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The plight of criminal defendants alone in the courthouse, or with limited funds to hire a lawyer

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Recently, I saw one of my more favorite misdemeanor court judges on a Monday deny a trial postponement in a domestic assault case to a lawyer who explained that the defendant had just hired him the previous Friday, and the lawyer wanted more time to prepare for trial. The judge explained that he does not ordinarily grant postponements on the trial date, and the defendant had had a month since his arraignment to obtain a lawyer. Of course, the defendant may not have known how to seek a postponement without a lawyer’s help, and by the time he hired the lawyer, it might have been too late in the day for the lawyer to have filed a postponement request or even to know which prosecutor was assigned to the case, to notify that prosecutor of a postponement request. The lawyer could, though, have faxed to the prosecutor’s office a letter about his intention to seek a postponement the following Friday.

I did not hear the lawyer tell the judge that his client did not previously have the funds to hire a lawyer. That may or may not have been the magic words to have obtained a trial postponement. In any event, whenever a defendant hires me close in time to the trial date, I must keep open the possibility that the judge will not grant me a postponement to prepare more for trial. I cannot take a case that I will not have sufficient time to prepare for, but if I do not, the defendant theoretically might be left without representation; in reality, I expect the defendant will find numerous lawyers willing to take his case even at the last moment.

Recently, I was waiting in court for my client’s case to be called, and saw that I likely would need to wait at least ten to fifteen minutes for that to happen. In the interim, I heard a kindly man loudly try to figure out with his friend where his lawyer was. I walked over to him and offered to talk in the hallway, not wanting to see the man incur the ire of the judge nor courtroom security personnel over his loudness, which ire would have been misplaced but not unexpected. The man asked me if I had seen lawyer X, who was court-appointed to him and whom the man had not yet met. This was a county courthouse where I appear infrequently; I said I did not know lawyer X, but that I would see if lawyer X was in the room where the lawyers and prosecutors usually meet before having their cases called. The man was happy that I would check; I checked and found lawyer X and told lawyer X that I would tell the man I found him; and I told the man I had found lawyer X, and he appreciated that.

Also recently, I saw a man who had shown up late for his non-jailable traffic court case, only to have the judge say that the judge had found the defendant guilty in absentia and entered a guilty verdict, and that the police officer had left. The man started questioning the judge. I was right near him, and suggested that his questioning the judge might get him in hot water and likely would not get him anywhere. I suggested that he talk with another lawyer soon about his options, and underlined that I was not offering my services (I don’t solicit clients, and rarely handle non-jailable traffic matters anyway); he had ten days to appeal the loss to the county circuit court for an appeal.

The court system is in so many ways an non-humanizing, imposing place that favors those with the funds to hire a lawyer. Criminal defense lawyers can help equalize that situation by diplomatically speaking up for pro se defendants who are getting the shaft, and offering a moment of simple help to defendants seeking it.