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Defining a Win

There’s a mostly-written motion still up on my office computer screen. When I finally close the file, I’m going to try not to read it. It will just make me angry.

My client’s case was dismissed on Friday, but there were strings attached. He agreed to a $200.00 forfeited collateral on a new citation in exchange for a complete dismissal of his federal criminal case. Compared to a lot of defendants, the result was great. In most cases, I’d be happy. This case is a little different.

It shouldn’t have been charged in the first place. The statute containing his supposed violation is so broad it could mean almost anything. I might be violating it by writing this post, and you could be violating it by reading what I write. If you try to interpret the statute in a way that avoids constitutional problems, there’s no question my client’s conduct fell well outside its scope. On top of that, federal officers’ subsequent violation of his constitutional rights attempting to get a confession was nothing short of outrageous.

I was ready to litigate from the beginning. So was my client. Each hearing was a battle, from setting his release conditions to the first simple scheduling conference. One co-defendant took a plea, but not my client. He was in it for the long haul. Or so we planned. We weren’t expecting an offer to dismiss for $200.00 collateral on an extra citation he was more or less guaranteed to receive anyway after local authorities declined charges. That changed everything.

We’d spend well over $200.00 before the motion hearing was done. I’d spend over $200.00 on gas getting to the courthouse for two weeks of trial. We might have had to fly a witness in from France. We might have had to retain an expert. We were definitely going to have to pay for audio-visual help to effectively use the various videos of the alleged offense that were all in the most inconvenient format known to man.

Sometimes, it isn’t about winning. Sometimes, a loss turns out better than a win. In those cases, winning looks more like losing. Is it a win when you spend hundreds fighting for a dismissal when the case could’ve died a quiet death months earlier for half the cost? Is it a win when you spend thousands getting a not guilty verdict on three counts when two of them would’ve gone away silently and one of them would’ve never been filed had you just sent in a check?

It may seem like an easy question, but clients have different interests. If I called up most of the people on my caseload right now and told them that the prosecutor would dismiss the case for $200.00 without a hearing, a finding of guilt, or even any sort of admission, I would have some happy clients and a break room full of gift baskets. Some clients feel quite differently, however.

In Georgia, Martin Luther King, Jr. chose forty-five days in jail over a $178.00 fine. I’m sure he knew he would end up in jail again when he began his campaign in Alabama a year later. Over a century earlier, Henry David Thoreau opted for jail in lieu of paying poll taxes because of his opposition to the Mexican-American War and slavery, ultimately getting out only after someone paid his tax dues without his permission.

Representing either of those men would have likely been a unique and potentially frustrating experience. A client who wants jail? A client who would prefer to lose fighting at great cost rather than win on the cheap? My client has far more in common with Martin Luther King, Jr. or Henry David Thoreau than he does with the average defendant in a criminal case. He believes in his cause as much as I believe in what I do as a defense attorney. It’s obviously more important to him than avoiding a conviction and whatever might flow from that.

I did not envy his decision, which came more as a result of his concerns about the effect of fighting it on other people than it did from a simple cost-benefit analysis of his own best interests. Some people don’t care about themselves as much as they care about certain ideas. Figuring out what if anything fighting a case and winning or losing accomplishes in furthering those ideas can be complicated though.

I am skeptical about using the system to make a statement. It has surely worked in the past to stir public sentiment, but I wonder if we as a culture are moved by injustice to act like we once seemed to be. Where’s the outrage about Bradley Manning? What difference did all those Occupy arrests make? A trial loss might have meant nothing to anyone but him.

A trial win could be less productive and might even legitimize the system that’s helped perpetuate the wrongs he protests. Forfeiting a little bit of collateral ends it, letting him move on with his life and his fight. No more speculation. No more hassle.

In my client’s case, there was probably no right decision. I only know that it is over. His cause will continue. And I’ll do my best to quit thinking about motions un-filed and battles un-fought.

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One Response to "Defining a Win"

  1. great comment. Looks like you are ready for another day and the challenges it may bring. We do have to pick the battles to win the war.

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