Wednesday, September 27, 2006

More New York traffic courts

Our traffic court database is growing rapidly. We've got over 300 courts in the database in 32 counties. Some examples of new additions include:

Mount Pleasant Town Court and Harrison Town Court in Westchester County;

Goshen Town Court in Orange County;

Niagara Town Court and Niagara Falls City Court in Niagara County;

and both Grand Island Town Court and Evans Town Court in Erie County.

There has been a dramatic increase in traffic to the site. We're now getting over 1500 visitors a week. It was only 300 not too long ago. Come to think of it, the site has only been up in its present form since roughly March of 2006, about 6 months. The original site debuted in roughly December of 2005, but the new site is a real database implementation.

Several attorneys have mentioned to me that they like the site and have found it useful. We have gotten some surprising negative feedback about some of the more colorful comments on the site. I don't really understand that since most of the complaints are either about things that are plainly true or about a merely neutral mention of someone where something positive was said about someone else.

If you want to make an omelette, you gotta break some eggs, I guess.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A simple request

As you may know, I'm running for Congress in NY's 21st district. The media will not cover the campaign. There appears to be a deliberate policy of not covering challengers except in rare circumstances. What kind of a democracy do we have if the voters don't know who the choices are?

If you think newspapers and other media should cover challengers, please contact the appropriate people at the media outlet of your choice.

For the Albany Times Union:

For the Daily Gazette (Schenectady):
c/o The Daily Gazette
P.O. Box 1090
Schenectady, N.Y. 12301-1090

For the Troy Record:

For the Leader Herald (Fulton County):

For the Recorder (Amsterdam):


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Traffic Courts in Saratoga County now complete

We've managed to finish entering the traffic courts (and criminal) in Saratoga County. Total of about 225 courts in the database and growing strong.

Feedback is appreciated. If you see anything incorrect or inappropriate about a court, please enter a comment on that court's page.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Traffic Courts and Traffic Violations Bureau

Our ny traffic court directory project is going well. We now have about 200 courts in the database. We have completed all or part of 29 counties (there are 62 counties in New York State, with roughly 2000 courts). My friend Dave Cheng, who work in executive coaching for women, has helped me with his skills in Human Resources. He's put together a team that is entering data.

I'm most excited about getting the New York City traffic courts in, since that is something we get a lot of calls for but can't help with. New York City handles speeding tickets and other traffic matters in the Traffic Violations Bureau, an arm of New York State's DMV. The NYC TVBs are:

Traffic Violations Bureau - Brooklyn North
Traffic Violations Bureau - Brooklyn South
Traffic Violations Bureau - Bronx
Traffic Violations Bureau - Manhattan
Traffic Violations Bureau - Queens North
Traffic Violations Bureau - Queens South
Traffic Violations Bureau - Richmond - Staten Island

There are also TVBs in the cities of Rochester and Buffalo, as well as in parts of Suffolk County.

A good day for my speeding and marijuana clients

Had a good day the other day, handling three cases in two courts. For one speeding ticket client, I got a typical reduction from a high 6-point speed to a 3-point speed. Usually you hope for a little better but her driving record wasn't clean.

For the next client I made a big difference. I'm handling three high speeds for this particular client in three different courts. The speeds range from 95 to 101. My main concern here is getting at least one of the speeds reduced to something other than speed, even if it's a lot of points. You can save your license from points by taking defensive driving, but you can't save it from three speeds in 18 months.

My of-counsel got the 101 reduced to 80 mph a couple weeks ago. This is a big deal because a ticket at 15 over the limit should not affect insurance under Insurance Law 2335 (depending on the interpretation of "two or more violations of other statutes ..." in the last item on the list). It's also a big deal because judges and prosecutors get sticky at speeds over 100, and this reduction from 8 points to 4 is more difficult at such high speeds.

The 95 mph ticket is down the road, and has some other violations with it. Not sure we'll be able to get that one out of speed. I managed to get the 96 mph ticket out of speed by taking it to a 4-point moving violation (1129 - following too close). How? By being open and honest with both the prosecutor and the judge. A good attorney who has credibility with cops, prosecutors and judges can lay it out for them -- this is what I need, this is why I need it, and this is what we can do to get there. It helps when you're dealing with a reasonable prosecutor and a reasonable judge. This particular judge is one of the best judges around - experienced and a good listener.

