Friday, November 23, 2007

20 years for $1500?

I occasionally use craigslist to sell things around the house. In fact, I tried to sell a piano (later gave it away) for $200 and got an email telling me to take it off the market tand that a "cashier's check" for $200 was on its way. That message was then followed by another that said the man's assistant had accidentally made the check out for $1200 and that if I could just cash the check and give the difference to the man who picked up the piano, we'd all be happy.

The "buyer" was from Nigeria and apparently had just inherited a bunch of money from a Nigerian prince. How could I lose?

As if that wasn't suspicious enough, the check arrived in a fedex envelope (I'd heard they do this to avoid mail fraud charges) and when I called the company to verify the check, they told me their checks had been used in frauds all across the country.

But other than this, I've had good luck with Craigslist as long as I've followed their advice to trade locally and get cash.

Then last night, bored after a day of eating and football, I checked the "legal services" portion of Omaha Craigslist for the first time, and saw this ad:

Misdemeanors $750; Felony - Fourth and Third Class - $1,500. Call David Tar***, Tar*** Law Office, 402-960-****.

I've never met this lawyer, but we share the same first name and the same first three letters of our last name. Even our phone numbers are very similar as both start with "960" and end with combinations of "3321." I've even received the guy's mail by mistake in the past.

Here's the problem, though. A "third class" felony in Nebraska carries, under section 28-105, this penalty:

Class III felony Maximum - twenty years imprisonment, or twenty-five thousand dollars fine, or both. Minimum - one year imprisonment.

So, you're a criminal defendant in Nebraska, facing up to twenty years, and you see an ad for a lawyer who will represent you for a flat fee of $1500! You think, "that's less than $100 per potential year;" what a deal!

But think about that for a second: You're facing up to 20 years in what Spongebob once called "the stony lonesome," you need a competent lawyer who will stand up against the awesome power of the state and you're scared. But, like most criminal defendants, you're also broke, living paycheck to paycheck, and you probably were found indigent and had a public defender appointed to represent you, as in Douglas County the "indigency hearing" usually consists of the judge asking you if you want to hire your lawyer or have a free one appointed.

Like a person diagnosed with cancer, however, you might, after talking to your p.d., decide to get a second opinion and scout out what a private attorney will cost. Then you find a guy who will take your case for just $1500!

But what will $1500 buy you, you ask? Well, you assume your lawyer is the expert, so you put your trust in him or her, again like a person facing a cancer diagnosis.

But, let's be honest, do you think that will buy you a motion to suppress, a focus group to prepare for your jury trial, hours of preparation, years of experience in dealing with the varied personalties of judges, prosecutors and potential jurors?

Nope. It will buy you a quick plea.

It's like going to the doctor for a pain in your head and having her tell you "I can fix that for $1500;" it won't buy you brain surgery. It will probably buy you a quick prescription even if your ailment truly cries out for $100,000 in medical care.

Not a fair comparison you say? After all, a doctor could save your life, but this lawyer is only dealing with TWENTY YEARS OF IT!

You see my point? You don't go to a doctor and say "Fix my problem for $1500." You let him or her diagnose you and decide whether you need $1000 worth of treatment or $100,000. And if you find someone who says she'll fix you for $1500 without first diagnosing your condition, run the other way fast!

Find a lawyer you feel comfortable with, who has passion, who cares about your case and the next 20 years of your life. Ask questions and be a consumer, finding out if he or she is a member of the local criminal defense attorneys association, if they've ever been to NCDC, or to Gerry Spence's Trial Lawyers College.

Find out if they've ever been a prosecutor and ask yourself whether that is important to you, whether it signals what you want in a lawyer.

Like an attorney picking a jury and asking herself whether a teacher, for example, will make a good juror for you, none of these questions should be decisive in itself. It's like my friend Terry McCarthy told me, "Don't single issue people."

What he meant, as he was teaching me to pick jurors, was to find a good person and not to strike someone simply because I found one thing out about them.

Find someone you trust, who seems competent, passionate, affordable and caring, kind of like the way you'd choose a doctor if you were facing a cancer diagnosis.

Above all, don't be cheap. And don't be intimidated. Shop around until you find someone you trust, who will fight for your rights and stand up against the cops and the prosecutors for you.

Don't trust 20 years of your adulthood to someone who says they'll take care of you for $1500.

If they do it right, they'll be earning less than minimum wage on a complicated felony. And if they do it wrong, you might be earning less than minimum wage in
"the stony lonesome" with your lawyer's name tattooed on your knuckles the way Jerry Seinfeld envisioned his Uncle Leo doing pullups.

Shop around. Don't try to "shop victoriously" for a lawyer, thinking cheaper is better or that competence is uniform.

The life you save might be your own.


shg said...

This has become the bane of the criminal defense practice. Starving lawyers selling quickie pleas (but they never mention that part) on the cheap.

It's hard to distinguish the good from the bad, but easy to tell the expensive from the cheap. Lawyers who do this do grave harm to the profession and their clients. And yet, it not only continues, but grows. It's a very sad commentary on the state of criminal defense law.

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