As a Baltimore Maryland Criminal Attorney I have written frequently about the critical importance choosing the right lawyer if you find yourself charged with a serious felony. As I have noted in the past there are many lawyers out there who are primarily domestic or accident lawyers or have other specialties who occasionally take on a criminal case very often with tragic results for the client. These bad results for the client are usually the result of inexperience and lack of expertise by lawyers who don’t regularly operate in the criminal realm. These lawyers should not take these cases but the simple fact is that they do.
I don’t mean to impugn the integrity of these lawyers as I’m sure that they have convinced themselves that they are in fact qualified to handle criminal cases and may even have successfully resolved the majority of the few criminal cases they have handled. But it only takes one mistake to have devastating consequences on your life if that mistake is made on your case. I handled a domestic violence assault and handgun case in Baltimore County Circuit Court recently that illustrates this reality in rather stark terms. Here are the facts:
My client was driving in an automobile with his girlfriend one day when they got into a very heated argument. She pulled the car over and they both got out of the car to continue the argument. At some point she struck him in the head with an unknown object causing a laceration to his head. Shortly after this occurred a Maryland State Police Officer pulled up behind the car to investigate why it was stopped on the side of a pretty busy thoroughfare. The police officer did not witness an assaultive conduct by either party. What he saw was my client bleeding rather profusely from a recent head wound.
In spite of the fact that he did not witness my client assault his girlfriend and the fact that it was he, and not her, that was bleeding. The officer handcuffed my client for, as he noted in his report, “officer safety”. He then searched both my client and the car and recovered a loaded handgun. He then asked the alleged victim what had occurred and at that point she claimed that he had struck her in the face with an open hand. The Trooper charged my client with domestic violence assault and illegal possession of a regulated firearm. Because my client had a prior felony conviction he was facing a mandatory jail sentence of five years without the possibility of parole. Obviously the stakes were very high for this particular client.
The client was originally represented by another attorney who had been practicing for a very long time but was primarily a civil attorney without much experience in felony criminal cases. He advised my client that he had no defense and that he would have to accept the plea offer to serve five years without parole. He advised the client that going to trial would be futile and that would expose him to even more jail time with no meaningful possibility of winning being found not guilty.
The client came to me just a few days before trial. I was stunned when he told me what his attorney had advised him given what I saw as a glaringly obvious Constitutional violation committed by the Trooper. As I saw it, the trooper simply had no probable cause to either handcuff my client or to search him or the vehicle. The only conceivable argument that the State could make would be that this case somehow fell under the domestic violence exception to the general rule that a police officer cannot arrest for a misdemeanor that he did not witness without a warrant. However, even this argument was sure to fail as the officer did not establish the necessary predicates to apply this exception which are that the couple be living together and there is evidence of recent injury.
The client hired me and the case proceeded to trial. I moved to suppress the evidence in the case including the gun arguing an illegal search by the Trooper. In what turned out to be one of the shortest hearings I have ever been involved in for such a serious case, less than 15 minutes total, the court agreed with my argument stating on the record that it “wasn’t even close”. My client was acquitted of all charges. Had he not taken it upon himself to get a second opinion he would be in jail as we speak serving a minimum sentence of five years without the possibility of parole.
The worst part about these types of all to common situations is that they are so easily avoidable. Had this client spent five minutes on Maryland Judiciary Case Search or the attorney’s own website, prior to hiring this him, the client would have very quickly determined that the attorney was not a criminal specialist and could have saved himself thousands of dollars and months of angst thinking about serving five years. And he was one of the lucky ones. Many defendants don’t find out that they are being represented by an unqualified lawyer until the damage is done and it is simply too late.