The Plea

December 3, 2013

It is Tuesday at 9.30am and I am in the booth.

The booth is a tiny box where I have the honor of talking to my client through an inch of bullet-proof glass. I say “talking”, though it’s really more like yelling, since it’s pretty hard to hear through that glass.

“Booth” is a misnomer too. “Booth” reminds me of the precursor to something fun. You buy tickets to a movie or carnival rides at a booth. No such fun was happening today.

Really, the booth is purgatory, a limbo my clients sit in after they’ve made their way from the prison and to the courthouse basement’s holding cells, but before they enter the courtroom where they await final judgment.

This particular morning, I am wearing a navy flannel Brooks Brothers No. 1 sack suit, a white shirt I freshly pressed at 5.30 that morning, and a somber tie that reflected my mood.

In gross juxtaposition, my client is in an orange prison jumpsuit and has a thermal on underneath to keep warm. I guess this hell follows Dante’s rules.

My client is a good man who’d recently made a series of terrible decisions, all of which led to where he is today. Despite his cock-ups, he was truthful and admitted his mistakes not only to his family, but to members of his community.

Then the police became involved.

And he got arrested.

And his mistakes became a “case.”

And that’s how we ended up on opposite sides of the same sheet of glass on Tuesday at 9.32am.

Today, he is ready to plead guilty to the charges against him. In exchange for giving up his Constitutional right to a jury trial, he is offered a sentence far less than what he would see if he were found guilty at trial.

Though we’ve already done this before back up at prison, I review with him one last time his written guilty plea colloquy, and explain to him word by word the rights he is giving up by pleading guilty. I’m reading it to him like I’d read “Hop on Pop” to a kindergartner.

But he’s not a kindergartner. He’s a grown man. And this isn’t “Hop on Pop.”

It’s 9.34am. I’ve finished reviewing the colloquy with him. He’ll sign it out in the courtroom, since now his hands are shackled behind his back and we’re separated by an inch of bullet-proof glass.

It’s 9.35am, and I can only watch as my client sobs and tears stream down his face.

You see, up until this point he’s been a man of god. An educated guy, he’s worked the same job for the last 25 years, and been married to the woman he loves for the last 30. He’s lost all of that now.

(Did I miss the day in law school they taught you how to handle this?)

According to the arrangement with the District Attorney’s office, he faces up to five years in a state correctional institution for the crimes he’s pleading to. If he’s really good (including credit for time served) he’ll get out in about two years. If he runs into problems in prison, he’s going to miss his son’s high school graduation.

I ask him if he as any more questions for me before we go into the courtroom.

“Lord Jesus, what have I done? Will God forgive me? My wife’s left me. Leo, what am I going to do?”

He spits out this sentence between sobs. A man, broken. But in an instant, he musters up all the dignity he has left. He toughens up his features and tries to wipe his eyes on his elbow—which is difficult seeing as his arms are handcuffed behind his back—and puts on an air of stoicism.

And I tell him. “Bill [not his real name], when the court officer asks you how you plead, you say ‘Guilty’”.

He nods.

According to that fancy framed piece of paper from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court hanging on the wall of my office, I’m an attorney and counselor at law. But the three years of schooling and two years out in practice hadn’t prepared me for this—telling a grown man, through bullet proof glass, who until thirty seconds ago had been crying like a baby, that he was going to be spending the next five-ish years of his life outside of the city he’s lived in his whole life, shipped out to Bumblefuck, Pennsylvania (which alone would be enough of a shock) to take up residence at the taxpayer’s expense in a state correctional institution. And I can tell you that a state correctional institution is no Sandals resort. Hell, it’s not even a Howard Johnson.

“Leo, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?” He asks me. While his expression is still stoic, his bloodshot, watery eyes belie his terror. That look—the feeble attempt to cover fear with toughness—it’s a look that will quickly become familiar to me.

(Remind me, what the fuck did Two Ships Peerless do to prepare me for this?)

