How COVID Broke The Criminal Courts – Blog 2 (Access to Courts)

August 11, 2020

 By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

www.texasdefensefirm.com

(972) 369-0577

One of the things I miss most with the pandemic is not seeing everyone at the Courthouse every day.

Being a defense lawyer is like being an athlete who shows up to the same clubhouse 3 or 4 times every week.  Over the years you have the opportunity to develop social, collegial, and professional relationships with everyone in the building.  You get to know other defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges, court coordinators, bailiffs and even the security guards at the front door.

These relationships are more than just fun.  They are the “WD-40” of courthouse efficiency.  It goes without saying being face to face allows everyone in the building to do their jobs more efficiently.  Not only that, being physically in the courthouse allows me to solve 10 problems a morning instead of just 2 if I’m trying only to work the phone.

Put in its simplest terms — I have a much more challenging time being an active influence for my client when I’m not “in the room where it happens.”

The limited access to prosecutors and court personnel presents two main problems.

Courthouse pictureFirst, is the limited ability to communicate.  In grade school we learn about verbal and non-verbal communication.  The stuff happens to be true.  Advocating for a client in person where the prosecutor or Judge can see and sense the depth and passion of an argument — even an informal one — is far better in person.  Texting, phoning, and even zoom simply isn’t as effective.

The second is simple access to prosecutors and court personnel.  During normal times it is much easier for me to be able to — for example — grab a prosecutor and visit with a Judge quickly about troubleshooting a problem either on the bench or in chambers.  Hurdles to those conversations are far more easy to overcome.  What used to take minutes can now take weeks.

Life will get back to normal.  My hope is that when it does, the ability to communicate with everyone at the courthouse does too.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.  He is currently designated as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.

 

 


How COVID Broke the Criminal Courts – Blog 1 (No Jury Trials)

August 5, 2020

By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

www.texasdefensefirm.com

(972) 369-0577

Whether we like it or not the Coronavirus pandemic has been a transformational event – and its impact on the Courts and criminal law practice is no exception.  Some of it will be temporary and some of the transformation will be here to stay.

broken-bulb

Big Picture View of the Criminal Court System

Think of our court system as a pipeline with water going through it.  Cases go in on one end, and are channelled in certain directions to be resolved either by plea, dismissal or trial.  One of the Courts’ central roles is to simply move the cases through the system.

Certainly, the Courts have vital roles in the outcome – but as I explain to clients frequently – the Courtroom has two tables, one Judge and one witness stand.  They can’t weigh in on all 2,500 cases they’re assigned at one time.

The Role of the Jury Trial in the Process

Trial would be like the end of the water line which would typically spit the unused water out and be done with it.  It is the mechanism which closes cases the parties can’t resolve on their own.

But another crucial aspect of a Jury trial is this — parties typically also want to avoid them.  They’re uncertain.  They can be expensive for someone charged with a crime.  They can inflict real pain on a person standing trial or a witness in the trial.  Prosecutors won’t admit this – but they get paid the same whether they’re sitting at their desk or trying a case and many of them don’t want to put in the effort of a trial.  So trials also serve the critical function of pressuring criminal defendant and the prosecutor to come to some sort of agreement short of a trial.

Also there are some cases which simply have to be tried in the criminal world.  Take a Continuous Sexual Abuse of a child case where the Defendant serves 25-years to life with no parole if convicted.  If the Defendant is over 50 years old – there is simply very little reason for them to plead guilty in any event.

Pandemics and Jury Trials Don’t Mix

We can’t have typical jury trials in a pandemic.  It’s not safe and there is really no substitute.  Jury trials via zoom or other platform almost certainly violate rights to face your accusers in open court.  The jury system was also predicated on an assumption the jury can get to the truth by watching witnesses in person.

The System is Temporarily Out of Service

Not only is the mechanism we use to resolve cases not working during the pandemic — more importantly parties aren’t feeling pressured to resolve cases.

Prosecutors are currently making plea offers based on what they think a fair outcome would be for a case based on what they’ve seen as fair results in the past.  But they ignore the Defense has very little incentive — in many circumstances — in pleading guilty.

