Ask Allison: September 7, 2016

Dear Allison,

I got a ticket for a moving violation. It’s so dumb. In municipal court. Is there any way out of this other than paying the ridiculous fine? What do I do? Should I hire a lawyer? Wouldn’t that be more than the ticket?

Yours,

Speedy Simon

 

Dearest Darling Simon,

You can hire a lawyer, and a lot of people do. There are scads of lawyers, in fact, who make their money representing a lot of traffic cases. Some of them are even pretty good at it. Some of them might even charge you less than the ticket would cost to just pay outright. I encourage you to call around and get some rates to see how you feel about it, but, Simon, the rest of this column will be devoted to what you could do if you decided not to go that route.

Take that sh*t to trial. What? You didn’t know that in Texas you have the right to a jury trial for a traffic violation? Surprise! You do. And you should use it if you have the time and energy.

Once, when your darling Allison was studying for the bar exam, she got a series of text messages from her beloved father. “I may need your help…at jury service,” began the first one. “Dad, I’m not a lawyer yet. Please don’t get into trouble until I pass the bar.” “Judge is angry. May hold me in contempt. Will probably have to pick up litter in the very full parking lot.” Apparently, the case had to do with a traffic violation. The ticket was $200. My ever-pragmatic father was asked, during jury selection, if he felt like this was “a waste of time.” He told the attorney that, though he sympathized with the defendant, he did feel like this was a waste of time, and he would gladly pay the ticket in full if everyone could go on about their day.

The long and short of it is that the case ended up being dismissed after the court was unable to find enough unbiased jurors, and Allison’s Dad ended up grumpy and lunchless, though not in contempt, after a fruitless trip to the police cafeteria next door.

While the process may irritate your fellow citizens, that’s all the more reason, dear Simon, to go ahead and ask for a trial. Because it’s a big headache, and no one really will want to do it other than you.

On your given court date, show up and tell the prosecutor that you are pleading not guilty and that you want a trial or a dismissal (or, if you feel like there are mitigating circumstances and you just want a reduced fine, you could ask for that, too). Be polite and firm. If you have good reasons for a dismissal (I wasn’t really speeding/ there is not stop sign at the corner where they said there is/the speed limit sign is not posted) those are things you can probably tell the prosecutor beforehand when you are trying to negotiate with them.

If you are unable to come to a consensus with the prosecutor and decide to go ahead and go to trial, they will give you a new court date a few weeks down the road.

One thing many people don’t know, Beloved Reader, is that traffic court in Houston is largely staffed by “volunteer prosecutors.” What kind of sadistic sociopath would “volunteer” to be a prosecutor for the day, you ask? It’s a good question. The answer is that big law firms provide young attorneys to be “volunteer prosecutors” in traffic courts. This keeps the city from having to pay for as many prosecutors in these courts, and is supposed to provide these young attorneys with some real courtroom experience.

Your Darling Allison had a friend once who worked as a Volunteer Prosecutor during his first year as an associate at a huge corporate firm. He relayed the experience thusly:

“It was awful. The lawyers down there are horrible. Every time I would turn around from counsel table, there would be defense attorneys swarming my laptop, trying to dismiss their clients’ cases behind my back. One time, I was talking to the judge and left my phone on the counsel table. When I turned around, it was gone. I demanded everyone around empty their pockets, and a sheepish defense attorney handed back my phone and explained that he picked it up because he mistakenly thought it was his. I made him show me his phone, which was a freaking Blackberry. My phone was an iPhone. There’s no way he thought that it was his phone. It’s awful. And also, there’s no such thing as ‘blocks’ on the freeway. Whenever a cop writes out a ticket saying the whatever-hundred block of I-10 or whatever, that’s technically wrong. There are no blocks on the freeway. We had to dismiss all of them that are written that way if someone said anything about it, which is all the time. It was horrible and I would never do it again.”

If you have a good defense to your case, go out and collect some evidence. Cop says you’re speeding? See if you can get a mechanic shop to verify that your speedometer was calibrated properly and then you can ask the police officer when the last time his radar gun was calibrated. No signs posted? Go take a short video.

Most of the time, if you have a halfway decent story to tell, you can convince a traffic prosecutor to dismiss your case rather than go through the burden of going to trial. If you can’t convince them to dismiss the case and you start to get worried the day of trial, you can always decide you want to just plead guilty and pay the fine then, and avoid trial at the last minute. At the same time, what do you have to lose? Avoid courtroom histrionics, be polite and genial to everyone, and just tell your side of the story. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a juror sympathetic enough to offer to pay your fine. Or maybe you’ll discover that you have a real knack for trial. But if we don’t use our rights, they go to waste.

