Saturday, June 5, 2010

Shock & Awe

A couple of events happened here in Chicago the last couple of days that have me shaking my head. I don't know much about either story, but the media is having fun. And the public is speaking out on at least one of the stories.

Last month an arrest of a Chicago cop was thrown out by a judge. The cop caused a traffic accident that killed two Hispanics back around Thanksgiving in 2007. The accident occurred at 3:00 am on a local city street. Apparently no one bothered to check and see if the cop had been drinking...well until 8 hours later. Not surprisingly, his blood alcohol concentration was within legal limits.

The cop was charged, however, with misdemeanor DUI. Charges were later upgraded to a felony after prosecutors obtained video footage of the officer drinking inside a bar right before the accident. The bartender would later swear the shots he was serving the cop were really water.

Though the State had no concrete proof the cop was drunk at any time, a prosecution expert gave hearing testimony that based on the amount of alcohol the cop was seen drinking in the video, he would have been legally drunk at the time of the accident. Apparently the preliminary hearing judge didn't buy this opinion and the case was dismissed.

Then the press got a hold of the drinking video and aired it on the news. As you can imagine there was a huge outcry from citizens and politicians alike, thus reckless homicide charges were brought (by way of grand jury indictment, I suspect).

But in April, the judge, hearing this case, ruled the police had no probable cause to detain the cop initially. Or to put it another way, there was no basis for his arrest. On Friday, June 4, 2010, the State had to drop the charges.

People are upset. Blame is being cast on everyone from Mayor Daley to the judge, to the Chicago Police, to the police superintendent. The whole story just smells and tastes bad. But where should the blame really lie?

I don't know. I have not been in court once when this case was up. But I know this judge. And I don't think he's throwing the case. You must ask what evidence he had before him. Judges don't get to guess and speculate. They rule based on what proper evidence has been submitted.

Apparently first response police officers and paramedics all claim the cop showed no signs of being drunk at the scene.

At the time the facts were: a horrible collision at 3:00 am on an inner city street resulted in the deaths of 2 people. And apparently the cop's vehicle had exceeded 60 miles per hour, which is damn hard to do where this accident occurred. The scene must have been bad.

Based on those facts alone and the totality of the circumstances, I have to believe any cop on the planet would have checked for drunk driving. I don't do DUI cases, but having someone in custody for 8 hours before giving a breathalyzer doesn't make much sense to me.

A police lieutenant testified the cop smelled of liquor and had bloodshot eyes when he saw him later at the police station. This same lieutenant, however, also admitted he had lied to internal affairs regarding this incident. There's a credibility issue here.  

Either one of two stories is accurate: the cop was not drunk at the time of the accident. Or, the cop was drunk and was protected by his fellow officers. In order to believe he wasn't drunk, you would have to also believe he was really doing shots of water at the bar. Now I have drank water at bars many times, but never from a shot glass. But, I suppose it's possible he was drinking water.

Back in April when the judge quashed the cop's arrest there was quite a ruckus at the courthouse. I was there. It was noisy. I saw one lady being dragged from an elevator by sheriffs. I had no idea what was going on. It wasn't until later that day when I read the story that I figured it out. But the scene that day was pretty bad. Lots of yelling. Some crying. And tons of deputies.

But I am not jumping on the bandwagon and blaming the judge. If the cops messed up the case, that's on them. Did some police officers simply protect one of their own?

That could be true. Or it could not be true.

Last week our local Fox affiliate ran a story about judges that, in Fox's opinion, leave work too early. I didn't see or read the story, but I heard about it. However, since I hadn't viewed the story, I didn't know which judges were allegedly caught playing hookie.

Last night I was shocked to find out that 4 judges were recently reassigned (fired) by the Cook County Chief Judge. And I am regularly in front of 3 of them. They are felony preliminary hearing judges. I like all 3. They are all fair. 1 of the judges, especially, is well respected by scores of people from defense attorneys to assistant state's attorneys to deputies that have worked in his courtroom. He's simply a very good judge.