A Defendant on bond (and the vast majority are) doesn’t have to worry about upsetting a probation officer and going back to jail on a misdemeanor case.  On a felony case where the State thinks 8 years of prison is a fair offer — a defendant on bond is rarely going to sign up for that where the alternative is living a relatively normal life for another year.

Prosecutors and criminal defendants aren’t on the same wavelength with regards to resolving cases and the reason is the pressure-mechanism isn’t working.

Why Don’t Judges Just Try to do Jury Trials Anyway?

Judges could try to force the issue – but they fear making the matter worse by utilizing resources to try a case via Zoom only to have the Court of Appeals making them re-do the trial when the pandemic is over.

The Fix

The system will get back to normal once cases begin going back to jury trials.  When that will be is another issues.  But when jury trials do begin to crank up again — just like a water-pipeline with built-up pressure — you can expect excess pressure there too.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in Criminal Law.  He is Currently Recognized as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.

 

 


Police Reports: Dishonesty by Omission

June 16, 2020

By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

www.texasdefensefirm.com

(972) 369-0577

Here’s Minneapolis PD’s press release from the George Floyd murder:

Screen Shot 2020-06-11 at 8.23.03 AM

Of course, this was before they knew they’d been caught on a camera they didn’t control. It’s fiction.  They left out the part where Officer Chauvin had his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck.  Or that he had it there for nine minutes.  Nothing to see here, folks.  Move along, right?  Even worse, MPD paints themselves as the heroes of this story.  “Even though we didn’t do anything wrong, we called for an investigation…”

Are the statements actually made in the press release true or false?  Well, I suppose most are actually true.  He did appear to be suffering medical distress.  An ambulance was called (way too late), and no weapons were used assuming you don’t count Officer Chauvin’s knee.

Yet, the press release is a work of fiction because it omits critical and relevant aspects of the truth.

And this is how many, many police reports we review on a regular basis deceive as well.  A DWI report might say things like, “suspect did not know his location, stumbled out of the car, and had red bloodshot eyes” where those things are apparent.  But you’ll never see a report which says, “He knew where he was, exited the vehicle perfectly and his eyes looked normal” even if they are true too.  Fiction.

A common example I give to client’s about why they should exercise the 5th Amendment is this:

  • You:  My friend and I went to the party.  We didn’t see anyone there we really knew.  It was very uncomfortable.  I think we finished about half of a beer each and we decided to leave.
  • Police Report:  Suspect admitted entering the house.

Does the report say anything untrue?  I suppose not.  But its a lie.

The public gets a small taste with this news snippet of the perennial challenge of trying to take police reports at face value.  You just can’t.  Even when reports don’t exaggerate or don’t outright state mis-truths, then can still be extremely dishonest.

Part of the process of defending someone is filling in the gaps which comprise the truth.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.  He is currently designated as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.

 


Zoom Jury Trials — “It’s Good Enough” Lowers the Standard in Our Courtrooms

May 19, 2020

By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

www.texasdefensefirm.com

(972) 369-0577

Collin County is kicking around the idea of jury trials via Zoom or some other similar platform.  They just tried a virtual jury trial – sort of.  It was a “summary jury trial” which is a practice run typically for wealthier litigants.  The fake jury comes back and tells the parties what they think the outcome should be — and the parties then consider settling.

***What did you say?  Sorry.  Go ahead.***

And not to pick on Zoom.  There are other similar platforms too, but I’ll just collectively refer to them here as Zoom.  Sorry.

Judges organizing and developing the idea get A’s for ingenuity, effort, and passion for their jobs.

But it’s still a terrible idea.  Remember, a jury trial is often the most important day in one or more person’s entire life.  Here are some of the biggest reasons I can think of:

Screen Shot 2020-05-19 at 9.14.28 AM

  1.  Over Simplification of Human Communication

Human communication is complex, intricate and amazingly subtle.

I’ve interviewed thousands of potential jurors  — and I have cross examined hundreds of witnesses.  Many, many jurors cannot give my client a fair trial but would still swear they could.  Many, many witnesses want to make sure I lose and evade questions until they are pinned into answering.  A critical part of my job in the courtroom is to hone in on the most minor of cues from a juror or witness.   An eye dart.  A smirk.  Posture.  Hand position.  Voice tone or inflection… and on and on an on.