Make those founding fathers proud, and call me if you have any questions.

 

Love Always,

Allison

Every week attorney Allison Jackson answers a question sent in from our readers. Have a question for Allison? Write to her at askallison AT hcclatv.com.

Ask Allison: August 31, 2016

Dear Allison,

Several of your columns are clearly meant to be inspirational to other beleaguered criminal defense attorneys. While I appreciate that, I was wondering who some of your inspirations are? Who are some of your legal role models?

Yours,

Repeat Reader

 

Dear and Beloved Reader,

Oh thank you. You have given me an opportunity to talk about my latest favorite person, Mabel Walker Willebrandt. She is my biggest inspiration this week, and I hope by the end of this column, she will be yours, too, whether or not you are a public defender.

allison IMG_1955Mabel was born in 1889 in Missouri, and fell in love with words at an early age, helping her father with the family’s newspaper. She started school at age 13 and later enrolled in a Presbyterian college, which she was expelled from after she won a debate against a professor. It is unclear whether this means that she just challenged the poor guy straight-up or whether the debate was more formalized and he was sour grapes about it, but regardless, she managed to pass a teacher’s exam and began teaching school. The principal soon fell in love with her, and she found herself married to a man several years her senior who suffered from tuberculosis.

They moved to Los Angeles in 1912, and while her husband sought out the sunshine and clean air to try and cure his tuberculosis, Mabel worked as a principal and a teacher, and started going to law school at night because, apparently, she was bored with just taking care of a sick and complaining husband all the time after she got home from a day of eight hours of teaching ungrateful students painfully difficult 19-teen’s grammar and arithmetic.

One can only imagine the things she endured in her day job and night classes as a young, pretty woman trying to be taken seriously. Her husband, who seems like something of a whiny weakling, ended up moving his elderly mother into the house, and for a while, Mabel supported all of them on her teaching salary. Then, in 1916, she ditched them both, got licensed to practice law, and completed her transformation into full-on-badassery.

At first, Mabel kept her job as a principal during the day, and at night started going down to the courthouse and representing women charged with crimes pro-bono. Mostly these were prostitution cases. Somewhat remarkably considering who she was representing and the fact that she herself was a woman and that this was 1916, her reputation in the legal community was stellar.

She was the first female public defender. After handling about 2,000 cases, she stopped teaching school and started taking paying cases, though those were mostly civil. After just five years of practicing law, at age 32, she was appointed as Assistant Attorney General in the Harding administration.

Dear Reader, I know you know all about Warren G. Harding and his presidency. I hope you have not forgotten his…ahem…poetic impulses, but if you have, let me remind you that Harding was a dashing ladies’ man, dropping all kinds of lines on his mistresses like, “”Wouldn’t you like to get sopping wet out on Superior — not the lake — for the joy of fevered fondling and melting kisses? Wouldn’t you like to make the suspected occupant of the next room jealous of the joys he could not know, as we did in morning communion at Richmond?” Oh, dear. Whatever could he mean by, “not the lake”? Is this another case of Lyndon Johnson-style presidential penis naming? But I digress…

Anyway, Harding appointed her to be an Assistant Attorney General, and then, because she was a woman, he made her head up the divisions that were the least popular with everyone- income tax enforcement and prohibition enforcement. Though poor Mabel did not agree with prohibition (hardly anyone did, it seemed, except a couple of higher-ups in the government who were actively poisoning the supply of alcohol in the hopes of literally killing off drinkers), she was given all kinds of crappy, sexist nicknames like “Prohibition Portia” (which, I think, had less to do with comparisons to Shakespeare plays than just being an alliteration with the word “prohibition.” Probably people who come up with nicknames like that aren’t super into Shakespeare. Probably.).

But Mabel did not bat an eye. Instead, she used her position to lobby for federal prison reform in astounding ways- she was hugely influential in building the first women’s prison, so that female inmates didn’t have to be housed with male inmates or be put in segregation. She also advocated for juvenile justice reform and started a juvenile facility for young men.

She also came up with the genius idea of prosecuting bootleggers (and later mobsters like Al Capone) for tax evasion. At the time, it actually wasn’t clear that you had to pay taxes on illegal proceeds. Mabel argued that they were income, and should be taxable like any other income. The opposing side argued that it would be a constitutional (self-incrimination) violation to force someone to declare that they had committed a crime on their income tax form, and that, beyond that, if the US government received proceeds from crimes, then it would technically mean the government was aiding and abetting those crimes, or somehow sanctioning them. Willebrandt did not stand down. She argued in front of an appellate court judge who found against her, and later before the Supreme Court, who sided with her. In one of those times that justice was fully and righteously served, the appellate court judge who found against her was later indicted for tax evasion for failing to declare almost $200,000 of bribes as income on his Federal return.