It's probably surprising to see me refer to a "reasonable prosecutor". My concerns about prosecutors are mainly limited to criminal matters, especially felonies. Almost all prosecutors are reasonable when it comes to traffic cases. This is probably because of some or all of the following: (1) they speed too; (2) they've got bigger fish to fry; (3) there's too many cases and they just want to get home; and/or (4) they know it's just a revenue thing. Prosecutors are also generally reasonable on misdemeanors, mainly for reasons 2 and 3, above. When it comes to felonies some of them get more difficult. I don't like when that happens, but that's pretty much what the public wants I guess.

Turning to my marijuana client, he had a UPM (unlawful possession of marijuana violation) and a CPCS 7th (criminal possession of a controlled substance in the 7th degree) misdemeanor for psilocybin. This kind of case presents a particular problem that some defense attorneys might miss. If your client pleads guilty to any drug violation, they become ineligible for financial aid - forever (or until the law changes). This client is roughly 21, and is working now but may go to college at some point. Thanks (again) to a reasonable prosecutor and a fair judge (in a different county mind you), the client gets a disorderly conduct violation (aka dis-con).

And I handled all three cases in a span of roughly 2 hours, including a half-hour drive and an errand between courts.

Seems odd - politics in Bethlehem ?

This seemed odd to me. I went to court late yesterday on some Bethlehem speeding tickets. The parking space next to me had an official Bethlehem town vehicle. Inside it, as you can see in the picture, were some campaign signs. The picture shows the town logo on the vehicle, and the campaign signs in the back.

At first blush I thought it was inappropriate for a town vehicle to be used to carry campaign materials. However the vehicle was marked "Code Enforcement" on the back, so perhaps the code enforcement officer had removed the signs. But then, these signs were for a Republican candidate, and the Town is now run by Democrats. Are they engaging in selective enforcement of the sign laws? I believe the candidate whose signs were in the back (Martin Reid) is facing third-party primaries today. Was the timing of the sign removal related to the primary?

I'm probably thinking too much, as this isn't that big of a deal.

I remember when I worked in the Fulton County office complex how many of the cars in the government parking lot had campaign stickers on them during election season. It seemed a bit inappropriate to campaign on government property. But that's just the way the world is, I guess.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Lawyers in Albany - Courtesy

If you get lawyers in Albany talking, one thing that gets many of us going is a perception that downstate attorneys (i.e. New York City and Long Island) are unpleasant to deal with. I have actually had quite a few good experiences with downstate attorneys, but I have at times had such bad experiences. The truth is that not all attorneys here are courteous, and that's what prompted this post.

We have a case going right now where we need to depose a number of employees from the company we're suing. As a courtesy, and without being asked, we offered to depose those witnesses at the company office because that would be more convenient for them. Normally depositions are done at a law firm office or in a courthouse.

Today I spoke with the attorney for the other side. He indicated that they were only going to produce one witness at the first deposition. I was not pleased with this and he referred me to CPLR 3106(d). I am aware of that provision and understand his position, but I don't like it. I don't think it applies here because we have a scheduling order that says depositions must be completed by the end of September, and they didn't raise this issue while we were putting the scheduling order together. Since it is now September 7th and they haven't offered us dates yet (despite our efforts to get dates from them), it will be rather difficult to get further depositions from these witnesses before the end of September. And of course with all of the delays to date and further ones to come, some of the employees will no longer be employees by the time we get to them.

Anyway, the point is that we had gone out of our way to extend this courtesy to them (without being asked, mind you) of doing the depositions at their client's office. Now, with time running on the scheduling order, they're sandbagging us in a way I consider quite discourteous. This conduct will not stop us from getting the depositions we want, but it will make it a little more difficult, take more time, probably require motions, and otherwise be a pain in the ass. It will mean more billable hours for their law firm, but that is not an admirable reason for such conduct. This is the kind of behavior that just pisses me off. I spent about 15 minutes bitching about it to other attorneys in my office. Now instead of just getting the depositions done and moving on with the case, I have to think about how to deal with his discourtesy. Do I make a motion? Ask the judge for another scheduling conference? Subpoena everyone to my office shortly after the first deposition? Just a pain.

