Legal advice only 99 cents

Having wandered through Solano County’s courts for more than 30 years in my role as a newspaper reporter, my legal advice is frequently sought by others who periodically wander the same county courts – usually with decidedly puzzled expressions upon their faces.

Although I do not have a law degree, I do have a wealth of arcane knowledge that some people find useful when they become embroiled in a court matter. Myriad legal issues come my way on a daily basis, and although I have yet to open a nonlaw office, I feel it’s time to respond to some of the more pressing questions that come my way as I doze on the comfortably upholstered bench down the hall from Judge Smith’s Fairfield courtroom.

Here are the definitive answers to the most frequently asked legal questions I encounter:

A. There are no courts in the Solano County Courthouse. Although the Texas Street building was originally designed as a courthouse, it soon became dangerously overrun with county bureaucrats and legal matters needed to be moved to the nearby Solano County Hall of Justice and, later, to the Law and Justice Center.

B. The amusing but not particularly effective explanation, “But I went to the courthouse and, like, there was nobody there,” is not accepted as an excuse for not appearing in court.

C. Traffic court is on the second floor at the south end of the Hall of Justice. That’s where you go for legal matters having to do with your driving (or, in some cases, your walking). If you’re charged with murder, kidnapping, bank robbery or train-wrecking, you probably need to go to some other courtroom – or state…

D. Restrooms are on each floor of the Solano County Hall of Justice – at the south end of the first and second floors, and at both the north and south ends of the third floor. There are no restrooms on the fourth floor. Really. If you find yourself on the fourth floor of the Hall of Justice, you’re most likely somewhere else. There’s also a restroom on the second floor of the nearby Law and Justice Center, which also doesn’t have a fourth floor.

E. This brings up another important legal question – the north wing of the Hall of Justice versus the south wing of the Hall of Justice and the south-south wing thereof.

The old, old Hall of Justice’s north wing faces Texas Street (across from the County Non-Courthouse). The south wing of the newer section of the old Hall of Justice faces the Law and Justice Center which, at least technically, is the south-south wing of the Hall of Justice because they’re actually connected by a secret hallway where deputy district attorneys and deputy public defenders sometimes become hopelessly lost and have to be rescued from large, carnivorous rodents.

F. There is no south-south-south wing of the Hall of Justice. If you somehow find yourself in what you believe to be the south-south-south wing of the Hall of Justice, you’re probably in the Solano County Jail.County Jail? In my considered legal opinion, it’s time for you to call a lawyer. Tell ’em I sent you…

Originally published August 13, 2006

Capital attorneys tie one on…

Due to burgeoning caseloads, a seemingly endless series of controversial rulings and a sue-now, ask-questions- later attitude on the part of some legal practitioners, California courts have had their share of difficulties over the past decade or so.

Nothing in my experience, however, prepared me for what I was to encounter in Sacramento Superior Court in recent months.

The problem has to do with, er, neckwear…Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?)

During the past 35 years, I’ve reported on court cases throughout the Bay Area and Sacramento Valley – from Oroville to San Jose, Gilroy to Gridley. It gives me something to do when I’m not trapshooting or heartlessly baiting our publisher.

I’ve seen a lot of strange things in California courtrooms, but nothing quite so strange as the ties currently being worn by attorneys in Sacramento Superior Court.

Really. This is eerie stuff.

Sure, a Solano County attorney will, on occasion, wear a painfully loud tie or show up with neckwear that’s been liberally decorated with mustard from Barb’s Deli, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. California lawyers generally steer clear of hanging complete chaos around their necks.

From what I’ve seen in Sacramento County courtrooms during the past six months, though, I can only conclude that:

  • There was a horrendous explosion at a nearby paint factory recently.
  • Sacramento attorneys resolve their differences during enthusiastic lunchtime food fights at the Old Spaghetti Factory.
  • Legal practitioners in Sacramento belong to a secret society that is based on the premise that Salvador Dali was a colorless, unimaginative dullard.

During the past five months I’ve seen ties in Sacramento courts that would be immediately confiscated by sharp-eyed bailiffs in almost any other jurisdiction.

I would have warned the general public about this unexpected menace earlier, but I was still reeling from overexposure to an ultrawide neck piece that resembled a knot of chow mein.

(Closer inspection revealed that the tie was a green, brown and yellow nightmare that depicted a marshland scene replete with reeds, tules and bulrushes – and perhaps the occasional rice noodle…)

Many of the ties I viewed appeared to have been part of some arcane origami experiment that went horribly wrong. Others, I surmised, may have been rescued from a ceiling fan after being painstakingly laundered by a wolverine.