At 9.37am, two knocks on the door interrupt us. The court crier pokes his head in. “The Judge is ready,” he says, then shuts the door behind him.

I stand up. Bill stands up, hands cuffed behind his back, and the sheriff walks in prepared to lead him out to the courtroom.

Through the glass I shout: “Bill, I’ll see you inside. It’s been my honor to represent you. Remember — everyone is better than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”

I turn and walk out of the booth, prepared to meet my client in the courtroom for judgment.


Self promotion — but at what cost to clients?

June 1, 2013

ShamelessSelfPromotionI’ve been struggling recently with the concept of lawyers’ self-promotion via the media.

Recently, I’ve noticed attorneys in several high-profile cases end up with a camera in front of them and a reporter shoving a microphone into their face, asking them for a comment. Some of these lawyers are younger; others have been around long enough that I presume they know what they’re doing.

Until the lawyer gives a soundbite that could not possibly help their client, and seems calculated only  to get the lawyer’s name out in the evening news.

Read the rest of this entry »


Of Unreasonable Searches and Seizures and Twitter fights.

April 2, 2013

Of Unreasonable Searches and Seizures and Twitter fights.

I get into a twitter fight over the illegality of Stop and Frisk as implemented by the PPD with the Philadelphia District Attorney, and next thing I know I’m on Philebrity.

Maybe Twitter is useful for more than sharing cat pictures.*

*Like sharing dog pictures.

P.S. Stop and frisk is still bullshit.


Developers and RCOs Take Heed: the Zoning Code Changes on March 25, 2013 — Bill No. 120889

February 6, 2013
"New" is all relative anyway.

“New” is all relative anyway.

Get ready for some changes in the New Zoning Code.

On January 24, 2013, Philadelphia City Council overrided Mayor Nutter’s veto and voted Bill No. 120889 into place. The Bill goes into effect on March 25, 2013. And just last night, we received a fact sheet from the Philadelphia City Planning Commission that displays the major changes, which mainly affect developers and Registered Community Organizations.

What does this mean for you? Well, if you’re a developer or on the board of a RCO, you have some new rules to follow, and probably some more work to do. Here’s a quick greatest hits.

Read the rest of this entry »


The Value of Going Off-Grid.

January 7, 2013
A Kensington Kristmas Window. Which I enjoyed while on vacation.

A Kensington Kristmas Window. Which I enjoyed. While on vacation.

It’s been a slow last few weeks here on Philly Law Blog — namely because we’ve been on vacation. I didn’t realize that stepping away could feel so good.

I’ve never really had the opportunity before. You see, throughout most of my life, I’ve worked retail jobs, including Starbucks, pizza shops, and clothing stores. And as those of you who’ve worked in the customer service industry know, your time is rarely your own. Vacation days don’t exist. You rarely get to call out sick. And sometimes, if there’s a no-show, you get called in to work on a day you expected to have off. Finally, those days that everyone else gets off — “holidays” — yea, well, those are usually the biggest retail days of the year.

Granted, being a lawyer is pretty damned similar. Your time is not your own. I recall that saying, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” Well, the legal equivalent of that is “no vacation survives contact with clients, opposing counsel, or a judge.” Read the rest of this entry »


Jury Duty.

December 13, 2012

I reported Monday morning to the Criminal Justice Center at 8am for Jury Duty. I think I was the only person remotely excited to be there.

I sat all day today in the Criminal Justice Center waiting to get called to a panel, watching scores of people groan as their names were called, trudging their way into voir dire. I waited for my name to be called.

And I waited straight through noon, when they let us out for lunch. And I waited when we got back from lunch at 1.00pm.

Finally, around 3.30pm, I heard my name and got my juror number — 65. We took the elevator up to the 11th floor and waited in the jury box. After sitting another 30 minutes, the crier came out and announced that we weren’t needed, and we should go back downstairs where they’d dismiss us.

Damn.

