Since 1999, Jon Katz has been defending misdemeanor, felony and DWI clients charged in the United States District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, which is thirteen miles from Jon’s Fairfax, Viriginia office. The Alexandria federal courthouse should not be mistaken with the Alexandria City state-level courthouse around two miles away, where Jon also practices.
Given their druthers, federal prosecutors would prefer prosecuting terrorism cases and a slew of other cases in Alexandria federal court versus the nearby federal courts in Washington, D.C., and Maryland (Greenbelt and Baltimore). The jury pool for the Alexandria federal trial court simply brims with more prosecutorial- and police-friendly jurors than in those other courthouses.
Such famous cases as the 2006 Zacharias Moussaoui capital trial proceeded here — where I briefly observed jury selection proceedings, held under tight security with sharpshooters on neighboring rooftops — with Moussaoui asking the jury for death but his lawyer Gerald Zerkin’s successfully asking the jury for the opposite.
This is a formal courthouse, too formal, where — as with plenty of other federal courthouses — lawyers are restricted to the podium when speaking to jurors and examining witnesses. The judicial branch is the most undemocratic of the three branches of government to begin with, and we do not need people charged with such minor offenses as speeding (still jailable up to six months if stopped on the George Washington Parkway) to have their first visit to court be so overly formal.
However, the Alexandria federal courthouse’s tradition of formality and rocket docketing is no sooner going to change than the continued practice of presenting new members of the Eastern District Bar with a leather-bound Christian Testament to place their hand on when being administered their oath. (That is a double whammy for me, seeing that I eat vegan and eschew using leather, and don’t follow Christianity; but my lawyer sponsor appreciated that I did not interrupt the quick proceeding to ask for an alternative to my placing my hand on that bible.)
The Alexandria federal courthouse has four District Court judges, three seniro District Court judges, and five magistrate judges. As in all federal courthouses, they all wield tremendous power, including acting on warrant applications for surveillance, searches and seizures; granting or denying bail; and setting sentences under the draconian system of mandatory minimum sentencing and the advisory federal sentencing guidelines.
Unlike in Virginia state court, for federal misdemeanor cases — where defendants can appeal as of right for a new trial if convicted at their initial bench trial — in federal court both misdemeanor and felony defendants only get one trial.
The Alexandria courthouse is like a fortress, with all its security measures. Electronic devices are banned from the courthouse. Even though lawyers file their court papers electronically, a judge’s signed order is required before a lawyer can bring those papers into court in electronic format. Those who come to the federal court without a car can, for a few dollars, check their cellphones with the nearby Gallery Cafe and possibly with the bell staff at the Westin Hotel across the courtyard.
Upon entering the courthouse, a court security officer will ask for photo identification. Another court security officer will carefully watch the x-ray monitor scanning the bags and briefcases brought into the courthouse. Lawyers do not get to bypass security, where I sometimes am asked to life up my pantlegs after passing the metal detector.
The day’s court proceedings will be posted on the bulletin board on the courthouse’s second floor, on the way to the court clerk’s office. Next to the bulletin board are two or three of the world’s payphones that are still working rather than in museums, to make up for the courthouse’s ban on cellphones.
For misdemeanor cases, the first court date typically is a Rule 5/initial appearance. Unlike in plenty of state-level district courts that routinely excuse the appearance of criminal defendants who already have lawyers (and often their lawyers as well), the Alexandria federal court expects the defendant. I was even unable to convince a magistrate judge to waive my client’s appearance at the initial scheduling hearing, despite the hardship of my client’s flying from his Florida hometown to be there.
The United States Attorney’s Office will be involved in the prosecution in one way or another — even if but peripherally or available for consultation with the line prosecutor — although the Pentagon, Central Intelligence Agency, Fort Belvoir, and Quantico have their own lawyers to prosecute misdemeanors allegedly committed on their respective properties.
The earlier a misdemeanor defendant hires a lawyer, the sooner that lawyer can obtain discovery in the case, usually without needing a court order rather than my own sending of a very detailed discovery letter saying I will assume the prosecutor agrees with providing all that discovery without a court order unless the prosecutor timely tells me otherwise. For felony cases, prosecutors will often wait until the discovery order’s deadline (often only days before trail) to provide discovery, which in plenty of cases can amount to thousands of pages of data and many audiotapes and videotapes, at the very least.
The Alexandria federal courthouse is convenient to reach by car, bus, and subway (using the King Street and Eisenhower Avenue Metro stops). If taking the Capital Beltway to the courthouse, take the local lanes or else you will miss the exits to the courthouse. Parking may be found on the street (beware of the two hour street parking limit) and in nearby parking lots. My favorite parking lots for entering and exiting quickly and finding spaces quickly are on the first street to the right of Jamieson Avenue after taking a right onto Carlyle Street from Duke Street, and then turning right on Jamieson Avenue; that parking lot is only three short blocks from the courthouse. Be ready for congested traffic during rush hour.