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The Lighter Side of the Law – Part I Print E-mail
by John Browning    Sun, Mar 9, 2014, 07:46 pm

          As I make my way through the day to day drudgery that usually characterizes the legal system, it is easy to overlook the humorous moments that happen—and believe me, they do happen.  Just consider the following incidents:


I’m Not Dead Yet


          Remember the “bring out your dead” scene in the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” where one unfortunate—but still very much alive—peasant tries to convince his overeager relative that he hadn’t yet died from the plague?  He might identify with Kimberly Haman of St. Louis, who in February actually filed a lawsuit to prove that she is still very much alive!  It seems that Heartland Bank declared her dead nearly a year ago, and passed the word of her “demise” to credit reporting giant Equifax.  As a result, says the alive and kicking Haman, she’s been refused credit cards and blocked from refinancing her mortgage twice after potential lenders noted her “deceased” status (those dead people are such poor credit risks, aren’t they?).  Although she says she repeatedly complained to both the bank and the credit bureau about the grave error, Haman got no results—hence the lawsuit.  According to the suit, the credit reporting error has been a nightmare for Haman, and “rendered [her] hopeless as to her ability to regain her good name and the credit rating that she deserves and has worked hard to earn.”  Heartland Bank claims it has taken “steps to correct this issue” and blames the continued error on Equifax.  Although the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires credit reporting agencies to conduct reasonable investigations into claims of inaccurate information and report back to consumers, one study by the Federal Trade Commission in 2013 found that 26% of consumers find at least one “potentially material” error on credit bureau reports.


Some People Take You Just as Seriously When You Are Dead


          Perhaps Ms. Haman should have lived in Turkey, where even death provides no escape from the legal system.  According to Turkish media, Turkish postal officers (who double as a kind of process servers) entrusted with providing court notifications to individuals have been known to make an unusual stop—at the cemetery.  The Turkish Radio and Television Corporation did a report on postal officers who, upon learning that an individual addressee has deceased, actually posted notifications on the recipient’s gravestone.  The accompanying note reads “Under Article 35 of the Notification Law, notification was posted on the recipient’s gravestone because he is deceased.”  Apparently, the cemetery is treated as a kind of “last known address,” since forwarding notices can be a bit tricky when it comes to different planes of existence.


Bringing Sexy Back, Part 1


          With all due apologies to Justin Timberlake, the real person bringing “sexy” back may be the former Sheila Ranea Crabtree of Pataskala, Ohio.  It seems she’s always hated her given name, calling it “the ugliest one out there.”  So Ms. Crabtree filed a petition with an Ohio court to have her name legally changed to “Sexy,” since she says she’s “fun and free-spirited.”  The judge granted her request, so now the fun can really start with things like restaurant reservations (“Sexy, party of two, your table is ready”) to routine introductions (“Hi, I’m Sexy.”  Response: “You really think highly of yourself, don’t you?”).


Bringing Sexy Back, Part 2


          A young female judge serving on Bosnia’s High Court has lost her job.  According to published reports in Sarajevo, the judge was in the habit of working out in the nude in her office, and then sunbathing while lying on a table (the office has large windows).  But apparently, the ample opportunity for sunning oneself also was an opportunity for early risers at government offices across the street to catch the judge’s impromptu peepshow.  After the newspapers ran a report—complete with photos—on “the naked judge,” the judicial disciplinary commission fired her for “damaging the image” of the High Court.  Disrobing in one context, it seems, can lead to a very different kind of disrobing.


And Nothing Sexy About This


          And finally for something decidedly unsexy, in January, a British judge had to admonish a jury presiding over the trial of a man charged with bestiality.  It seems that the jury heard testimony from witnesses discussing how 61 year-old Paul Lovell had tried unsuccessfully to have sex with a cow, and then “tried his luck” with a sheep.  According to Court News UK, the members of the jury burst into uncontrollable laughter at the description of the incident.  Judge James Patrick was not so amused, telling the jury “I well understand that there are aspects of it that are unusual and amusing.  If you do find the case particularly funny, if you can try to get over your laughter over lunch that would be great.”

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The Element of Surprise Print E-mail
by John Browning    Mon, Feb 24, 2014, 11:57 am

          In many aspects of life, there’s something to be said for the element of surprise, whether it’s catching your spouse off guard with an unexpected gift for no reason, or simply changing up your usual dinner order at a favorite restaurant.  Sometimes, it pays to “zig” when others expect you to “zag,” and this is as true in the legal system as it is in other things.  Of course, as the following examples show, sometimes it doesn’t turn out as well as one would like.


