Legally Speaking: Granted - On One Condition

John G. Browning Apr. 8, 2009, 1:36pm

Judges issue some pretty strange orders sometimes, and often set conditions for bail or parole that boggle the mind.

For example, in Box Butte County, Neb., Judge Brian Silverman had to order prosecutors to return a prosthetic leg to a shooting victim. Claiming the artificial limb was needed as evidence, County Attorney Kathleen Hutchinson initially refused to release Val McCabe's leg (the unfortunate Mr. McCabe had been shot by unknown assailants in the left arm, right buttock, right shoulder blade and the prosthetic leg). However, Judge Silverman ordered police to remove the bullet from the leg, and then return it to its rightful owner.

While some judges have been accused of having a "god complex," others take it a step further and actually address deities in their orders. In 2007, Indian Judge Sunil Kumar Singh issued a summons for two Hindu gods to personally appear in his court to help settle a 20-year-old property dispute.

The debate revolved around the ownership of a 1.4 acre plot of land in the coal mining town of Dhanbad that adjoined one temple dedicated to the god Ram and another dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman.

Worshippers claimed that the land belongs to the gods, but local priest Manmohan Patnaik insisted that the tract had been a gift to his family.

A local lawyer explained that since the land had been donated to the gods, "it is necessary to make them a party to the case."

Not surprisingly, after newspaper notices for their appearance were published in accordance with Indian legal practice, the Hindu deities failed to appear in court, prompting the judge's order. At last count, Judge Singh was still awaiting the arrival of Ram and Hanuman – which may help explain why India has a backlog of millions of property cases.

Then there are those judges who believe that their orders can attach conditions on litigants' personal lives, well beyond typical restrictions. In Canada, for example, Judge Rhys Morgan had an unusual condition to impose on Steven Cranley after the 24-year-old pleaded guilty to charges involving an attack on an ex-girlfriend.

Relying on doctor's testimony that Cranley had difficulty coping with rejection and would be a high risk to be a repeat offender if he got involved in another intimate relationship, Judge Morgan ordered Cranley not to have a girlfriend for the next three years. Specifically, the judge ruled that the defendant "can not form a romantic relationship of an intimate nature with a female person," so that "the protection of the public is in place."

And last September here in Texas, where judges have the power to set any conditions of probation they deem reasonable, Judge Charlie Baird of Travis County ordered 20 year-old Felicia Salazar to stop having children or go to jail.

Ms. Salazar had been placed on probation after pleading guilty to injury of her 19-month-old daughter, whom Salazar had failed to protect or provide medical care to after the little girl was beaten by her father.

Fannin County District Judge Lauri Blake took it a step further in setting conditions of probation for defendant Christina Brazier in a 2005 cocaine possession case. Besides requiring a curfew and regular school attendance, Judge Blake ordered the 17-year-old young woman to "not wear clothing associated with the drug culture," to "not obtain any new tattoos or piercings" during the court-imposed community supervision period, and to "not have sexual intercourse while enrolled in school and living with parents." I'm not sure how a court would enforce that last part.

Still, it's hard to be as extreme as Judge Fernando Ferrin Calamita of Spain. In 2007, the judge in Spain's eastern region of Murcia ordered a lesbian mother to cede custody of her two daughters to their father unless she was willing to marry a man.

Judge Calamita ordered the woman to "go straight" if she wanted to keep her children because he felt that, like "drug addiction, child abuse, prostitution, belonging to a satanic sect or a heterosexual affair," homosexuality of a parent would "negatively affect the children and serve as a reason for a change of custody." Apparently, in Judge Calamita's mind, the Spanish Inquisition is alive and well.

Some judges impose conditions that seem like poetic justice. Last June, a Florida judge wrestled with appropriate ways to punish two teenagers who had videotaped themselves hurling soda and ice at a fast food drive-through worker and then posted the video prank on YouTube.

Ultimately, besides having to do community service and pay a cleaning fee, the pranksters were also ordered to post a video apology on the popular site as well. The judge felt that showing a YouTube video of the teenagers humiliated, handcuffed and face down on the hood of a car would serve as a deterrent against future practical jokes.

It's a sentence that would likely be applauded by Painesville, Ohio, Judge Michael Cicconetti, who has a history of passing sentences that force offenders to put themselves in their victim's shoes. In 2005, for example, the judge ordered a woman who had abandoned 35 kittens (nine of which later died) to spend a night in the woods without food, water or entertainment and just the clothes on her back.

Judge Cicconetti told the defendant "How would you like to be dumped off… late at night, spend the night listening to the coyotes…. and sit out there in the cold not knowing where you're going to get your next meal, not knowing when you are going to be rescued?"

The judge is no stranger to making the punishment fit the crime – he once ordered a man who yelled "pigs" at police officers to have to stand on a street corner next to a 350-pound pig with a sign that read "This is not a police officer."

And now we come to some conditions that judges have imposed that are just, well, bizarre – perhaps because the defendants themselves were anything but typical.

Last December, Ben Hana of Wellington, New Zealand, appeared in court to face charges of indecent exposure and possession of marijuana. Hana is a homeless person who had gained local notoriety as "Blanket Man" because of his preferred attire: wearing a blanket.

After his court-appointed lawyer Maxine Dixon argued that Hana had not intentionally exposed himself, the judge ordered that Hana could be freed on bail on one condition – that he wear underwear as an appropriate "precautionary measure." Ms. Dixon even agreed to do the shopping at a local department store (now that's a full-service law firm), and soon Hana was back on the street sporting his new briefs.

Finally, in March 2009, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Timothy Doory accepted a plea bargain that may have included the most unusual deal in the history of American jurisprudence.

Twenty-two-year-old Ria Ramkissoon agreed to cooperate as a witness for the prosecution in murder charges against a cult leader named "Queen Antoinette" and several members of her West Baltimore cult, One Mind Ministries.

Ramkissoon had been a cult member as well, and her son Javon Thompson died of starvation after "Queen Antoinette" ordered that the boy should be deprived of food and water for developing a "spirit of rebellion" and violating cult rules. As a result, the cult leader and three of her followers were charged with first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death.

Ramkissoon herself, who had prayed and danced around her son's body with the others, pleaded guilty to child abuse. In exchange for her testimony against the cult members, prosecutors agreed to probation.

At Ramkissoon's insistence another condition was added: all charges against her would be dropped if the child rose from the dead. Judge Doory, in describing the plea bargain, specifically noted "that if the victim in this case, Javon Thompson, is resurrected, as you still hold some hope he will be, you may withdraw the plea, and the charges will be nolle prossed [withdrawn] against you."

A spokesman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office, Margaret Burns, wryly noted that Ramkissoon could not avoid her obligations by claiming that Javon had come back to life in another form. "This would need to be a Jesus-like resurrection," said Burns. "It cannot be a reincarnation in another object or animal."

What column - even a legal column – appearing just in time for Easter would be complete without at least one reference to resurrection?

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Gordon & Rees, LLP. He may be contacted at:

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