Legally Speaking: Expect the unexpected

John G. Browning Jul. 16, 2012, 6:40am

If the legal system has taught me anything, it's that you never know what's coming next.

Our common law system that relies on the precedential value of earlier decisions is supposed to provide some sense of predictability, yet judges are always capable of surprising us (after all, how many pundits predicted Chief Justice Roberts' swing to the liberal wing of the Supreme Court in upholding the Affordable Care Act?).

The stupidity of some criminals never ceases to amaze me, and neither does the gall of some litigants with their lawsuits.

Here are just a few of the recent surprises that the justice system witnessed recently.

For Whom the Court Tolls

Lawyers need continuances from time to time for an infinite variety of perfectly valid reasons—the unavailability of a key witness, a medical emergency, and so on.

So when Florida attorney Frank Louderback needed a continuance recently in a high-profile capital murder-for-hire trial, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday probably expected that something serious was going on. After all, Louderback's client, Jerry Alan Bottorff, stands accused in a case with the federal death penalty looming ominously.

What was the reason for Louderback's desperate plea to move the trial date? He was scheduled to be in Key West, Fla., on July 12 to appear in an annual Ernest Hemingway Look-alike Contest.

It's true that the contest held every year at Sloppy Joe's Bar is a big deal in certain circles, attracting international media attention. And Frank Louderback described himself in his motion as a "perennial contestant," who had already "secured a block of six rooms to accommodate family, friends, and fans and has had to pay non-refundable deposists."

But Judge Merryday was unimpressed, and in a humorous order he even drew some Hemingway-esque parallels in denying the motion.

As the judge put it, "Between a murder-for-hire trial and an annual look-alike contest, surely Hemingway, a perfervid admirer of 'grace under pressure,' would choose the trial."

After all, Judge Merryday reasoned, "At his most robust, Hemingway exemplified the intrepid defense lawyer."

The judge even quoted from a profile of Hemingway written by Dorothy Parker in a 1929 issue of The New Yorker to underscore his point, before concluding that "Perhaps a lawyer who evokes Hemingway can resist relaxing frolic in favor of solemn duty . . . Best of luck to counsel in next year's contest."

Stupid Is As Stupid Does

It's against the law for an adult male to have sex with an underage female. It's even worse when the adult male is already wanted on several outstanding warrants. And it's colossally stupid for such an adult male to engage in that sort of behavior at the criminal courthouse itself.

Yet that is what 23-year-old Roderick Clanton was arrested for recently at the New Orleans criminal courthouse. A court employee reportedly caught Clanton in the act with a 15-year-old girl when he went to the men's room and saw "two pairs of legs sticking from the bottom of a bathroom stall."

Sheriff's deputies arrested Clanton. One community activist described the incident as "unspeakable," and expressed dismay that it could happen "[r]ight in the seat of power of justice in the criminal justice system."

Thanks for Saving My Life—I'm Suing You

One would think that 62-year-old Ellen Shane of Carteret, N.J., has reasons to be grateful.

On March 8 she and her husband were shopping at the Woodbridge Center Mall when she was grabbed by 44-year-old Andres Garcia. Garcia, a convicted felon wanted for parole violations, was fleeing after a shoplifting incident at the mall. Garcia held a knife to Shane's throat and dragged her off as a hostage to a nearby Sears store, threatening to kill her if he wasn't allowed to leave.

Officer Edward Barrett Jr. of the Woodbridge police was working a security detail at the mall. As other customers ran for cover, he was able to get a clear shot at the parolee, shooting Garcia in the head and killing him.

So what was Mrs. Shane's reaction to being saved by this heroic officer? She's suing the Woodbridge Township Police Department for $5 million!

According to the tort claim notice filed by her lawyer David Corrigan, both Mr. and Mrs. Shane "are suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome" and have been traumatized from the incident.

Corrigan claims that Mrs. Shane was "injured as a result of the police officer's actions" and that the department "failed to protect public safety."

Seriously—a brave cop takes out a dangerous criminal who's holding a knife to your throat, saves your life, and your reaction is to sue the police? At least the mayor, John McCormac, is standing by Officer Barrett.

He stated "No lawsuit will change the fact our officer is a hero for saving her life."

I can't believe a lawyer would take such a case, but I hope a judge dismisses it, with apologies to the brave, well-trained officers of the Woodbridge Township police.

And if a jury gives the plaintiff any money, much less the $5 million they're seeking, I think they should be required to donate it to the Police Benevolent Association.

A lawsuit like this is an affront to the taxpayers who'll have to pay to defend it, to the heroic officer who did his duty, and to common sense itself.

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