Legally Speaking: Catching Up with Columns Past

John G. Browning Jul. 16, 2009, 8:00am

Just as Ebenezer Scrooge was visited by the ghost of Christmas past in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," so I too sometimes receive reminders of my past columns.

Usually, there is either a new development in a previously-told story, or some recent example of a point I had made about a legal topic. While such illustrations didn't surface early enough to make it into the original article, their "better late than never" appearance nonetheless helps underscore the theme of the original column.

For example, I've written about stupid criminals before, but probably none who were quite like the criminal trespass suspect arrested by Detective Tim Dohr of the Lakeview Police Department near Houston in 2007.

Responding to a call of a suspected trespass at Gabacho's Mexican Restaurant, Detective Dohr noted how impossible it was to see anyone in the darkened premises and – trying to lighten the mood – jokingly called out "Marco." When the suspect responded out of the darkness with "Polo," the police were able to locate and arrest him.

Hey, he may be dumb, but at least he played the game by the rules.

Speaking of having a sense of humor, I've written in past columns about judges who lightened their judicial opinions with levity, including popular music references.

Joining the ranks of these lyrical lawyers is U.S. district Judge Michael Baylson of Philadelphia.

Judge Baylson was recently called upon to rule on a copyright and trademark case filed by the Arena Football League team, the Philadelphia Soul, against a former sales manager (who allegedly sold championship rings bearing the team's protected logo).

The ex-sales manager, in turn, had asserted a counterclaim of his own, arguing that the team was blaming him for an e-mail sent about the cancellation of the team's 2009 season.

Noting that the Philadelphia Soul is partly owned by rocker Jon Bongiovi of Bon Jovi, Judge Baylson felt compelled to sprinkle his opinion with references to the Jersey rocker's songs.

He observed that the football team had risen in a "Blaze of Glory," only to have been "Shot Through the Heart" when its season was cancelled, leaving it "Livin' On a Prayer" that the team would return in 2010.

As for the accusations back and forth between the Philadelphia Soul and its former employee, Judge Baylson refused to dismiss the counterclaim, commenting that both sides had had a taste of "Bad Medicine." Thanks for the lighthearted approach, judge: no one can say that you give law a bad name.

Another judge who wants to make sure his opinions are noticed is Judge Scott W. Stucky of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. Writing about a service member who discovered she was being watched by a Marine who'd planted a hidden camera in her bathroom (the Marine was later court-martialed), Judge Stucky channeled his inner Dashiell Hammett.

In true detective noir fashion, he began his opinion:

"There was something odd about the electric razor in the bathroom. [She] typically changed clothes in the bathroom and had for the past year felt that she was being watched, a feeling that she attributed to paranoia. But this time, the circumstances were simply too odd and her suspicions too strong. [She] took the razor with her when she left work that day. Her attempt to open the razor's casing ended at Sears with a 'Torque' T-7 screwdriver. Inside the razor she found a camera."

Makes you want to read more of this hardboiled opinion, doesn't it? Most judges are sworn in a courtroom, wearing their black robes.

I think Judge Stucky might have taken his oath on a rain-slicked pier during a dark, stormy night, wearing a trenchcoat and a fedora, with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth as a shadowy figure clutching a statue of a falcon looked on.

Another recent column that elicited great reader response was my look at the various excuses that defendants have offered in an attempt to avoid criminal responsibility.

Shortly after that column ran, two more worthy contenders for the "worst excuse" crown surfaced. The first is Portland attorney C. Akin Blitz, who tried to get out of a $182 speeding ticket (he was going 76 mph in a 55 mph zone) by blaming the automaker.

Using a PowerPoint presentation and testimony from a mechanic, Blitz claimed that because of the handling characteristics of his BMW 535xi, he had no idea that he was speeding. The judge didn't buy it.

Somewhat more creative – but ultimately just as unsuccessful – were the multiple excuses offered by Alexander Kabelis of Boulder, Colo. Kabelis was caught after acting suspiciously and confessed to vandalizing nine police cars and 37 other vehicles.

His "reasons"? Among others, he blamed a troubled relationship with his mother; irritation caused by police cars "whizzing past" him; the loss of his driver's license; a dental brace he was forced to wear as a child; and radiation being emitted from a nearby power plant.

It kind of reminds me of the old Groucho Marx line: "These are my principles, and if you don't like them… I have others."

Finally, a recent case came along that could have easily made it into any of my previous columns on "Lawyers Behaving Badly."

In Great Britain, a female solicitor named Ms. Sheikh sued a barrister, Marc Beaumont, whom she had hired to defend her against certain disciplinary charges. Under the agreement between the two lawyers, Mr. Beaumont would be paid a set fee, but would also be permitted to charge on an hourly basis for "unforeseen and urgent work."

However, according to Ms. Sheikh, a romantic relationship developed, and so many of their "legal conferences" turned into passionate trysts at local hotels. The problem was, Mr. Beaumont was charging her for all of this time at a rate of 250 pounds per hour (for the record, Mr. Beaumont denies billing his client for time spent "socializing").

A lawyer who has sex with a client and then charges for it? As one wag put it, that's like being charged twice for what lawyers already do.

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