John G. Browning Apr. 30, 2013, 9:38am

The longer I practice law, the more I appreciate the importance of fundamentals—you know, the golden rule, “treat others as you’d like to be treated” kind of principles.

In fact, when you think about it, many of the better bits of advice for getting ahead in the legal system are firmly rooted in the pearls of wisdom we first heard from our schoolteachers.

Just consider some of the following examples of the lessons that should’ve been learned when teachers imparted them the first time:

The Rules Apply to Everyone

No one individual is above the rules, even the individual who made them in the first place.  This was the lesson Michigan judge Raymond Voet reminded us of in April.

Judge Voet posted a policy in his Ionia County district courtroom, letting everyone know that if their phones went off during proceedings, the phones would be confiscated and returned only after payment of a $25 fine.

The judge has taken phones from offending lawyers, defendants and even police officers.  But on a recent Friday during a prosecutor’s closing arguments, the judge’s own smartphone rang.

Red-faced, Judge Voet turned off his phone, allowed the prosecutor to finish, and at the next recess, he treated the situation as he would with anyone else—he found himself in contempt and fined himself $25!

Judge Voet never expected to have to enforce the policy on himself, but didn’t place himself above the law, saying “I detest the distraction in the courtroom, and here it happened to me.”

Penmanship Counts

How often did you hear this admonishment from a teacher before a quiz or test?  It proved to be a lesson that some New Jersey prosecutors wished they’d taken to heart.

A New Jersey appellate court recently vacated a defendant’s guilty plea due to the scrawled signature and hasty handling of a search warrant in a drug case.

It seems the warrant authorizing the 2010 search of defendant Jermain Giles’ New Brunswick home was based on a police officer’s affidavit bearing “a signature that is wholly illegible scrawled over a signature line,” according to the appellate ruling.

Giles’ lawyer, Jack Venturi, applauded the ruling, saying “You couldn’t discern a letter.  I’ve never seen anything as terrible as this before.”

As for the handwriting-challenged police officer, there’s always medical school.

You’ll Put an Eye Out

Remember those teachers who warned you not to run with scissors or engage in horseplay that was bound to result in someone putting an eye out?  Those teachers had nothing on the educators at Castle View School in Essex, England.

The school recently imposed a ban on triangle-shaped “flapjacks” after one of the sharp-cornered treats was thrown at a pupil’s face, hitting him in the eye.  The flapjacks (which in the U.K. are baked oat snacks that resemble granola bars more than fluffy American pancakes) are now forbidden for safety reasons unless they are cut into a square or rectangular shape.

The “flap” over flapjacks and school safety has reportedly gone as high as British Education Secretary Michael Gove.

Pay Attention in Science Class—You Never Know When You’ll Need It

This would have been good advice for the powers that be at Renda Broadcasting in Bonita Springs, Fla.  On April Fool’s Day, Val St. John and Scott Fish—two longtime DJs at the Gator Country 101.9 FM country music station—“warned” their listeners about “dihydrogen monoxide” coming out of residents’ taps.

“Dihydrogen monoxide,” of course, is another way of describing good ol’ H2O, or water.  But this didn’t stop panicky Floridians from calling the local utility company and county authorities, saying that they heard that county water was “unsafe,” and unfit for drinking, showering, or other uses.

The outcry resulted in the station’s general manager taking the two radio personalities off the air and suspending them indefinitely, even as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection weighed bringing charges for the hoax.

Renda Broadcasting’s Tony Renda is taking the prank very seriously, saying “We have a responsibility to our listeners.”

Gee, Tony, maybe you—and your listeners—should have paid a little more attention in science class (or at least looked at the calendar).

Just Say No to Drugs

Apparently, no matter how frequently the anti-drug message is conveyed in school and in public service announcements, some people never get it.

Thirty-two-year-old convicted U.K. pot dealer Terry Bennett was one of those people.  But after receiving a one-year suspended sentence with 240 hours of community service in 2012, Bennett got an alternative from Judge Julian Lambert: write a 5,000 word essay about the dangers of marijuana by April 4, or spend a year in jail.

Bennett embraced the unconventional sentence, although he says it was harder than it sounds since “I didn’t realize just how much work it would be to get my point across properly.”

At least it beats writing “I will not sell pot” 500 times on the chalkboard.

No Taunting

Whether on the playground or on the athletic field, kids are taught from an early age that taunting will not be tolerated. Some young thugs in New York recently learned that it can also get you arrested.

A man who works at the Scarsdale Public Library was beaten and robbed by several youths while waiting at a bus stop.  The robbers took the victim’s money, briefcase and cellphone.

Adding insult to injury, the next day one of the robbers make a taunting phone call to the victim, apparently without realizing that the victim had reported the mugging to police and let them know about the phone’s geolocation features.

Police were able to trace the call to a house where they found the three youths, along with the stolen briefcase, and arrested them.

The Dog Ate My Homework

While this excuse never seemed to work much in school, that doesn’t mean it never happens—at least according to Wayne Klinkel.

The Montana man is hoping to claim $500 in reimbursement from the federal government after his 12-year-old golden retriever Sundance ate $500 in U.S. currency.

Klinkel says he picked through the dog’s droppings and saw the remnants of the bills, then washed them, taped the pieces together, and sent them to the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing with an explanation of what happened.

According to the Bureau, an “experienced mutilated currency examiner” will now have to determine if at least 51 percent of the bills are present before reimbursement can be made, a process that could take up to two years.

Maybe the prospect of a job that involves sifting through tattered pieces of currency that have made their way through a dog’s intestinal tract carries with it the best advice of all—stay in school, kids, stay in school.

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