At least I got my $9.00 check to show for it. That, and a lack of sleep, since I spent another 8 hours making up for the work I missed.

Maybe I’ll have better luck next time.


FOP President John McNesby Can’t Stop Saying Stupid Things.

December 7, 2012

FOP President John McNesby Can’t Stop Saying Stupid Things.

Yesterday, I posted about the officers whose testimony was so incredible that the DA didn’t want to call them as witnesses anymore. Veteran attorney Brad Bridge of the Defender Association remarked that the officers were “among the most troubled in the department.”

The officers,

  • Perry Betts;
  • Brian Reynolds;
  • Michael Spicer;
  • Thomas Liciardello;
  • Brian Speiser; and
  • Lt. Robert Otto

were named in several Internal Affairs investigations and civil rights lawsuits alleging the use of excessive force, false arrests, and filing false reports.

Unsurprisingly, the shit has now hit the fan. Yesterday, the District Attorney withdrew charges against two men who’d been charged with drug dealing — all because of the lying liars of the Narcotics Unit.

From today’s Inquirer:

Two men accused of drug dealing had charges against them dropped Thursday after their attorney told a judge that five Philadelphia antinarcotics officers involved in their case had “partnered with drug dealers” in crime.

According to the article, defense attorney Larry Krasner argued to Judge Charles Hayden that:

“There was a group of police officers who essentially partnered with certain drug dealers, and they partnered with those drug dealers to do things that were both illegal and outright crimes.”

The Assistant District Attorney Bret Furbur remarked:

 “[T]he [District Attorney's] office, my higher-ups, have informed me the case is going to be withdrawn.”

Naturally, it logically follows that the DA realized there was a substantial credibility issue with the narcotics unit officers. Further, it makes sense that when you’re trying get convictions (as ADAs are wont to do), it helps to call witnesses who are believable. Since these officers proved wholly unreliable, why would the DA want to call them as witnesses any longer?

But instead of noting that maybe, just maybe, FOP5 should raise the bar and suggest that their officers take that oath to tell the truth seriously, McNesby points the finger at District Attorney Seth Williams:

“[District Attorney Seth Williams] has no idea how to run the office. He doesn’t know the ramifications of what he’s done. He’s not just gotten these guys transferred, he’s tarnished their careers.”

He must have a variation on Tourette syndrome, where the afflicted impulsively says stupid things all the time. He just can’t help himself! Blaming the DA for FOP5 officer’s poor conduct that renders them incredible — now that’s really incredible.

After I shook my head in disbelief for a few minutes, I decided to put fingers to keyboard and pen this open letter.

Dear John:

I think you might find that the officers’ “tarnished careers” is the result that they’re 1) lying under oath; 2) the DA’s office realizes they’re lying under oath; 3) they’re constantly being sued under §1983 for civil rights violations; and 4) they’re all the subject of several IAB investigations.

Oh, John, reputations are important. When you have a reputation for being a dirty cop who does whatever he can to get a conviction, well, that kind of taint is difficult to remove. But these reputations don’t just appear out of thin air — they’re earned and well-deserved.

And when an officer’s reputation is such that even the DA doesn’t believe them anymore — well, that’s it’s not the DA’s fault. In fact, I’m pretty certain that DA Williams knows exactly what he’s doing by refusing to use them. He should be commended by refusing to rely on officers with combustible pants.

Maybe — just maybe — this will teach other officers out there a lesson. When you swear to tell the truth and the whole truth, you do it. When you swear an oath to preserve and uphold the law and our constitution, you do it.

Sure, I understand that you’re the president of FOP5, and since it’s an elected position you have a reputation to upkeep among the members. But your reputation with the citizenry, at this point, is nil. And you’re not helping the public perception of the PPD as working to protect their own first, the public second.

When you rush to defend even the worst of the police force, you tarnish the best of FOP5 as well.

So next time you point your finger at the DA for refusing to call dirty cops to the stand, think about where blame really lies.