***Sorry.  Lost you for a second.***

Zoom and other similar platforms are — at least for now — tone deaf.  These subtleties are either flattened, lost, or are drowned out in 20-people being crammed onto an 18-inch monitor.

And there is something to be said about accountability of the jurors too.  Jurors deliberate knowing they will have to go back into the courtroom and look me, my client, the prosecutor and in many cases a victim in the eye.  Jurors who share less of an emotional stake in the outcome will give the parties less of their focus and attention.

2.  Too Much is At Stake

For criminal defendants decades may hang in the balance not to mention the tidal wave which hits their families and loved ones which can be practical, financial and certainly emotional.  For victims it is their opportunity to be heard and have the jury see how real and fresh their pain truly is.

Zoom is probably fine for quick interactions and brief hearings.  It’s a great tool to visit with clients both incarcerated and free on bond.  It’s probably fine for motions practice with a Judge, lawyers, and possibly other witnesses during routine hearings too.

But any one of us would feel cheated and angry if we or our loved ones were sitting in jail after a trial where we couldn’t even see the jurors or our accusers in person.  Any victim whose defendant is acquitted will feel the same way too.

***Wait, who is talking?  Sorry!***

This is a jury trial — not a teamwork meeting or happy hour.  Can you imagine deciding something as critical and complex as a sexual assault shaping the lives of countless people without some sort of personal interaction?

3.  If Anyone Cares — It Violates a Bunch of Rights

This is a blog — not an amicus brief or a law review article.  So I apologize if I keep this quick and direct.

***Look at that guy’s cat!  He will knock down that picture on the wall***

Let’s start with the right to confront witnesses under the Sixth Amendment.  Then we’ll go to Due Process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment.  Then let’s talk about the umpteen-million opinions you’ll see about the jurors ability to judge witnesses based on x, y, and z.  Or maybe we just throw those all out because we need to get our docket moving?!?

Make no mistake — Judges are asking the specific question, “Can I get away with this without getting reversed?”  My message to them — be my guest but don’t complain about trying the case when it comes back on appeal.

Bottom Line

Is Zoom “good enough?”  Perhaps in some ways and for some things.  People can talk, listen and see videos and exhibits.  But until the platform is as good as the Jedi Counsel meeting where Yoda can sit in his chair remotely from Kashyyyk and interact – it won’t be the same.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and is designated as a Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.

 

 

 

 

 


What Constitutes a Win?

February 20, 2020

By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

www.texasdefensefirm.com

(972) 369-0577

Winning

From time to time I’m asked what my win-loss record is.  It’s a fair question, I suppose, from someone whose not around defense lawyers all-day every-day.

The question assumes all cases are equal in complexity, difficulty – and all people facing the dilemma of a criminal cases have the same tolerances for risk or life pressures which affect their decisions.  So I like to joke “last year, I made the playoffs.”  It normally gets a chuckle – but the person typically gets the point.

A sexual assault allegation where consent is blurred by alcohol consumption is much different than a bank robbery caught on tape.  Also the pressures facing a pilot arrested for a DWI and the loss of a lucrative livelihood aren’t the same as a college student studying for an MBA who got arrested for marijuana.  My goal is to clear everyone’s record who comes into my office – but not all cases are equal.

It’s unethical for any lawyer to guarantee results.  This makes sense because we are in the profession of quantifying unpredictable variables.  I know what the law says should happen — but unless I’m actually both your lawyer and the judge in a case, I can’t guarantee it will happen.  I know how the prosecutor will likely approach your case — but until I’m both the prosecutor and your lawyer in a case, I can’t guarantee what will happen either.  And then there are juries.  Don’t even get me started with them.

So what constitutes a win is often relative.  Make no mistake — I hate losing and I’ll always do my best to completely clear my client’s record in every case.  Sometimes it can be a really tall mountain.  If it is a bad felony charge we can often get it reduced if winning is too unrealistic.  If we can’t win a case which might result in losing a job or even a career – then we can often get the charges reduced to something my client can live with.  I’m in a tough business.  There are cases which come in my door where a great outcome is simply less time in prison.

The one thing a lawyer can always guarantee is how they treat you and their effort.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is an attorney licensed to practice in the State of Texas and is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.