And, for the most part, the Sacramento courtroom neckwear I’ve observed has been carefully tied with what is generally known as the distinctive “Im Not So Think As You Drunk I Am” knot.

The most conservative tie I saw was a grayish number emblazoned with portraits of the Three Stooges peering around a doorway beneath the logo “Dewey, Cheatem & Howe, Attorneys At Law.”

Yes, there’s something very, very wrong with neckwear around Sacramento Superior Court.

I only hope the California Judicial Council takes notice before it’s too late for all of us…

Originally published May 22, 2005

Franz Kafka, we hardly knew ye

The past few weeks have been decidedly strange here in S’lano County. One might even say Kafkaesque…

Which is probably a significant part of the whole problem, at least in my little corner of the county.

Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?)

Trouble started last month when I reported on a court case in which a Texas man had become hopelessly mired in our judicial system and spent six weeks in jail on a bench warrant that had been issued 14 years ago and remained in force for no readily apparent reason.

The gentleman eventually was released after the court determined that there was no rational reason to continue holding him.

Unfortunately, the man had been extradited from Texas and he had no way to get back home. His cash had been “misplaced” in transit and there are no provisions for round-trip extraditions.

To add injury to insult, the man found out that he’d lost his job when he got back home.

I foolishly described the whole situation as “Kafkaesque.”

Silly me. The story brought a flurry of phone calls and e-mails from readers demanding to know just what the hell was going on. And they weren’t asking about the man who’d been unceremoniously bounced around the legal system like a BB in a box car.

No, they were upset about “Kafkaesque.”

Really.

Some readers complained that they spent the better part of the morning trying to find the word in their dictionaries. A couple accused me of making the word up and one reader was curious about what kind of esoteric substances I might have run afoul of prior to writing the story.

To set the record straight, I don’t make up words, particularly in hard news stories with one or more Superior Court judges usually looking over my journalistic shoulder.

Admittedly, this column may occasionally play fast and loose with what some might perceive as objective reality, but only to make this a better world for all.

The word “Kafkaesque” comes from the name of the late Austrian-Czech author Franz Kafka, who was known for his complex and sometimes surreal writings. Among other works written during the early 20th century, Kafka penned “Amerika” and “The Metamorphosis,” the latter dealing with the trials and tribulations of a man who finds himself slowly being transformed into a large cockroach.

(Hey, it could happen…)

One of Kafka’s best known works, however, is “The Trial.” Published in 1925 and still in print today, it tells the story of an ordinary man who gets caught up in a bizarre judicial bureaucracy, is charged with a nonspecific violation of the law and is eventually executed without really knowing with what he’s been charged.

A critically acclaimed and popular work for decades, “The Trial” was primarily responsible for the word “Kafkaesque” as applied to bizarre legal proceedings and bureaucratic weirdness in general.

And, yes, the word can be found in most dictionaries, either in the alphabetical listings or in the biographical supplement as an adjective following “Kafka, Franz.”

Really…

Originally published AprilĀ 17, 2005

Hey, this could be interesting …

For the most part, the day-to-day criminal proceedings in Solano County Superior Court can be pretty humdrum. It’s not like “The Practice” or “Law and Order.” Or even “Ally McBeal.”

Every now and then, though, a routine hearing can reveal remarkable interpretations of the law that could have far-reaching consequences for the criminal justice system.

I recently observed such an occurrence during an otherwise mundane court hearing involving alleged traffic and drug violations.

The case revolved around a gentleman whom police had tried to pull over for a traffic violation. The officers were a fair distance behind the motorist in an unmarked car and he had already pulled into a parking lot and gotten out of his vehicle by the time the pursuing officer arrived.

The man began walking away and one of the officers told him to stop, as police officers will do when they’re trying to get one’s attention.

The man, however, kept walking.

Police said his failure to stop constituted resisting officers.

Waydaminnit, waydaminnit, waydaminnit, said the man’s defense attorney. Simply walking away from police officers, he argued, is not a crime, particularly since the officers didn’t say exactly why they wanted him to stop.

The officers, he said, should have clearly enunciated their concerns about the man driving with a suspended license, perhaps by announcing in clear, easily understood language the state Vehicle Code section under which they were trying to stop him.

Something along the lines “Stop! We wish to speak to you about a possible violation of California Vehicle Code Section Fourteen-Six-Oh-One A!”

Uh-huh.

