Thursday, December 09, 2010

Judge Roberto Pineiro

Judge Roberto Pineiro died today. He was 56. He had a stroke.

The death of a judge is a unique experience for a courtroom lawyer. Courthouses are like small cities, full of different types of people with different reputations among the various practitioners. There are "good" judges, there are "terrible" judges, there are judges that make people wonder how they ever became judges, there are judges who are "fine," or "OK," and there are "great" judges.

Rob Pineiro was a great judge.

I knew him as a intensely fair man who could spot bullshit better than anyone on the bench. Reading comments on various websites from both defense lawyers and prosecutors alike, I am not alone in my opinion.

That is how you determine whether a judge is "great" - when lawyers on both sides of the courtroom have the same high opinion. It indicates a judge who plays no favorites, allows people to be heard, and does the right thing.

Judge Pineiro's death is sad because he was young and well liked, but it is tragic because those that practiced in front of him all felt like they were in a courtroom where justice was doled out. I read comments today from prosecutors who often lost in his courtroom, and from defense lawyers whose clients received lengthy sentences. All comments included a deep affection for Judge Pineiro.

Judge Pineiro was famous for his involvement in resolving cases. Even after case law held that off-the-record conversations with judges about plea offers were a recipe for reversals, Judge Pineiro continued the old school way of clearing his calendar. He'd take the 28 year old prosecutors and 26 year old public defenders and a smattering of private lawyers in to chambers and tell prosecutors not to bullshit him, and defense lawyers that they were crazy to take the case to trial. He'd take a 3 year prison offer and reduce it to 6 months jail because we all knew that this is what the case deserved.

Judge Pineiro was unique. To go on would be a waste of time for those reading here, because unless you were in his courtroom, you cannot understand the impact of his presence on the bench.

But I do have two stories that define the man. Neither are my cases, for those I have my own stories.

The two stories happened recently, in fact on the same day.

It was a busy day in Judge Pineiro's court. Dozens of cases, way too many people in the courtroom needing to speak to the prosecutors and public defenders, and Judge Pineiro keeping things moving along like a conveyor belt. He was not an impatient man, but there was no need to spend 10 minutes on something when 3 would do.

The prosecutor told Judge Pineiro she was offering credit time served to a woman in jail on a probation violation. All she needed to do was admit the crime, and she'd be sent home. Someone noticed there was a co-defendant in the case, and the co-defendant's case was closed. The question was asked what disposition the co-defendant received. The prosecutor responded that the disposition was a dismissal. That someone who noticed there was a co-defendant and asked about the disposition was not the defense lawyer - it was Judge Pineiro, who then asked "well don't you think this defendant, who's charged with the same exact crime, should get the same exact disposition?" The defendant didn't care, she was going home either way - but Judge Pineiro wanted to make sure the right thing happened.

On that same day, the prosecutor offered a very generous plea to a defendant on a drug possession case. The defense lawyer announced that the defendant would accept the plea, and then walked away from the podium to talk to another client. The prosecutor also walked away to deal with another matter. The next words heard in the courtroom were "does anyone have a motion to suppress?" No one responded. Judge Pineiro then read aloud the arrest affidavit, which laid out a law school type scenario where the search and seizure of the defendant was a textbook violation of the Fourth Amendment. Judge Pineiro then asked the defense lawyer again - "would you like to move to suppress the search?" Like he was woken up from a nap, the defense lawyer said "yes," the motion was granted and the case dismissed.

Judge Pineiro paid attention. He had a sense of his duty that went beyond the factory type setting we often see in our courtrooms where the only goal is to close cases.

I don't know how many cases Judge Pineiro had on his docket when he died today. I know it doesn't matter, because tomorrow there will be more.

Unfortunately, those defendants, and the lawyers who prosecute and defend them, won't have the privilege of having their cases presided over by Judge Pineiro.

In 16 years of practice I've been in front of many judges. Many are memorable for both good and bad reasons. Judge Pineiro is one of those that I will forever be thankful that I was able to practice before, and I will count as someone in my career that I was incredibly lucky to know.

Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court, and the author of The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer.Share/Save/Bookmarkokdork.com rules Post to Twitter