After Herbert Hoover used her to campaign for him, she assumed he would promote her to a higher office, but he refused. Having completed seven years of service to the US Government, Mabel resigned and went into private practice, later representing a lot of actors and actresses accused of Communism in the McCarthy era. She also became friends with Amelia Earhart and got her pilot’s license.

She makes me feel lazy, which I look for in a role-model, and I admire her everlasting mettle. I could go on and on. I ask myself, and I encourage you to, as well: WWMWWD?

 

Love Always,

Allison

Every week attorney Allison Jackson answers a question sent in from our readers. Have a question for Allison? Write to her at askallison AT hcclatv.com.

Ask Allison: August 24, 2016

Dear Allison,

As an aging lawyer who still remembers when you could win dispositive motions and reverse and render cases on appeal, can you tell me what motivates young lawyers to go into criminal defense?

Yours,

Cranky Carl

 

Dear and Beloved Carl,

Some days, I wake up and am not sure how to answer that question. Maybe today is one of those days. Ok. Definitely today is one of those days. So, Gentle Reader, I’ve chose to answer your question on one of my worst days so that I can perhaps elucidate some things for us both. Sometimes I need to be reminded.

I remind myself that I did not get into this profession because I thought it would bring me success. I got into this profession because I can’t be a spectator.

After my first year of law school, I told the only professor that I liked that I wanted to be a criminal defense attorney, and he suggested that I intern at the District Attorney’s Office, since the Harris County Public Defender’s Office did not yet exist. This, he assured me, is what one did.

It’s a funny thing, dear reader, about supervising attorneys. Some of them are terrible people. I say this, in hindsight, as a person who has developed relationships with men and women who have done some truly awful things. The woman I worked under at the District Attorney’s Office was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad person. Imagine being new to all of this, and eager to please. Imagine feeling like your whole future career was based on the impressions you made at this internship. Imagine being screamed at constantly for being stupid when your supervising attorney misplaced a file, to the point that the secretarial pool complained about the noise.

She once told me she was going to move to increase a defendant’s bond because he had hired an attorney she disliked. She constantly looked for ways to make my day a little worse, and to blame all of her problems on me. In one of the more jaw-droppingly appalling things I’ve ever heard anyone say in real life, she said she could never be a defense attorney because she “hated defendants too much.” She didn’t say she hated criminals. She didn’t say she hated crime. She said she hated defendants– people accused of crimes. She was ignorant and belligerent, and I wouldn’t trust her with a dog I didn’t like, let alone a person’s life.

One day I was observing proceedings in a different courtroom. The defendant as a 19 year-old boy who had just been found guilty of murder and the court was moving on to the sentencing phase of the trial. I remember being able to see his dark skin through his cheap, white collared shirt. The boy had been out on bond for four years prior to the trial, and the pastor of his church got up and spoke at length about the youth groups the young man had been leading and the good works he had done.

The young man started to silently weep, and the prosecutor requested that he be shackled because of what she categorized as “emotional outbursts. And the judge did it.

I walked out of the courtroom because I was having trouble controlling my emotions. I did not know whether I would go back in. For what? To face my horrible supervising attorney in a horrible office? To watch this poor kid and a thousand others like him be shuffled through an unblinking system that didn’t care about them?

I thought about how the young man would probably never go to a restaurant again. Never have a girlfriend, never go to the movies or have children. The small and large things that his life would lack now because of this. I thought about how the things the preacher said about him were probably the nicest things people had ever said about him within his hearing, and I wondered if, on the worst day of his life, he turned and saw me and wondered, even for just a second, who I was and what I had to do with this whole thing.

And, dear reader, that’s the question we all have to answer, I suppose. Who are we, and what do we have to do with this whole thing. Christopher Hitchens implores us, “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.” The justice system in this country, in this county, is both, with the added trait of extreme and overwhelming cruelty.

Just because the fight is crushing and the odds are astronomically against us, doesn’t mean that we have a choice to walk away. It’s like saying that no one should tend to the dying because it won’t matter anyway. Mercy and compassion, and some small hope, somewhere, or at least respect for the concept of hope, dictate otherwise.

Anyone entering into this profession with illusions of grandeur and glory is waiting, and asking for, sore and profound disappointment. We do this because we are called to serve. We do this because we seek to understand and to help the people who society thinks of as the most incomprehensible to be understood.

We do this because compassion and human dignity demand it. We do this because someone has to. We do this because we have seen the workings of the machine, and to be a spectator would be more unbearable than to be beaten. We do this because we die on our feet rather than live on our knees.

