Just being an attorney and spending a lot of time in courts means that I sometimes see things which do not involve my clients but can be entertaining nonetheless. The greatest thing I ever saw happened on a snowy day in the town of Wayne, Michigan, not far from Detroit.
I had a Lemon Law case which was set for a pretrial conference with the judge and the court was in session when a sheriff's deputy brought in a group of unfortunates who were handcuffed together. This was a district court and these folks were all recently arrested and would now be finding out what they were charged with and how much it would cost to bail them out of jail. The deputy went down the line unlocking their handcuffs and herded them into the jury box. The prosecutor came in and handed the judge a stack of files.
One by one the cases were called and a defendant would stand. The judge would read the charges and tell the defendant how much money would be needed to release them while awaiting trial. One young man stood and heard that he had been charged with something minor and the judge set his bail at $500. The judge started to pick up the next file when the man blurted out, "$500? I haven't got that kind of money."
The judge looked at him with a rather bored look – he probably heard this several times a day – and said, "Then find someone who does." After finishing with the last of the accused, the judge motioned for the deputy to remove them from the jury box and he called my client's case. My opposing counsel and I approached the podium while the deputy began noisily chaining the defendants back together again at the side of the courtroom.
The judge looked in his direction. "Can you do that in the hallway please? We have other cases to handle here."
The deputy motioned for the defendants to go into the hallway, outside the doors at the back of the courtroom. I had just come in through those doors and knew that there were two sets of doors to the immediate left that led to the parking lot. Just as soon as the first defendant – Mr. $500 – made it out the courtroom doors, we heard a WHAM! WHAM! as someone slammed through the two sets of outer doors toward the parking lot.
It was one of those sounds that you immediately identify: Mr. $500 had bolted. The wall of the courtroom was lined with large windows facing the parking lot and we could all see him running past our cars toward buildings a few hundred yards away. His shoes came off – his laces had been removed at the jail – and as he ran barefoot through the snow, we saw the deputy chugging after him. Two more deputies joined the chase and we saw all of them disappear from view.
Everyone in the courtroom looked around not knowing what to do. The judge asked us – my opposition and myself – to proceed. We told the judge about our case and what kind of scheduling order we needed and as we discussed the minutiae of the case for a few more minutes, I heard murmuring behind us. I looked out the window and saw two very winded, sweating, deputies hauling the barefoot Mr. $500 back toward the court. In the snow, it was almost like a Thomas Kinkade painting.
The deputies brought the man back into the courtroom and huddled with the prosecutor. The prosecutor approached the podium and I stepped aside to let her speak to the judge.
"Your Honor. We are going to be adding new charges against this Defendant based on recent events but we have one further issue we'd like to bring before the court right now."
The judge re-called the case so it was official. "Yes?"
"We'd like to re-visit the issue of bail. We think the defendant might be a flight risk."
The courtroom burst into laughter.
The judge tried not to laugh. "Yes. Bail will be set at $5,000. CASH." He looked at the defendant, wondering if the was going to protest. He didn't.
After I was done, I asked the prosecutor about the little event. She had seen so many strange things in her career that this one barely registered. "You know the funny part? The new charges will be much more serious than the one we brought him in on. That bail amount is the least of his worries." It turns out that trying to escape police custody is a serious thing. Who'd a thought?
And that is pretty much the life of an attorney, at least as far as our time in court goes. Long periods of tedium are punctuated by excitement. Sometimes, it can be entertaining.
Follow me on Twitter: @stevelehto
Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation. His podcast, Lehto's Law, is on iTunes here.
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