You Picked the Wrong House to Rob


Jonique Ramon Webster is what some would call a career criminal, but that doesn’t mean the career has been going well.  In June 2013, only nine hours after his release from state prison on a ten-year stretch for home burglary, Webster was apprehended for another robbery.  After getting off the bus in Waco, Webster wandered around and eventually broke into a home, making off with a bicycle and a small amount of cash.  Unfortunately for him, the house he broke into belonged to Gabrielle Massey, a McLennan County prosecutor.  A neighbor called the police, and Webster was apprehended and later pleaded guilty.  With several prior convictions, he was sentenced to forty years in prison.


You Never Know Who’s Listening


          In October 2013, Orleans Parish (Louisiana) District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro went on a radio talk show program to talk about a recent high-profile defeat.  Cannizzaro’s office had prosecuted a police officer, Jamal Kendrick, for malfeasance after the officer’s dashcam video appeared to show Kendrick slapping a civilian six times while he lay handcuffed face-down on the pavement.  Cannizzaro was discussing the acquittal by criminal district court Judge Ben Willard with the talkshow co-hosts on WBOK-AM when a surprise listener called in—Judge Willard!  The judge launched into a lively defense of his ruling, and then dropped another surprise: he was standing at the radio station’s front door, and asked to be let in to the studio (the hosts declined).  Longtime listener, first time caller?


The Best Defense Is a Good Offense, Part I


          Last October, a BMW SUV being driven by a ninety year-old retired lawyer in Menlo Park, California inexplicably jumped the curb onto the sidewalk, pinning two, six year-old twin brothers against a wall. Both boys suffered serious injuries; one was in the hospital for five weeks.  Not surprisingly, a personal injury lawsuit was filed on their behalf.  But what was surprising was the response to the lawsuit filed by the ninety year-old defendant’s legal team, which claimed that the boys “carelessly, recklessly, and negligently conducted and maintained themselves” in a way that contributed to the accident, and that they had “voluntarily” “placed themselves in a position of danger.”  Right—because that’s what everybody casually strolling along a sidewalk should expect—a nonogenerian who can’t control his vehicle suddenly mistaking a sidewalk for the interstate.  Give me a break!


The Best Defense Is a Good Offense, Part II


          Aaron Strahan and Troy Tonalin are two Australian police officers who are facing charges of assault for repeatedly tasering Kevin Spratt back in August 2008.  According to the officers, Spratt was under the influence of alcohol and possibly drugs, and was resisting attempts to place him in custody and search him.  But during questioning by the judge about Mr. Spratt’s screaming in anguish during the incident, defense attorney Karen Vernon argued that most of the charges against her clients should be dismissed since Spratt could have been screaming in “joy or laughter.”  Seriously?  Don’t worry, the judge didn’t buy it either, and ordered the trial to continue.


The Best Defense Is a Good Offense, Part III


          Defense attorneys for two Fullerton, California police officers accused of using excessive force to subdue an unarmed homeless man in 2011 made a unique argument during the December 2013 trial.  Former police officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli denied engaging in police brutality against thirty-seven year-old Kelly Thomas, maintaining that he had only “superficial bruising” when EMTs put him into an ambulance (Thomas died).  Defense attorneys for the officers advanced a novel theory—that Thomas died not as a result of being clubbed, punched, kicked, and tasered repeatedly for five minutes even after he fell silent, but because he “killed himself” by overexerting himself.


Who Says Prison Wardens Aren’t Sentimental?


          Finally, here’s a surprise courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  Richie Farmer gained fame as a member of the University of Kentucky’s men’s basketball team in the early ’90s, helping the Wildcats persevere through NCAA sanctions and make it back to the NCAA tournament in 1992.  The school even retired his number 32 jersey, which hangs proudly in Rupp Arena in Lexington.  Farmer went on to even bigger things, serving as Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner.  But Farmer pleaded guilty to abusing his public office, and on March 18, is expected to report to federal prison to begin his twenty-seven month sentence.  Just in time for “March Madness,” however, the college hoops fans at the Federal Bureau of Prisons have announced that Farmer will be issued a familiar number on his inmate uniform—a number 16226-032.  It just looks a little different on an orange jumpsuit than on a basketball jersey—surprise!