Love Always,

Allison

Every week attorney Allison Jackson answers a question sent in from our readers. Have a question for Allison? Write to her at askallison AT hcclatv.com.

Ask Allison: August 17, 2016

Dear Allison,

Are there specific challenges to being a female public defender/defense attorney? I know there have always been hurdles for women, but I wonder if you think that’s still a problem in this progressive day and age?

Yours,

Wondering Wally

 

Dearest Darling Wally,

Why yes. There are. And yes. It is. But sometimes it is advantageous to be a woman in this game, though that doesn’t make it fair.

Once, when I was home during the day studying for the bar exam, a man showed up to repair my air conditioner. “Sign here,” he said, proffering me a clipboard after he’d fixed the A/C. “You can have your husband read the terms of it later.” I laughed because I thought he was kidding, but then realized he wasn’t. I signed, and thanked him, wondering if I should have said anything or whether I should just quietly savor this moment of 50’s era sexism that was brought right to my door.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. Women weren’t even allowed to sit on juries in Texas until 1954, so I imagine things are significantly better for your Darling Allison than they were for those daring lady lawyers who argued cases before juries that they wouldn’t have been permitted to sit on. And I do think things are constantly improving.

While this field has definitely been a boys’ club for a long time, some of the fiercest attorneys with the best win-records are women. Largely, I think this is because those attorneys are brilliant, passionate people with a lot of knowledge and expertise, and their skill has nothing to do with their gender. But I also think there are stereotypes that people rely on about women that we can use to our advantage in the courtroom. For example, if I have a big, tattooed, scary-looking client who is charged with a scary crime, and I’m willing to sit next to him and put my delicate little paw on his shoulder, sometimes that makes him look a little less scary to the jury or the judge. I think women are less likely to be assumed to be crafty or crooked, while older male attorneys often face the stereotype of the “lying” lawyer, especially in front of a jury.

Surprisingly, I have had very few clients who told me that they didn’t want me to be their attorney because I was a woman. In fact, I can only think of one, which was while I was volunteering at a Legal Aid clinic and an older gentleman who was very clearly mentally ill told me that he was uncomfortable talking to me because when he “imagined this (he) imagined talking to a man.” He said he’d talked to a female legal secretary once before, and that she constantly asked him impertinent questions, so he didn’t think I would be a good fit. Sometimes, gentle reader, it’s not the time or place to try and teach someone something, so I quietly asked the facilitator to find the client a new, and male, attorney.

Talking about a criminal offense, or being arrested, or your crummy childhood, or things that happened to you or things you have done is profoundly embarrassing to so many of my clients. I think it’s easier, many times, for defendants to open up to a woman, and I think it’s generally much easier for a female defendant to open up to a woman. Of course there are exceptions to this, and there are some male attorneys who are excellent at developing client relationships, but you know that.

I did have a client fairly recently who was incredibly rude to me. This was not a case of misunderstanding, this was not a matter of just getting-to-know-you and all your fun quirks, this was aggressive, angry, and loud immediately. After multiple attempts at calming him down, just letting him vent, and trying to get him to listen, much to her disappointment in herself, your dear Allison lost her everlasting patience and rapidly and firmly told him where he might go and what he might do when he got there. Suddenly, his face broke into a huge grin. “There you GO!” he said, “There you GO! I was worried when I saw a young-looking girl come in here to represent me. But you got fire in you. That’s what I want in a lawyer. Ok. I’ll listen.” And, amazingly, he did. I think this kind of testing is fairly normal with some clients who are unsure about having a female attorney, and I feel like this particular test is probably more difficult for female attorneys who are not quite as salty as your Darling AJ.

Men who are aggressive are manly. Women who are aggressive are bitches. And it’s difficult to walk the line between doily and dragon lady (I’ll give you three guesses as to which side my default is). There are times, Constant Reader, that I think that if one more male attorney calls me “feisty” (the etymology of which comes from both a derogatory term for a lap dog and from a word meaning “fart”) I will swiftly and effectively render some justice my own damn self. But the truth is that I won’t. That I’ll internally roll my eyes and I’ll externally laugh it off.

Once, in court, I was heatedly negotiating with a male prosecutor and it got to the point we were arguing more than negotiating, which is not what I want to happen. I took a step back, made a joke about something else, and kind of moved on to other things (when you reach an impasse, the best bet, Beloved, is not to keep insisting, because then your opponent just digs in his heels deeper. The best bet is to try again later). A minute later, as I was perusing another case file, the younger prosecutor casually asked me to hand the senior prosecutor standing close to me a file. As I handed it to the older man I said, teasingly, “Younger Prosecutor told me to hand you this. And, you know, I do whatever you guys tell me to do.” The older prosecutor responded, “Well, that’s a good attitude for a woman to have.” I laughed. How retro.

