I’ve been a lawyer for some time now, and while nothing the legal system does surprises me anymore, it never ceases to amaze me. This story is about a client of mine. Since the case is ongoing, I will call her "Michelle Smith" to maintain anonymity.
Michelle Smith went to the grocery store on October 29, 2017, only to find a police officer standing behind her car when she left the store. He informed her that an arrest warrant had been issued for her and that he needed to arrest her. She thought he was joking. After learning he was not and telling him that there was no way this could be true, she saw that he would not relent and was determined to arrest her.
The officer then arrested her and never read Miranda warnings to her. She was taken away from her family, processed at the police station, and spent the night in jail. She missed her son’s eighth birthday party. She was humiliated. Michelle now has a criminal record.
This not-so-happy story began back on December 21, 2016. Michelle was walking her dog Trixie, a registered service dog, on a beach here in California. At one point, she was approached by a local law enforcement officer who told her that dogs were not allowed on the beach according to a city ordinance.
Michelle duly informed the officer that Trixie was, in fact, a service dog and allowed under the ordinance; however, she did not have the official service certificate for her dog with her at that time. The officer refused to accept her truthful explanation and cited her for violation of the ordinance anyway.
Not long afterward, Michelle visited the relevant court in order to present evidence that she was improperly cited. The court clerk informed her that he could not do anything about it since the citation was not yet in the system and that she would have to check back later.
Months went by and Michelle was stopped on October 29, 2017, for failing to yield to a right of way. The officer took her identification back to his car and came back a while later with it. He cited her and let her continue on her way to the grocery store.
The officer was not aware of the arrest warrant when he initially stopped Michelle, but somehow learned of it between the time of the stop and the time she was leaving the grocery store. Apparently, the violation for walking her dog on the beach eventually made it into the system. During her time in court, Michelle found that the court had sent notice of a hearing to an incorrect address informing her that a fine was now overdue. If she did not appear, an arrest warrant would issue.
When she didn’t appear, the thought that maybe the court had made yet another mistake didn’t cross anyone’s mind. No effort was made to call Michelle. The power-tripping city prosecutor clearly knew people like Michelle are a threat to society and decided to issue the misdemeanor warrant instead.
After spending the night in jail, she appeared in court before a judge without an attorney representing her. The prosecutor told her that she should plead guilty. Getting advice in a criminal case from a prosecutor is like getting advice from a car salesman that you should trade your car in for a new one.
I have filed a motion to withdraw her plea in order to begin erasing her criminal record and am hopeful for a positive outcome. While any sane person would have dismissed her case without a second thought and would accept my motion, there is no guarantee the system will do so. As we write about in our book, ensuring the system does the right thing the first time is significantly easier than getting it to fix its mistakes afterwards. We also write about the negative consequences of a criminal record and how arrest warrants can issue without your knowledge.
To summarize this case, the system made at least 5 mistakes, and the term “mistake” is being used loosely:
- Michelle was improperly cited when she shouldn’t have been.
- She was not read her Miranda warnings at any point during or after her arrest—in clear violation of her rights.
- The court sent the hearing notice to the wrong address.
- Michelle was never afforded the opportunity to be represented by counsel.
- And to add insult to injury, the prosecutor who issued the arrest warrant advised her to plead guilty to the charges. This is a blatant violation of not only the rules of professional conduct and deprivation of additional constitutional rights, but is also clearly against all moral standards.
When a litigant makes a mistake, our wonderful legal system expects the litigant to pay for it; when the legal system makes a “mistake,” it still expects the litigant to pay for it. This is wrong. Until people come to the realization that the sort of thing that happened to Michelle happens every day in courts across the nation and that it could happen to anyone, including you, we will continue to see business as usual.
The translation: more corruption, more disparity, more nonsensical cases, and less justice. Americans do not necessarily need to take to the streets with pitchforks and torches, but they need to be more attuned and proactive to this problem before we can even begin to resolve it.