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What I Love About Texas Print E-mail
by John Browning    Mon, Feb 24, 2014, 11:52 am

        Texas troubadours like Pat Green and Lyle Lovett have expressed their love of Texas in song, with lyrics waxing nostalgic over everything from honky-tonks to tubing down the Guadalupe River.  Well, I love Texas too, but as a lawyer, my take on things is from a somewhat different perspective.  I may not go on about bluebonnets, barbeque, or the beauty of the Marfa lights, but there are traits that I treasure about our legal system.


Don’t Mess With Texas, or Texas Monuments


In Texas, we’re justifiably proud of our history, and we take steps to protect it.  That’s a lesson learned the hard way by people ranging from rocker Ozzy Osbourne to Daniel Athens.  Osbourne, of course, relieved himself at the Alamo and was promptly banned from San Antonio (he later made a substantial donation to preservation efforts for the historic site, and was forgiven).  On February 4, Mr. Athens became the latest person to learn the hard way that you don’t mess with Texas when he pleaded guilty to a felony for urinating on the Alamo.  Chapter 28 of the Texas Penal Code makes it a felony to deface a public monument or place of human burial.  Athens faces a sentence of anywhere from 180 days to two years in state prison for his act.  Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed, whose office prosecuted not just Athens but other offenders over the years who have defaced the Alamo with graffiti, says “You don’t mess around with the Alamo.  Nobody does, man . . . we have to preserve our heritage.  It’s a shrine.  It’s all about respect.”


Think Your Courthouse is Dangerous?  Try This One


        Courthouses, like many public buildings, will have their infestations of rats, mice, or creepy-crawlers like termites or cockroaches from time to time.  But in at least one Texas courthouse, the varmints are a lot more dangerous, and quintessentially Texan.  Last November, officials at the Galveston County Courthouse had to post signs warning people “Rattlesnakes in Area” after rattlesnakes were found basking in the sun on the courthouse lawn.  Some of the venomous reptiles were over a foot long.  Signs were posted cautioning visitors, “Do not walk through the grass.  Remain on concrete walkways.  Do not leave children unattended.”  2013 was the third straight year for rattlesnake sightings at the courthouse, and county officials are now considering different landscaping options less hospitable to snakes.  So, remember, if you visit Galveston County, there are dangerous snakes at the courthouse—and some of them are outside on the lawn.


Our Cuisine is So Good, Even the Legal Disputes About It Will Make Your Mouth Water


        We take our food seriously in Texas—serious enough to go to court over it.  Our state courts have been hosts to disputes over the trade secrets associated with Tex-Mex restaurant recipes as well as the trademarks for barbeque joints.  And in a lawsuit currently pending in Harris County, warring taco chains are litigating a legal beef that is uniquely Texan.  Torchy’s Tacos (with twenty locations around the state) claims that the upstart Texas Taco Company (with three locations) stole confidential information from its “Taco Bible,” described as “a start-to-finish recipe and process guide for every one of Torchy’s food items.”  Torchy’s lawyer maintains that, thanks to the wrongful conduct of a former Torchy’s employee, Texas Taco Company is “nothing more than a blatant Torchy’s ripoff.”  The lawsuit alleges that the security cameras at one of its Houston locations captured former employee Mario DeJesus smuggling a copy of the “Taco Bible” out.  DeJesus was questioned and fired shortly thereafter, and roughly two months later, Torchy’s management learned that DeJesus was not only working at Texas Taco Company, but the upstart’s menu allegedly featured food item descriptions identical to those on Torchy’s menu, with only a change in name.


Our Prosecutors are Packing


        Few states whole-heartedly embrace the Second Amendment quite like Texas does.  We have one of the highest percentages of gun ownership in the country, a concealed carry law, and if you can’t find a gun show on each weekend, then you’re probably not looking hard enough.  It’s legal for judges and prosecutors to carry firearms.  Of course, there are some prosecutors who probably need to think long and hard before packing heat.  For example, last November, McLennan County Assistant District Attorney Michael Jarrett was admiring the new Glock semiautomatic pistol belonging to one of his colleagues while inside the courthouse.  Thinking the gun wasn’t loaded, he aimed it at an office window and fired, shattering the glass and striking a brick cell at the nearby county jail.  Jarrett, who has a concealed carry permit, says “I was being extremely safe.”  Apparently, not safe enough.