But that was not the time to teach. That comes later. Underestimate me. Please.

Love Always,

Allison

Every week attorney Allison Jackson answers a question sent in from our readers. Have a question for Allison? Write to her at askallison AT hcclatv.com.

Ask Allison: August 10, 2016

Dear Allison,

A friend and I got out of law school together and immediately became solo practitioners. I work very hard and I am building my practice faster than my friend. I was supposed to meet my friend and some other lawyers for a drink. My friend called up to cancel and I was telling my friend it was a great opportunity to network, trying to encourage more interaction with other attorneys. I told my friend I had gotten some case referrals, advice, and it let me blow off some steam after court. My friend said just before we hung up, “I don’t want to be known as another functional alcoholic around the courthouse.” I was flustered and asked my friend if that meant me. My friend stammered and did not deny it was a reference to me. How do I tell if my friend is telling me I have a problem, or just jealous I have been more successful and made better connections?

Maybe a Drunk

 

Dearest Maybe,

I think the answer to your question is that you need to have a heart-to-heart talk with your friend. No matter what your friend was speaking from: legitimate concern for you, jealousy of your career trajectory, or his own stress and frustration, there is something ugly between you two that needs to be confronted.

I think if you’re not sure if you’re an alcoholic, you should probably back off the sauce and see how that feels. In this game, your darling Allison knows how easy it is to get sucked into thinking the only way to network and get to know people is through heavy and sustained drinking and talking about how much we drink. This, dear friend, is wrong.

Your Allison will not deny that when she first started to practice, she also discovered the network of bad boy boozers who tend to gather in a certain smoke-easy bar that shall remain nameless, drinking through the night and telling war stories. It’s thrilling to be included. It’s exciting to meet people you consider Legal Legends and hang out with them and feel like, for a hazy evening, that you are one of them, or at least, that one day you might be.

But the truth is that the people who love good alcohol also usually love good coffee. And if you insist on liquor, the benefit of networking and hanging out and blowing off steam over drinks comes in the first hour or two when clear heads still prevail, and not in the fifth or sixth hour, when you risk your health and safety and won’t remember much anyway. Leave them wanting more, I tell ya. Don’t be the last one to leave the party. And don’t get so sloppy you say or do something you’re going to regret later. Seasoned, older drinkers will remember and you won’t. Don’t be a rube.

I think you also need to question whether the issue is not actually how much you’re drinking, but that you have a reputation for it in a professional setting. Reputations for young lawyers are huge, as I’m sure you know, and what a bummer if your networking sessions are actually making your reputation worse. How awful. If this is actually the case, then I think your friend has done you a huge service. There have been several times I have wanted to reach out to fellow attorneys, especially young ones, and tell them that I have no idea what is actually going on, but people are talking about them in unflattering ways, and the rumor mill is flying about their promiscuity/drunken antics/substance abuse (as an aside, to quote the amazing Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, “I said there was a rumor in Milwaukee. I would know, because I started that rumor.”) Those are things I would really appreciate hearing from someone, as hard as they might be for a friend to tell me.

If you have found a friend that is close enough to talk to you openly about negative things other people are saying about you, I think this is a very valuable friendship. A person that you’ll never have to wonder if you have spinach-in-your-teeth around. If this friend is trying to gaslight you and shame you into feeling self-conscious because they are jealous of your success, I think you should evaluate whether that’s a friend at all and cut your losses before you find out that they’re the source of your bad reputation. I also think that sometimes people just shoot off at the mouth because they’re tired and stressed, and who knows what this kiddo was going through when they said that, yeah?

In my experience, Maybe, it’s not common for people to be as manipulative and deceptive as they are in movies. The darker hearted among us are easy to spot. You already have an inclination about this friend, and whether or not they meant to help or hurt. But go out for a cup of coffee. Don’t remind him that you’re doing better than he is. This game is so new to both of you, you don’t really know that anyway. Chat about what’s going on with him. Ask him real questions and actually listen to the answers. Casually bring up how you’re not drinking so much these days and see if he responds. I have a friend who once said to me, “I love you enough to be happy for you when you get the things that I want.” Look for whether he feels that way toward you, and whether you feel that way towards him.

Best of luck, and write me if you need anything.

Love Always,

Allison

Every week attorney Allison Jackson answers a question sent in from our readers. Have a question for Allison? Write to her at askallison AT hcclatv.com.