The judge didn’t buy it, but you’ve got to admit it’s a novel idea – and just the kind of novel idea that, against all odds, could somehow become case law and drive cops completely nuts.

What if every time a police officer wanted to contact a potential suspect, the officer had to announce, in clear, bell-like tones, the Penal Code, Vehicle Code or Fish and Game Code section about which he wished to talk to the citizen?

Yep, you’re gonna have a lot of grumpy law enforcement officers out there if this ever becomes a prerequisite to arrest …

“Stop! I wish to place you in custody for a violation of California Penal Code Section Four-Eighty-Seven A, subsection ‘a,’ to wit: feloniously stealing an animal carcass! Please be advised that I also require you stop for an alleged violation of Penal Code Section Six Ten, endangering navigation through the use of masked or false lights!”

And then, of course, the officer still has to read the citizen his Miranda rights.

No longer would fleeing felons have to sprint down alleys, jump over fences and dodge through traffic to get away. After an officer got through reciting the reasons for a potential arrest, the lawman would be so winded his prey would be able to casually stroll to freedom, perhaps pausing for a refreshing latte before moseying on down the road.

I know what you’re thinking – “Hey, that could never happen.”Don’t be so sure, amigos. This is, after all, California …

Originally published December 12, 2004

 

 

Welcome to my identity crisis

I’ve recently found myself plunged head first into another baffling mystery from the Stygian depths of the Solano County Hall of Justice.

And it all comes down to a simple question to which I have yet to find an adequate answer:

Who’s Marty?

Perhaps I should explain.

(Sure, why not?)

The mystery began to unfold on an overcast afternoon about three weeks ago when a complete stranger sidled up to me near the entrance to the stately structure and quietly asked, “Are you Marty?”

No big deal, right?

I immediately shrugged the whole incident off as nothing more than a simple case of mistaken identity. That happens a lot at the Hall of Justice and, unless the person asking has an arrest warrant with your name on it, there’s really nothing much to worry about.

But then it happened again.

And again.

I have to admit that I’m growing just a tad bit concerned about the situation, particularly about exactly who Marty might be and why so many people seem to be looking for him in a kind of general, catch-as-catch-can manner.

I mean, it’s one thing if folks are looking for good ol’ Marty to thank him for his many years of selfless service to mankind or, perhaps, to return his two-carat diamond pinkie ring.

On the other hand, we’re talking the Hall of Justice here, so Marty’s just as likely to be a difficult-to-identify felon wanted by the FBI, CIA and FFA (not necessarily in that order).

Or perhaps our high-living pal Marty owes a bundle of cash to an ill-tempered gambler with a name like Jimmy Tri-Tip.

Marvelous. Simply marvelous…

Right now I’m hoping that I just bear a strong resemblance to a generic Marty kind of guy – you know, aviator glasses, walrus-like mustache and a waistline that proudly proclaims “I love burritos!”

Not that this really helps me very much, since a general sort of Martyness could just as easily be the aforementioned benefactor-of-mankind Marty, the depraved-serial-killer Marty or, perhaps, the I-owe-a-bundle-to-the-mob Marty.

I suppose I could start wearing one of those little stick-on name tags that proclaim “Hello! I’m —-” and then write on it in bold letters NOT MARTY.

To be realistic, though, nobody really pays much attention to those little name tags.

Former California Gov. Gray Davis wore one for years but very few people believed he was really the governor.

Now they don’t even believe he’s Gray Davis.

It’s beginning to look like the only hope I have to maintain my own identity is to make a desperate personal plea to Marty, wherever – and whomever – he may be:

Please come on down to the Hall of Justice at your earliest convenience and make your presence abundantly visible.

(And lose the mustache, amigo – it makes you look like a walrus …)

Originally published May 23, 2004

A court we sadly lack

After years of watching the wheels of justice slowly turn here in S’lano County, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need at least one more court to handle a recurring problem that continues to plague our justice system.

We”ve got Juvenile Court and Drug Court and Traffic Court, but for some reason we seem to lack a Stupidity Court, which could easily handle hundreds of cases here annually.

Think about it – how many crimes do you hear about that cause you to shake your head, grin wryly and mutter, “Maaaaan, that was stupid…”?

Plenty, I’d guess.Yet the really stupid crimes continue to clog the court system and take valuable time away from the adjudication of more serious offenses.

If it were up to me (and, hey, why not?) Stupidity Court would handle any crime involving gross idiocy in which no one was physically harmed. Defendants would be judged not only on their violation of the California Penal Code, but on the relative stupidity of their actions.