        And in Houston, a Harris County assistant D.A. is in trouble over an alleged road rage incident last month.  Susan Sciacca, who works in the Family Protective Services Division and prosecutes cases of child abuse and neglect, was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.  According to Johnny Leazer, after he might have inadvertently cut off the prosecutor while driving on Tomball Parkway, she allegedly followed him into a nearby bank parking garage and pulled out a handgun.  Leazer says “I honestly thought she was going to shoot me.”  Sciacca claims she was in fear for her life during the incident.  A bank surveillance camera purportedly captured the incident on video, but the footage has not been released.

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The Power of Belief Print E-mail
by John Browning    Wed, Jan 29, 2014, 09:27 am

Belief can be a powerful thing.  Sometimes, the law will, under certain circumstances, show deference to that belief, such as the individual who recently persuaded the Department of Motor Vehicles to allow him to have his driver’s license photo taken while wearing a spaghetti strainer on his head (he claimed to be a practicing “Pastafarian”).  On other occasions, the law will be less deferential, as in cases of so-called “honor killings” in the United States committed by persons claiming to be following the culture and customs of their homeland.  As some cases illustrate, however, sometimes the tighter the hold that certain beliefs have on an individual, the sweatier his grip on reality seems to be.


For example, in South Carolina, a court recently found a man not guilty (by reason of insanity) of arson for burning down his own home.  The man committed the act thinking that witches were in his home.  Yes, witches—not the practicing Wiccan type but the flying around on broomsticks, “Wicked Witch of the West” variety.  The judge agreed with mental health professionals, and sentenced the defendant to up to 120 days in a state mental health facility.  And in Iceland, a highway project was halted pending concerns over the construction’s impact on the environment and “elf habitats.”  Yes, elves.  Believe it or not, the Supreme Court of Iceland is expected to rule on a case brought by the “Friends of Lava,” a group that, among other things, advocates for elves, or “Huldufolk (Icelandic for “hidden folk”).  The group wants the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission to abandon the road project because it would disturb the elf habitat, including an area that contains an “elf church.”  As silly as it may sound, a 2007 survey by the University of Iceland found that 63% of the respondents felt it was at least possible that elves exist.


But before you laugh off the idea that lawyers (as opposed to their clients) could be swayed by silly beliefs, consider the following two lawyers—Michael Busby, Jr. and Robert Allan Wright, Jr.  Mr. Busby is an attorney in Houston who practices bankruptcy and family law.  In December 2013, Busby paid a Houston fortune teller, Melena Thorn of the “Psychic Love Spell Center” $30 for a tarot card reading, $500 for a “ritual to reunite husband and wife,” and $2,700 in cash in a box so it could be “cleansed.”  Busby alleges that the money was not “cleansed” and returned, and that he and others have been defrauded by the so-called psychic.  He’s seeking at least $1 million in damages, as well as an injunction to keep Thorn and those connected with the “Psychic Love Spell Center” from engaging in “fortune telling” or “practicing or advertising Psychic abilities” in Texas.  Busby is also asserting claims for breach of contract and for violating Texas consumer protection law, the Deceptive Trade Practices Act.  Busby says he has had tarot card readings in the past as he sought out “anything that helps give me an edge.”  How will the case turn out?  Without my crystal ball or Magic 8-Ball, I probably can’t say.


As for Robert Allan Wright, Jr., he is an Iowa lawyer who has been practicing for more than 30 years.  Apparently, though, that’s not long enough for him to know better than to fall prey to an Internet scam promising a windfall of millions from Nigeria.  One of Wright’s clients would supposedly receive over $18 million from a long-lost relative in the African country, as long as $177,660 in “Nigerian inheritance taxes” and additional monies for an “anti-terrorism certificate” were paid.  Attorney Wright solicited over $200,000 in loans from current and former clients promising a huge return on their investment, and he himself looked forward to a $1.8 million contingency fee.


Wright communicated with a variety of people he thought were lawyers, bankers, and in one case, the president of Nigeria.  He transferred all of the money he raised to the Nigerians.  Yet—color me surprised— no money or “inheritance” was ever paid.  Not long thereafter, the clients and former clients from whom Wright had borrowed money brought disciplinary complaints against the lawyer.  In December 2013, the Iowa Supreme Court suspended Wright’s license to practice law for at least one year.