Or just keep saying stupid things; you seem to excel at that.

In the meantime, Mr. Williams, keep doing the right thing.

[Ed. — Defense attorney Michael Coard, in his article "The 4 Most Annoying White People in Philadelphia" has the following to say about Mr. McNesby, which made me chuckle:

He wants all criminals jailed forever. So who’s gonna wear the blue uniforms, drive the white cars and beat the black people up when the good cops’ shifts end?]


Six narcotics police transferred because even the DA doesn’t believe their testimony.

December 6, 2012

Six narcotics police transferred because even the DA doesn’t believe their testimony.

File the following statement by FOP president John Mc Nesby under “irony” or “taste of own medicine”:

John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, said that the transfers were based on “unfounded accusations” by the District Attorney’s Office and that the allegations should have been investigated first.

“When you’ve got an aggressive group of officers, you’re going to have people who aren’t happy,” McNesby said. “These guys took a lot of guns off the streets, took a lot of drugs off the streets. They did a lot of good work for the city.

Right, John. Because the “good work” they do means that they should be able to run roughshod over the rights of the citizens of the city. Enforcing “the law” is paramount — everyone else be dammed. Truth, Justice, and the American Way? Those are for some big blue boy scout in tights.

Besides, it’s not like they ever threatened anyone’s life while in the line of duty, right?

When the officers caught up to him, Conolly said, he got out of the car with hands raised, but [the officers] threw him to the ground and choked, kicked, and punched him as he yelled for help. [Officer] Liciardello, he said, put a gun to the back of [Connolly's] head and told him, “We are the cops. If you don’t shut up, I will put a . . . bullet in your head.”

The article finishes with this gem:

McNesby has maintained the innocence of those officers.”It’s a sad day,” he said, “when you have the criminals in the city dictating where cops are going to be working.”

No, John. It’s a sad day when police feel and act like they’re above the law they’re sworn to uphold. And last I checked, it was the District Attorney’s Office that didn’t want to call these officers any longer because they’re lying liars:

According to multiple sources, the District Attorney’s Office recently informed Ramsey that prosecutors no longer wanted to call the officers to testify in drug cases. Those sources said the District Attorney’s Office had determined that the officers’ credibility was too badly damaged.

By the way, these are the officers who are no longer credible:
Transferred to the center city district:
  • Perry Betts
  • Brian Reynolds
  • Michael Spicer
  • Thomas Liciardello
  • Brian Speiser were transferred to Center City districts or the traffic unit.

Transferred to South Detectives:

  • Lt. Robert Otto

Want to be Pulled Over? Sign up for Philadelphia’s S.A.V.E Program.

December 4, 2012
You have rights. These books say so.

You have rights. These books say so.
They are precious. Don’t sign them away.

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

These wise words attributed to founder Benjamin Franklin are too often lost on many today who figure “Well, I’m not doing anything wrong, so why shouldn’t I just agree to let police do whatever they want?”

And I thought on Franklin’s words today, after I learned about this little program here in Philadelphia called S.A.V.E. — a too-cute acronym for Stolen Auto Verification Effort. Let me explain this program to you. No, better yet, I’ll let the police explain it to you:

All Districts in the city still do the S.A.V.E. (Stolen Auto Verification Effort) program….

The SAVE program is a decal you put on your automobile that basically states that you don’t normally drive your vehicle late at night (between 12am and 6am). By putting this decal on your vehicle you are stating that you would like that vehicle to be pulled over if it is seen operating during those hours to ensure that the vehicle isn’t stolen.

Yes, you’re reading that right. It is literally a sign to the police that says “Please pull me over”. Read the rest of this entry »


Check out my PhiLAWdelphia guest post on professional menswear.

June 18, 2012


 

 

 

This is the first of a few guest posts I’ll be writing for the Philadelphia Bar Association Young Lawyers’ Division blog, PhilLAWdelphia. Feel free to leave feedback, criticism, snark, etc. in the comments here or there.


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