Take, for example, the geniuses who rob convenience markets.

Not only is this behavior illegal, but it’s also really, really dumb. The perpetrator is generally risking state prison time for roughly $39.27, plus as many packs of cigarettes as he can snag as he backs out the door.

When was the last time you heard about a guy knocking over a convenience market and then trotting off to buy a new Jaguar?

Rob a convenience store, go to Stupidity Court, where you”d also get extra jail time tacked on if you locked yourself out of your getaway car or showed your ID to prove you were old enough to steal beer. (Convenience store robbers have been known to use both of these remarkably subtle methods to get themselves caught…).

Then there are auto thieves.

Here’s a tip for staying out of Stupidity Court: Never drink and drive a stolen car. Really. You’re either going to get pulled over for driving a stolen car and your intoxication level will then be detected by the arresting officer, or you”ll get pulled over on suspicion of drunken driving and the officer will ascertain that you’re driving a stolen car. This is not a win-win situation, amigos.

It’s also important to remember not to steal an unmarked police car – especially the unmarked police car of, say, the chief of police. Yes, this actually happened several years ago in – where else? – Fairfield. The chief was not amused.

Some violations would merit an automatic referral to Stupidity Court. One of my favorites is unlawfully transporting inedible kitchen grease across state lines.

I’ve never actually seen one of these cases, but there’s a California Vehicle Code section to cover it, so some genius must actually have gotten caught at the state line with a load of inedible kitchen grease at one time or another.

Pretty stupid…Since California has a “Three Strikes” Law, it’s only logical that we have a similar statute for repeat offenders in Stupidity Court.

For example, on your incredibly dimwitted third offense, you’d automatically be deported to Washington, D.C.

There, with any luck, you could go straight and start a new career as, say, a lobbyist or perhaps a spokesperson for the State Department…

Originally published February 22, 2004

Think before you speak….

Spending my days wandering through the dim – but majestic – corridors of the Solano County Hall of Justice, I’ve learned that there are just some things you should never say in court.

Some phraseology is in bad taste. Some is bad luck. And a lot is simply bad grammar.

“Good morning, your honor,” is, for example, an acceptable way to greet a Superior Court judge (unless, of course, it’s evening).

“Hey, you – robe guy,” is not an acceptable way to greet a Superior Court judge (particularly if he’s hearing your case).

It’s, like, a decorum thing…

Since almost all of us can expect to find ourselves in a courtroom some day, whether it be for jury duty or as the defendant in a multimillion-dollar walnut swindle, it’s always a good idea to know what, and what not, to say within earshot of the judge, bailiff or the guy you swindled out of 18 tons of black walnuts.

Here are a few phrases you might want to avoid.

– “What have I got to lose?”

Believe me, once you’ve stepped into a courthouse, you’ve probably got something to lose, so it’s better not to tempt fate – or a judge who’s finally gotten fed up after several hours of goofy, rhetorical questions posed by goofy, rhetorical attorneys.

Believe me, there’s always something to lose, even if it’s only your Swiss Army knife or crack pipe at the security checkpoint..

.- “I only had two beers.” As Superior Court Judge Allan Carter recently told a bewildered drunken driving defendant in Vallejo, “The two-beers defense doesn’t work here.” Actually, it hasn’t worked since 1879 when Farnsworth Knipfiffle tried to use the two-beers excuse before a circuit judge in Goshen, Ind., after running a wagonload of barrel staves into the town reservoir following an ill-conceived saloon sortie.

(Hey, this is righteous. I checked my case law…)

Face it, amigos, even if you really only had two beers, nobody’s going to believe you. Too many defendants – many of them still seemingly intoxicated – have used it before you. You’d be better off telling the judge that the space aliens who abducted you the night before injected alcohol into your bloodstream as part of a fiendish experiment just before you managed to escape and flag down the misguided highway patrolman who arrested you.

– “He needed killing.” Whether it’s true or not, this is not an acceptable excuse for homicide in California. Judges frown on it and it makes even the most composed of defense attorneys start sobbing uncontrollably if you’re dumb enough to say it in open court. On the positive side, I think this is still considered an acceptable explanation in some parts of Texas and Arkansas (please check local regulations before shootin’ some low down, snake-in-the-grass…).

– “But your honor, duuuude…”. It’s hardly ever a good idea to argue with the judge, but never follow “your honor” with “dude” while pleading your case. This happened once in a San Mateo courtroom. It has never been known to happen again. Really.

Originally published February 4, 2004