for a Lexis or Westlaw search, or head for the books somewhere, or hire an intern w/a password to do the research for them. The upside of this for me is that I should get a lot more practice doing online research this summer, and that's good. The downside for everyone is that public defenders may not have access to the best research resources. Everyone I talk to about this seems to think/assume that government agencies have free or very cheap access to Lexis and Westlaw since these services couldn't exist without the cooperation of the government. That assumption is wrong. For-profit legal research is wrong.

Not only does the office not have access to Lexis and Westlaw, but it also has only four intern computers with access to the internet. These computers are old and slow, so research takes forever -- especially on Westlaw, where all the frames and complex code hocus-pocus (most of which exists to make your research follow certain profitable paths and to ensure Westlaw gets paid for your every click) choke the outdated browsers. The machines run Windows 2000 and are all locked down so I can't install Mozilla or update the browser or do anything else that might, potentially, speed up the research process. I haven't yet figured out how to contact the city's tech people, but that's definitely on my priority list. I hope to convince them to install a wireless router so I and the other interns can just bring in our laptops and get some real work done.

Second, I learned that our courts are clogged with ridiculous cases that eat up lots of criminal justice resources (the time of police officers, guards, judges, attorneys, interns, the clients, administrative support staff, etc.) for very little social benefit. A large number of these cases involve repeat offenders who get caught at a young age in cycles of petty crime that have them in and out of jail and court their entire lives. Because our system is more focused on incarceration than rehabilitation, these cycles can be endless, ridiculous and very very sad. I'm sure we, as a society, could do better than this. There are many reasons the criminal justice system continues along this less than satisfactory path, but after one week I'm convinced one of those reasons is simply that most people have no idea what goes on in courtrooms around the country every day. If they knew, they would demand some changes. Obviously I'm being vague here; I hope to return to this theme as the summer progresses.

Other than those two big-picture impressions, the first week was exhausting and exciting with the avalanche of information that came pouring into my head. It was also, in some ways, very long. I leave for work at 7:30 a.m. and don't return home until 6:30 p.m.; 11-hour days are just too long for my taste. I'm getting a lot of great reading done on the train, but still, it's hard to go from a student life where my schedule was full but flexible, to this level of regimentation where I feel like I hardly have a free minute during the week. I've been reminded emphatically why I returned to grad school in 1999 after working only 6 or 8 months in an 8-5 job—the schedule blows. No wonder our country is so screwed up politically; as voters, we allow our "leaders" to get away with murder because we simply don't have time to pay very close attention or the energy to care too much or do anything about it when we see they're incompetent and destroying our world. Such is the nature of the status quo to reinforce itself. I guess this summer I'll find out how easy it may be to become assimilated by that status quo. L tells me she felt the same way when she started working a year ago, but that it took more than 11-13 weeks for her body and mind to accept the program. Have we all taken the blue pill?

So other than the schedule, I'm looking forward to this second week to try to begin putting some of that information in more usable order. The office also has a softball team that I may participate in, and now that I've been fingerprinted (four impressions each for all ten digits!) and submitted my pee test for drugs, I should be able to go to the jail this week to interview clients. Which reminds me of the following humorous exchange:

When I was getting my jail clearance the officer in charge asked me into a small back room and asked me seriously, "Have you ever had any records expunged?"


"Have you ever had any felony charges dismissed?"


"Have you ever robbed any banks?"

"Um, no. I think if I had I wouldn't have much interest in doing this job and being here now."

"No, I don't think you would."

Apparently someone with a name very similar to mine is a bank robber. Who knew!? To think, what might have been...

Note: Because it looks like I'll have very little time each day to post about the job or anything else, I plan to simply record a few notes each day and try to reflect on each week over the weekend. Therefore, this will likely be the first of 11-13 "Week In Review" posts (depending on how long I end up working; end date still not firm.)

Posted 05:36 AM | Comments (6)

May 21, 2004

Tough Enough

I almost cried in court yesterday. I was watching a sentencing hearing. I knew nothing about the defendant, the victim, or the families on either side, but I felt incredible sympathy all of them. I'm obviously not tough enough for this job.

Posted 05:48 AM | Comments (3)

May 20, 2004


My first little "project" of the summer internship has been to research whether the necessity defense could pass the "smile test" to get a misdemeanor case to the jury. I'm being vague because it just seems like a good idea, but suffice to say the necessity defense (aka "choice of evils" if you're a Model Penal Code (MPC) type) is only successful in a very narrow range of circumstances.

Aside from learning a bit more about necessity, I've also learned that the "research memos" I wrote for my legal writing class were much more works of art than real work products. Where I spent weeks or days developing those memos, when my boss asked for a memo on the necessity defense she was thinking of a project that should have taken me a couple of hours, an afternoon at most. Steep. Learning. Curve.

Meanwhile, check out Steven's 1L review over at Half-Cocked.

Posted 05:51 AM | Comments (3)

May 19, 2004

First Voire Dire

Yesterday I watched voire dire (jury selection) for the first time. It was a fairly simple DUI appeal but interesting nonetheless. The prosecution asked very obvious questions to which it seemed highly unlikely anyone would give a "yes" answer. One question was: "Are you sensible of any bias or prejudice against the defendant or the state?" How many people are going to raise their hands and say "yeah, I really hate people like the defendant" or "I think the state should always lose!" Perhaps not many people feel that way, but even fewer would be likely to admit it in open court.

