Friday, May 24, 2013

Sometimes It's Better to Be Lucky Than Good

My client was charged with driving without a license and failure to reduce speed to avoid a collision.  The prosecution's case was basically that a state trooper came upon an accident site.  At the accident site trooper claims he saw my client exiting from the driver side of the vehicle after it crashed into the guard rail.  I interviewed my client and he repeatedly told me that he had been charged before with driving without license but that the charges were always dropped.  In other words he had no prior convictions or probation before judgment for driving without a license.  Driving without a license is a misdemeanor in Maryland and carries with it a maximum jail sentence of 60 days and/or a $500 fine for a first offense.  The sentence can be higher for second and subsequent offenses.

I relied on my client's representations.  He came to me less than 12 hours for the trial date.  The prosecution made a plea offer which was plead guilty to the main offense and they would recommend that my client gets 60 days in jail all of it suspended.  I think they believed my client had no prior convictions as I did.  I was 90% certain I could beat the accident charge and at least had some legal arguments why we should beat the driving without a license charge.  I did some background checking on the judge and was under the impression that there was no trial penalty.  The trial penalty is when the judge punishes the defendant for going to trial rather than pleading guilty.  I told my client the offer and we decided to go to trial.

At trial the officer testified on direct examination that he came upon an accident and my client was getting out of the driver side of the car.  My client admitted to falling asleep and running into the guardrail.  My client admitted he had no license.  The trooper had the driving record which showed that my client had no license.  It also unfortunately showed that my client had received a similar charge and was found guilty three years earlier.  This fact was not revealed to me until moments before the trial.  This made the case much worse for my client.

On cross examination the trooper revealed that he did have a dashboard camera and that it was operating at the time that my client was exiting the vehicle.  The trooper did not bring the film from the camera.  The trooper also admitted that there was extensive front-end damage and that the vehicle was smoking.  The trooper also admitted that he had no idea how long the vehicle had been there.

After the prosecution rested I argued to the court that my client should be acquitted of failure to reduce speed to avoid a collision.  The Maryland statute is clear that in order to be guilty you must strike a vehicle, a person or a conveyance.  I argued to the court that a guardrail is not a conveyance.  The court did not have a precise definition of conveyance but I kept arguing that a conveyance is something that moves.  Finally the court relented and granted that motion.  I also argued that my client should not be convicted of driving without a license because the prosecution could not prove that my client was driving.  Yes he confessed to driving but in Maryland the crime must be corroborated by independent evidence.  For example, if there was evidence of injury that would suggest that my client was in the car at the time of the accident and that would corroborate his confession.  If there was evidence that the vehicle belonged to him that might suggest that he was in the car.  There was no such evidence.  The court countered with the evidence that the trooper claimed he saw my client getting out of the vehicle on the driver side.  I argued that the videotape of the incident would be dispositive of that and it was exclusively in the trooper's control and he did not bring it in.  I further argued that nobody would remain in a vehicle that is smoking.  They would be very afraid and get out of the vehicle.  It made no sense for my clients to be in the smoking vehicle for minutes if not an hour.  I thought the argument was a good argument but it did not persuade the court.

Despite good arguments my client was unlucky that he forgot about his earlier conviction.  The prosecution pointed out the earlier conviction to the court.  Rather than walk out of the courtroom he received 10 days in jail.

My client was lucky when at first the prosecution did not know about his prior conviction.  His luck ran out when I tried to be good and beat his case for him.  The prosecution found out about the prior conviction and so did the court.  Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

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