Was it criminal stupidity?  For the Iowa Supreme Court, it was a case of too much belief and not enough competence.  The Court observed that “Wright appears to have honestly believed—and continues to believe—that one day a trunk full of . . . one hundred dollar bills is going to appear upon his office doorstep.”  The Court also said that Wright should have investigated further and been more competent in such efforts, since even “a cursory internet search” would have alerted the lawyer that the “dream of a Nigerian inheritance was probably based on a scam.”


Belief can indeed be powerful, but without some brainpower or good old-fashioned common sense to back it up, it can be useless.  And if you don’t believe me, then perhaps you’d like to discuss some oceanfront property in Arizona that I have . . . .

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Moonlighting Judges Are At It Again Print E-mail
by John Browning    Wed, Dec 4, 2013, 10:03 am

When it comes to indulging in sidelines, lawyers have a fair amount of latitude.  There are lawyers who have gone into fields as diverse as broadcast journalism and creating Lego art.  Prominent Hollywood entertainment lawyer Harry Brittenham writes elaborate sci-fi/fantasy graphic novels in his spare time.  Litigator Neville Johnson’s alter ego is that of blues singer-songwriter Trevor McShane.  High-powered bankruptcy lawyer Kenneth Klee, when he’s not charging top dollar for legal advice, practices alternative medicine as an “energy healer” who says he can “talk to spirits, mend broken bodies and wounded souls and, if necessary, perform exorcisms,” according to the Wall Street Journal (and why shouldn’t it make sense for a lawyer to perform exorcisms?  After all, everyone says that “possession is nine-tenths of the law.”).


But for judges, it’s a completely different story.  When it comes to doing anything other than being a judge, jurists are subject to considerable scrutiny because of judicial canons against lending the prestige of their office to advance private interests, or bringing the office into disrepute.  Because of this, members of the judiciary have to be very careful about their off-the-bench activities, and even hobbies and interests.  For example, in South Carolina, a magistrate judge recently had to get the blessing of an official ethics opinion before participating in a “Dancing With the Stars”-type of competition.  South Carolina’s Advisory Committee on Standards of Judicial Conduct, in Opinion No. 4-2013, examined whether a full-time judge could participate as a dancer in a fund-raising event for the judge’s church.  In the event, the judge would be one of 5 dancers from the congregation paired up with a local dance professional, and donations would be solicited for the church, with people contributing (and voting for the winners) online.  According to the Committee, the judge could participate in the fundraising event, as long as he didn’t personally solicit donations, the identities of contributors were kept confidential, and the religious organization didn’t use the prestige of the judge’s office in fundraising efforts.


Dancing magistrates in South Carolina may be one thing, but what about a cooking judge in Florida?  The Florida Supreme Court’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee recently dealt with an inquiry from a judge who wanted to compete in a cook-off held during the 12th Annual Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival as a “means of community outreach and levity.”  Noting that while the cooking contest offered a cash prize for the winner, it was not a fundraiser, the Committee said it was okay.  The Committee reasoned that “participation in the cook-off would not appear to exploit the judge’s judicial position or involve the inquiring judge in frequent transactions or continuing business relationships with persons likely to come before the court on which the judge serves.”  The Committee also pointed out that—regardless of the judge’s culinary skills—participation could be a good thing since “a judge should not become isolated from the community in which the judge lives.”


Dancing and cooking may be all well and good, but heaven forbid that a judge have a sense of humor that he shares with others.  At least that’s the reasoning of the New Jersey Supreme Court.  In September, New Jersey’s highest court considered the appeal of part-time municipal judge Vincent August Sicari, who for years juggled a daytime gig hearing traffic ticket cases on the city court bench for South Hackensack, N.J. with a night job as stand-up comedian “Vince August.”  In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that Sicari’s comedy career was “incompatible with the Code of Judicial Conduct.”  Among other considerations, the court observed that Sicari’s comedy routine involved some jokes poking fun at national origin and religion, and it was possible “that a person who has heard a routine founded on humor disparaging certain ethnic groups and religions will not be able to readily accept that the judge before whom he or she appears can maintain objectivity and impartiality that must govern all municipal court proceedings.”  In the wake of the decision, Sicari resigned from his part-time judicial post.


Seriously?  Does religion and national origin really come up much in the context of traffic ticket cases?  I guess if you’re a judge you can dance in South Carolina, cook up a storm in Florida but no matter what you do, don’t make people laugh in New Jersey.

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