The defense attorney asked an interesting (possibly standard) question: "How many people here know that, as of now, my client is not guilty?" Only about half the potential jurors raised their hand. So much for presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Posted 05:27 AM | Comments (1)

May 18, 2004

What can I say?

My head is spinning. I know nothing, but I'm learning a lot already. On Day One of my summer internship I learned that I'll be working with the attorney who has the felony docket, which includes robbery, rape, and murder, but recently has included a lot of "paper" cases, including embezzling, forgery, and uttering (attempting to actually use forged documents). I'd never heard of the crime of uttering before, so that was perhaps my first lesson.

Many of the other lessons so far have been in the realm of criminal procedure, which I sorely wish I'd already taken. I learned what "advisements" are (initial hearings where the accused is advised of charges and rights to defense in open court), and watched some preliminary hearings. It's one thing to have a vague understanding of the major steps in the criminal defense process, and another thing to understand the subtleties and strategies required to represent a client to the best of your abilities at each stage. But while the learning curve in the next few weeks is going to be steep, I imagine CrimPro will much easier when I finally do take it. (Maybe I should rearrange my schedule to take it in the fall rather than the spring....)

Other than that, it's hard to get used to the idea of having people's lives in your hands. Reading a case file means reading about a real and unresolved issue that you may help resolve. It's intimidating, but watching the attorneys at work in court (which I did for about two hours yesterday) reminded me that these are just normal people who sometimes forget what they meant to ask witnesses and stumble through cross examinations, just like I did in mock trial and certainly will again if I'm ever in their shoes. Ok, not just like, but still. They're human. They do the best they can for their clients. I can do that, too. I hope.

Posted 05:41 AM | Comments (1)

May 17, 2004

Beginning Advice

I start work today. I'm excited to finally begin getting some "hands-on" legal experience, but it's bittersweet as well because who wants to go to work? Summer should be about books to read, trails to hike, great roads and trails to bike, and I hope it still will be, but those things will now have to squeeze in sometime before 7:30 a.m. or after 6:30 p.m., or on weekends. But that's how "normal" people live, isn't it? I realize I've led a charmed life in that I haven't had to report to a real "9-5" job since 1999. In fact, I probably haven't spent much more than two years of my life thus far obligated to a real 9-5 schedule. That doesn't mean I haven't been working, but my work—leading bike tours, laying out newspapers, teaching English classes—has generally been time-flexible, project-oriented, and not necessarily tied to an office. For the next 13-14 weeks, that will change. It should be interesting.

I'm lucky to begin with a nice bit of advice from a rising GW 3L who spent last summer working the same job I'll be doing this summer. In an email he advises:

just go in there and soak it all in. keep in mind also that you don't know anything. this, however, doesn't matter, as long as you know that it's true. ask a lot of questions, make sure you're doing things right, and within a few weeks you'll be in total command of everything that comes your way. they won't give you enough rope to hang yourself, for the most part.

make sure that when you talk to clients you realize (1) they are all crazy, more or less, (2) they are all lying to you, more or less, and (3) you must treat them with respect if you want to get anywhere with them, notwithstanding (1) and (2). and also (4) that you probably wont get anywhere with them.

Sounds great: I know nothing. I'm good at asking questions. I'm used to being lied to. I plan to get nowhere with anyone. Ready, set, go!

Posted 05:51 AM

May 03, 2004

Background Checking 1L Summer

Although it's been pretty much all finals all the time around here for a while, I do realize life will go on after Thursday at 5 p.m. when finals are over. In fact, I start work as a public defender intern on the 17th. I haven't had time to give it a great deal of thought, but I'm definitely looking forward to it. On an application for summer funding, my future supervisor described my summer job as follows:

The student will assist his supervising attorney by conducting factual investigations. He will interview witnesses, collect significant client records of treatment, photograph crime scenes and prepare trial exhibits. He will also conduct legal research. He will prepare legal memoranda and pleadings. He will assist his supervisor in court at trials and hearings.

Sounds like fun, doesn't it? Filling out paperwork in preparation for the job (mostly for background checks so I can spend my summer in jail), I get this twice:

You are advised that all information given this questionnaire will be investigated and any inaccurate, untruthful, or misleading answers may be cause for rejection.

Yikes. I guess this is when I appreciate the fact that I was always one step ahead of the cops during my youthful crime sprees. Kidding! But I also have to authorize "the release of the following data or records:" employment, including military; bank, savings, loans & investments; credit; education; medical & military medical; selective service (such an unfortunate name when reduced to an acronym, no?); veteran's administration; police & judiciary; arrests/convictions (criminal & traffic); prior polygraph information; birth and citizenship.

I wonder how long it will be before forms like this also require disclosure of any websites, blogs, or discussion fora to which you are a regular contributor. Maybe never, but I do wonder what I'm going be able to say here on ai about whatever it is I'm doing this summer. Speaking of which, this post inaugurates a new ai category: "1L Summer." I hope to populate it with hilarious and breathtakingly compelling anecdotes and observations (or just random notes about my summer experience), if that's possible. Since starting ai I haven't needed to be too concerned about what my employer might have to say about what I write here; I've been unemployed for a year now, and before that I worked for a public university and I didn't worry too much what it thought. Something tells me working at a public defender's office will raise all sorts of fun "can I say that on tv?" questions. We'll see.

Posted 05:58 AM | Comments (1)

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