A blog by Miami Criminal Defense Lawyer Brian Tannebaum. Commenting on criminal law issues of local and national interest.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

I Don't Live In A Small Town

Practicing criminal law in Miami, like any other big city, numbs lawyers. I realized this last week when I took a drive 2 ½ hours north to Ft. Pierce, Florida for a hearing in federal court.

I was in Green Cove Springs and Sebring, Florida, but those stories are nothing to write about except to summarize them as “home towned.” For those non-lawyers, “home towned” means being treated as if you are in fact not from the current town you are in and being made to feel that leaving soon is in your best interest.

But back to Ft. Pierce last week.

My client was scheduled for both a first appearance and change of plea. This was a so-called “Rule 20” proceeding where my client had already worked out a deal in another state and the Government agreed to let him actually take the plea here in Florida.

Federal court, being the formal setting for criminal practitioners as opposed to state court, would still require a first appearance hearing, change of plea hearing, and sentencing hearing.

First appearance was at 9:30 before the magistrate, change of plea at 1:00 before the district judge, and I’d be home for dinner after leaving Miami at 5:45 am. Long day.

Then, the day before, an unsolicited order is issued. The magistrate will do both the first appearance and the change of plea at 9:30 a.m. I may be home for a late lunch.

The day before the hearing I also receive a call from a probation officer. She let me know if I arrived a half hour early she would interview my client for his “pre-trial services report,” and asked if I’d like to do the pre-sentence investigation report interview right after the plea. Usually these are scheduled a couple weeks after the plea, and I’d have to drive back up or appear by phone.

“Absolutely,” I say.

I asked her about the judge and she gave me some important advice, mainly to be on time. In federal court you are either on time or dead. I asked her how big the calendar was, and she responded “you’re the only case.”

Next morning: destination Ft. Pierce.

I arrive at the federal courthouse, which is the size of my local neighborhood library. There’s one car in the parking lot.

My client and I meet across the street at the only place open for breakfast. A place that doubles as a local gift shop and post office. I am overdressed, and even in my specifically chosen drab brown suit, white shirt, and blue tie, garner the attention of the locals. I brought back a souvenir, the above picture taken on my Blackberry.

After toast on a paper plate and as much coffee as I was willing to grab from the machine “over there,” I head to the other corner of the block and into the federal courthouse.

I see the familiar grey pants and blue jackets holding the Motorola radios and hand over the required ID. They are asking me to stop emptying my pockets and take my “stuff” off the security machine. Apparently the fact that I am a lawyer is significant here.

I head in to the courtroom, there’s only two, and see a lady reading a book. That’s code for “court reporter.” She says hello. In comes my probation officer and we go into a room outside the courtroom and do the interview, which was more like a conversation with a smattering of laughter. She advises she will also be doing the post-plea pre-sentence investigation interview.

I walk beck in the courtroom and there’s a couple other lawyers there and a defendant in prison clothes. The clerk gets up from her chair, looks at me, smiles, and says “you must be Mr. Tannebaum.” She walks over and we chat about procedure.

In comes the prosecutor, who initially introduces herself with her first name. No formalities here. The rest of the morning she said nothing except to advise the judge that she was in agreement with me on a bond amount.

I realize there are two other matters on the calendar and that 9:30 is hopeful. That was quickly contradicted by the judge taking the bench at 9:15.

The first defendant understood about half of what he said and asked him to repeat himself, which he did, every time he was asked, without the hint of impatience.

My hearing ran like a machine, the judge even granting my client some liberal travel restrictions. The judge wasn’t chummy, overly friendly, edgy, looking for one misstep, or appearing as if he hated his job. He was a federal judge in the sense of what any lawyer on either side would want and expect in a federal judge.

After, the Marshals appeared in the courtroom to take my client 50 feet away for “processing.” I asked “how long,” and was told “about an hour or less.”

While waiting for my client, the clerk walked out of her office and asked me if everything went ok and if I needed anything. She wanted to know if it was my first time in Ft. Pierce.

Twenty minutes later, my client appeared, interrupting my chat with the probation officer and one of the court security officers about the local town, and the history of Connecticut politics. (Court security officer was a motorcycle cop in the old days up there in Bridgeport and didn’t think telling me that would be a violation of national security) We reconvened for the pre-sentence investigation interview. There were more questions, more laughter, and offers to accommodate my client in some of his obligations.

And that was it.

On my way out, I told my court security friend that I’d see him in May for sentencing. He responded: “That’s a deal.”

I’ve often wondered what it must be like to practice in a small town every day. Perks, downfalls.

To me it was just interesting. It was worth the drive.

I was treated like a lawyer, not a spoke in the wheel, at least for one day.

Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court. Read his free ebook The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer. To learn more about Brian and his firm, Tannebaum Weiss, please visit www.tannebaumweiss.com


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  1. This was a really good read. For those of us who don't get out of Miami-Dade, it's good to hear what it's like north of Latin America. Thanks for posting.

  2. Anonymous12:51 AM

    Brian, there are good things and bad things about small town law. Sure, I get treated well. I bypass the security with a wave and friendly word. I chat with the baliff about fishing. The Clerk treats me right, will look up stuff on the computer, and docket things by phone.

    There are also some drawbacks. When the judge starts off sentencing with "I've been knowin' Mr. defendant since..." it's usually not going to end well for your client.

    When the judge sees your house arrested client at the mini mart or penny pantry, he doesn't wait for the state to file a revocation.

    All in all, it works ok, but don't idealize it too much.

  3. As soon as I saw that picture, I knew exactly where it was. I've had good experiences in Fort Pierce especially with Magistrate Frank Lynch. His clerk is very nice. I prefer federal court, especially in Fort Pierce, to state court.

    Florida is the only state in the union that the further north you go, the further south you are.

    Can be good and bad.