Today I met my first client. But we have to back up a bit.
Last night I called in to Public Defender Services (PDS) and requested to “pick up” a non-citation misdemeanor case for Wed. We had to leave other info about ourselves, including our swanky new student bar card numbers!!! (Holy shit!). This put us in a queue to pick up a misdemeanor case – which means 3 hours or so after our client is assigned to us, we have to have met with them and entered a plea in the arraignment court, a court in which your client is charged before the judge, enters a plea, and a trial date for the charges is set. Depending on how that arraignment turns out, the client can be released on personal recognizance (not ‘personal reconnaissance’ as one (non-clinic!) attorney kept asking for), bond, supervised release of some kind, or be held in jail (pending a status hearing) until trial. So there’s a lot to do in a few hours and your client’s liberty is certainly on the line.
So, with all that in mind, this morning I got up at 7, got the CBS (cheap black suit) ready, and was on the bus by 8am, but not before I went back into my house for an umbrella, then back again for a legal pad. Due to an accident on 16th street, I was only 5 blocks from my apt. by 8:30 and was sweating profusely and imagining all kinds of disaster scenarios. However, traffic sped up on the other side of the bottle-neck and I made it to the court well before list-posting time. Enough time, in fact, to grab a coffee and a pastry at the Firehook and stake out a comfortable cafeteria chair in the on-site clinic “office” (a.k.a. the court cafeteria). The Moultrie Courthouse in DC is a brooding monstrosity of a building housing, among other things, the Superior Court. It’s not as soul crushing on the exterior as the Tax Court is, but still, the Moultrie is not a friendly looking building by any means. I’d post an image of the place, but they’re hard to find. Some security issue?
After a discussion of how powdered the local eggs were, my fellow clinicians and I consulted a freshly-posted list to find our clients. Mine was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia under DC code §48-1103. The elements of this offense are:
1. The defendant unlawfully intended to use drug paraphernalia to plant, propagate, cultivate, grow, harvest, manufacture, compound, convert, produce, process, prepare, test, analyze, pack, repack, store, contain, conceal, inhale, ingest;
2. The defendant unlawfully planned to otherwise introduce into the human body a controlled substance by use of this object.
The offense is punishable by a $1,000 fine or a prison term of up to six months.
We then used the information on the list to look up any prior contact with the DC court system that our client may have had. Most had records and my client was no exception.
After printing out our client’s histories, we scrambled downstairs to meet our clients for the first time in lockup. Lockup is where the put you after they arrest you. You’ve been processed by this point, which means interviewed, given an ID bracelet, relieved of your wallet, shoe laces, belts, and, in general, dignity. You’re then dumped in one of two gender-separated holding cells with a metal grille through which you can talk with your attorney. The bars are pained with a chipping orange industrial paint, the whole place stinks (literally) and you may have gone up to 24 hours without food or decent sleep.
I was pretty confidant that we’d get my client out that afternoon on personal recognizance as there are only 4 types of holds that could apply to her situation. We could rule 3 of them out easily, and the 4th seemed a bit of a stretch. The charge also looked pretty weak. In fact, while I wanted my client out without the risk of the Govt. even asking for a hold, if the Govt. *had* attempted to hold her, I could have made a good probable cause argument during the Gerstein phase of the hold exchange (See Gerstein v Pugh). Basically, that means that if the Govt. does want to hold a person in my client’s situation, there’s an opportunity for the defense to make an argument in front of the judge that my clinet should go free (pending a hearing) because the proscutor shouldn't be the person who determines if there's probable cause to hold my client. (I.e., based on the government's own reports, a magistrate would not find probable cause). Apparently you almost never win these, but I liked our argument. (Sorry to be vague – client confidences, etc.).
After breaking with my client, getting some phone numbers to call, calling those, and trying to confirm what facts I could, I sat down with a cup of mass produced Navy Bean soup (in our ‘office’) and worked on the hold/bond arguments I’d possibly be using. You really don’t know what the Govt. will do when you get in there so it’s best to be prepared. The clinic supervisor went over my client’s record and my arguments with me to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.
All the clinicians (I know it’s not proper, but I can’t resist) then trooped into courtroom C-10 (arraignment court) at 1pm and began our long wait on the hard yellow benches. The room has an odd oval screen of Plexiglas as the bar, with the result that you really feel separate from the activity in court when you’re sitting in the gallery. After an hour and a half I started to irrationally worry that my client had been called when I was stupefied by the distant droning voices and the smeary images of the distant judge and attorneys.
My client was called in at 2:50 or so and the Govt. announced they were “no papering” the case. When the prosecutor drops charges before formally filing them at arraignment the case is considered "no-papered." (By comparison, if the prosecutor files charges at the arraignment but drops them before a preliminary hearing, the case is considered "nolle prosequi,” which means the government declined to prosecute. If the prosecutor drops the charges after that preliminary hearing then the case is considered “dismissed.”)
This, of course, is perhaps the best option for my client. She gets to leave and the case, more or less, is done.
I met with my client after she walked out, explained the situation to her, and advised her on how things stood and what options she had.
This ended my first day in court. Now I’m back on campus, perhaps hitting the gym, certainly hitting the books, and hopefully, not too long from now, heading home, where I will, tomorrow night, make that same call back into PDS and attempt to get another arraignment for this Friday.
Apologies for the small gaps in the story and generalizations. I remind everyone that the blog is a blog, best viewed as fiction that tells the truth. I am forbidden to discuss certain things about my clients and their experiences, and I will further play it safe by mudding up the waters with details that are not, in fact, true. But I hope the story itself contains some truth in its greater sense, which was to attempt to convey what doing a pickup (a first pickup) is like at the Criminal Justice Clinic.
Once again, I follow in the footsteps of AI - click here to read his year-gone-by account of a his early Crim Clinic experiences).