Thursday, February 18, 2010

This Is Old City Hall, Day 14

I was at the courthouse at 9:00 a.m., but I managed to miss Justice B-----. So much for a good first impression. I got to Courtroom 128 at 10:15 and court was already in session. A man was pleading guilty to driving with 140 mg of alcohol per 100 mL of blood. He was issued the minimum sentence: a $600 fine, one-year driving suspension. Pretty lucky, all things considered. At the morning recess, His Honour bolted out the door and I had to jog behind him, yelling, before I could introduce myself. We are off to a rousing start.

His Honour is the sixth judge I've shadowed but the first to assign me some research. Counsel for a man accused of assault alleges that no information was produced at his client's first court appearance, which prompted a loss of jurisdiction requiring a new summons to be issued, and since no such process was forthcoming after ninety days the matter ought to be dismissed for want of prosecution ZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzz ... Clearly there has been a mistake and His Honour was expecting a competent student. One of my classmates, perhaps.

But that was for later in the week. First and foremost His Honour was concerned that probation officers weren't taking seriously their obligations to enforce judicial orders for community service. The accused before him that morning was ordered to perform 150 hours of community service. In 15 months, he had finished a mere 27 hours. The man said he met his probation officer each month and insisted that he would soon take a month off work and plough through the whole thing at once.

As someone who frequently procrastinates and devises ludicrous, quixotic timelines -- this blog is proof positive of that -- I understand the man's impulse. But how was he expecting to feed his family for that month? In the 15 months, did he put any money away, make a nest-egg to tide himself over? Anyway, he said he worked two to three days a week. Why does he think he needs time off? His Honour tightened up the conditions of probation and that was that.

The rest of the day was devoted to another drunk driving trial. The accused was self-represented. He attempted to cross-examine the arresting officer himself. His hands were shaking while he did it. He didn't ask questions so much as allege that his actions subsequent to the traffic stop were reasonable and not indicative of intoxication, that the officer didn't administer the breathalyzer properly, that he didn't hear the officer inform him of his rights. His Honour, trying to be as accommodating as possible, turned to the officer after each accusation and said, "I'm going to take that as a question."

The officer was pretty unflappable. Rightfully so: he knew that it was his word against that of the accused, and in that circumstance the police officer is usually the winner, notwithstanding the court's claim to the contrary. He was polite. He was patient and gentle when addressing the accused's "questions", even when repeating his direct testimony or simply saying, "That's not what happened. You're mistaken. I disagree."

Guess which way that trial went.

Denying a person counsel in a criminal court effectively guarantees they will be found guilty in a complex matter like an over-80 case. But there will be more self-represented accused until legal aid loosens the purse strings, and that can't happen until they have a lot more funding and support. And that can't happen until something really tragic prompts a real appetite for reform. So don't drink and drive. And if you don't have any money, maybe just stay off the road altogether, unless your secret ambition is to have a public inquiry named after you.

  • During a brief recess, I spied the lawyer I think of as Methuselah, sitting with a client. It occurs to me I should approach him to article. He could probably use the help.
  • On the Kafkaesque layout of the court: in the basement, administrative offices are denoted by letters; on the third floor, letters mean specialized courtrooms; everywhere else, courtrooms use numbers, and they all start with 1, no matter what floor you're on. Whose bright idea was this!
  • What's the connection between law enforcement and baldness? Don't tell me there isn't one.

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