Not a bad start for my legal career!
This semester I'm participating in a criminal defense clinic at the law school, which means I take on real clients with real criminal charges. The public defender's office refers a few cases over to the clinic, and we do all the work on the cases (with supervisors looking over our shoulders). Because I have my third-year practice certificate, I can advise clients on my own, and I can appear in court with my supervisor.
So today my first case had a court date. After lots of investigation and preparation, I appeared this morning with my client in the Charlottesville city General District Court. Since we weren't making a simple appearance or making a plea bargain, but instead we were having a trial, we had to wait until the end of the docket. The long wait made me pretty nervous -- I think the prosecutor was just trying to ice the kicker.
The last case of the morning was mine. It was thrilling to stand right in front of the judge, shoulder to shoulder with the prosecutor, and stay on my toes throughout his questioning of the arresting police officer. It was a DUI case. The officer explained about the accident, the field sobriety tests, and arresting my client. He was very honest about how well my client had done on the field sobriety tests, and didn't try to spin anything to make my client look worse. I was really impressed by the officer's integrity.
Fast forward, there was no record of when the accident actually took place. No evidence whatsoever. So they couldn't establish that the breath test taken after the arrest was done within the necessary 2 hours required by law. Because they lacked this key piece of evidence, they couldn't get the blood alcohol content certificate admitted. When the prosecutor said, "No further questions," the judge replied, "aren't you going to move the certificate into evidence?" We all looked at each other with smiles, realizing he couldn't get it in. The judge jumped in and said, "As far as DUI cases go, this isn't the strongest case ever." The prosecutor added, "Plus, there's so much reasonable doubt since he did so well on his field sobriety tests." Essentially, the case was over right there. The prosecutor just made my closing argument in one sentence.
But the prosecutor added, "I don't think it's fair for this clinic student to win his first case without having to ask a single question." I quickly pointed out that I had made an objection during the questioning of the officer. "That's true," he said. "Okay, then." My supervisor defended me, saying, "He was very prepared with everything anyway." The judge agreed: "I could see he was ready to go with all his questions and everything, just chomping at the bit."
The judge looked at my client and said, "You're free to go." So exciting! My client had the biggest smile ever on his face. He shook my hand and gave me a hug, then gave my supervisor a big hug. As soon as we got outside the courthouse, he and his girlfriend were just jumping for joy. After he was arrested for DUI, he got fired from his pizza delivery job, and now he can probably get his job back. So thrilling.
And for anyone concerned reading this, we did take the opportunity to remind him he might not get so lucky in the future. The case might be a little stronger next time. So don't drink and drive.
It was exciting to win, though I can't credit myself for having done much. I felt very prepared, and I knew when to object, and I knew why the prosecution didn't have enough evidence. So I guess I did something. And I held this poor man's hand through the process, which I hope was a help to him. All in all, it was a great start for me. I'm 1-0. We'll see how the next one goes...