The preliminary hearing courts don't go all day. Neither do the trial courtrooms at 26th & California. But a preliminary hearing judge's workload in comparison to a trial judge is pretty light. A case is in their courtroom usually just once.  There are no trials. No sentencing. No motion hearings. They conduct very brief probable cause hearings and find for the State on almost all cases.

Personally, I don't care if they are home at 2:30 sitting in the sun. What are they supposed to do if they are done for the day? Really. The Cook County sheriff said that the average time a courtroom closes in the criminal division is about 2:30. This includes all criminal courtrooms.

The preliminary hearing courtrooms also start at 9:00 whereas the trial courtrooms start at 10:00, or whenever the judge feels like it (sometimes close to 11:00). The preliminary hearing courtrooms also usually have a shorter afternoon call that starts at 1:30.

On a normal day, I am done with court by 12:30. Obviously trials and motion hearings go well into the afternoon or take all day. However, on a typical day, I am home by 2:00. My office is at home. 

In the summer, whenever possible I am outside running at 2:30 every day. Is Fox going to do a story on me that leads something like this "Local attorney enjoys some sunny recreation while clients sit in jail." Perhaps I shouldn't tempt them. That could be spun very badly.

I can guarantee that story wouldn't include the fact that I work 7 days a week and spend a lot of weekend time in the jail with those same clients.

What's the big deal? Fox sends out some cameras that film a few judges leaving work or at home after work, and now it's a witch hunt.

This is the media at its worse. Tell the story so slanted that officials must react and people lose their jobs. I am most ashamed that the local chief judge didn't make a statement in support of his judges. Instead, he got rid of them very quickly. And now one judge has sued Fox for $7 million.

Fox does not want me on that jury.

What do these 2 stories have in common? Simple, the reaction. And it's a reaction that was desired and created on purpose. The alleged drunk cop case is sad. It really is. But go to the link to the story and read the comments that people have left. The sadness continues. That story was written to evoke the sentiment it earned.

A sitting judge made a decision extremely unpopular with many Chicagoans. He had to have known it would cause loud outcry and dissent. And he also knew that decision would be heavily scrutinized by his superiors. Would he throw away his entire legal career over a DUI case that involved a cop? Or was he following the law and had a very weak case in his courtroom?

If there is any monkey business going on with this case, look at why the case was weak. A case starts with the police department. It wasn't the judge's fault no breathalyzer was immediately done. It wasn't the judges fault a few other police officers and someone from the fire department claimed the cop showed no signs of being drunk at the scene.

Without some other evidence to rebut such testimony, what is left? Not much. Oh wait, a police lieutenant with credibility issues offered contradicting testimony. The judge's ruling on the motion to quash arrest did not concern guilt or innocence. That's a trial determination. A motion to quash is a legal matter. This is entirely different.

On a motion to quash arrest for lack of probable cause, the judge has to ask "what did the cops know at the time of the arrest?" Apparently this judge felt there was no evidence the cop was drunk when he was arrested. It's really that simple.

We all might speculate that based on the facts, the cop was drunk. A judge cannot do this. Engaging in pure speculation and assuming the cop was drunk without proof (and in the face of testimony he didn't appear to be so), would only lead to a later reversal by the Appellate court. It really would.

My common sense tells me this cop was loaded and was protected by some buddies. But if I am the judge hearing this case, I am not sure there was evidence to support this assumption. This judge is not a dumb man by any stretch. Nor is any judge. He probably knew what the score was. And I am sure it pained him deeply to have to follow the law.

He was probably asking himself over and over why didn't you blow the guy immediately?

Based on what admittedly little I know about the actual case, I trust the judge did his job as he has sworn to do. I guess I have that much faith in our judges.

Regarding the comments made about this case, I am amazed at how many people offer such passionate and harsh opinions without knowing more than a few hundred words of text on a computer screen. Apparently some people really do believe everything they read and are incredibly moved by it. What happened to independent thought? How about critical thinking?

I don't think there are enough shepherds these days to attend to all the sheep.


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