I have generally had good experiences with this particular firm, so I'm not going to blame the whole firm. They're a fairly large local office of a much larger firm based in another city (probably New York or Chicago, but I'm not sure of that). But as far as this attorney goes, I will no longer extend the courtesies I extend to other attorneys. I withdrew the offer to conduct depositions at his client's facility. On the phone he said if he wanted to he could insist on doing the deposition in the county of venue (where it was sued). That was an odd threat, since it makes little difference to me and will be less convenient for him and his client.

So in case anyone thinks that being a lawyer is always easy and never stressful, I'm afraid we have our moments. I guess that's a funny thing to say. Many people probably think the work of being a lawyer is very stressful and I suspect many lawyers feel that way. I've found that it's mostly a pleasant experience with some tough moments. I try to be courteous so I don't make life stressful for other lawyers (or for my clients or even the adversary's clients). If you're courteous to others they usually return the courtesy.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

How clients see lawyers and the process

One of the toughest things for lawyers is understanding how their clients feel about the process.

For experienced lawyers, the process is what it is. We get our client through the process as best we can. There can be a number of steps, and many of them are mysterious to our clients.

Because of our experience, we are used to it and it's hard for attorneys to see how unpleasant this is for the clients.

Our clients get angry at the other side's lawyer. Usually this happens when that lawyer is doing a particularly good job as a lawyer. When this occurs I go out of my way to stress that this is a good lawyer doing his/her job. I'm afraid this often falls on deaf ears.

Our clients have quite a bit on the line. In personal injury cases they have twice as much at stake as we do, and this is their only case. As a personal injury lawyer, I've got quite a few other cases in the hopper. In criminal matters they may be looking at prison time if we lose the case. No matter how the case goes, the prosecutor and defense lawyer go home. In drunk driving cases (which are criminal) their right to drive (officially a privilege but I still consider it a right) can be suspended or revoked. The DWI lawyer drives away regardless of the result. And in election law matters, our clients may be deprived of the right to be a candidate on the ballot after they've worked hundreds of hours getting signatures.

In the end, many of our clients perceive the law, the lawyers, the judges, and the whole system to be unfair. They're right that it's not fair. No system is perfect, but experienced lawyers know that the process we have is better than any alternative we've seen.

I like to explain why lawyers are so unpopular. Figure Client A and his Lawyer B are going up against Client C and Lawyer D. There's four relationships between clients and lawyers -- client with his own lawyer (x2) and client with the other lawyer (x2). Each client is generally going to dislike, and often hate, the other side's lawyer. So just for starters, in 50% of relationships between non-lawyers and lawyers, the lawyers are hated. Now one side has to lose. That client is probably not going to like his lawyer. So we're at 3 out of 4. Last, the winning client might be happy with his lawyer, but then again, it cost a lot of money.

I do find that my clients tend to be satisfied most of the time. We do get a few dissatisfied clients, usually when we get them a good deal on a speeding ticket but they had unreasonable expectations. We got one client a parking ticket from a high speed and she complained about the $150 fine. We saved her more money on the fine alone than our fee, and the insurance savings will be about $1000. But she thought a parking ticket should have a lower fine. Welcome to New York.

I try very hard to explain to clients what usually happens with tickets, and make very clear that we can't promise or guarantee results. Most understand this. Client today called me to thank me for being a man of my word for getting him a parking ticket. I was quick to point out that I had made no such promise, and that it just worked out well. He seemed happy anyway.

Another problem comes when the client expects you to know exactly what's going on with his case at all times. Client called me today at 9 pm to see if I had received something he mailed to me a few days ago. This may shock some people, but many lawyers are not in the office at 9 pm. More important, I don't have every case in my head.

For the client, their case is the most important one they have. I'm sorry to say this, but as a lawyer, your speeding ticket case with a $300 fee is not my most important case. Not too long ago I watched a client get sentenced to nearly 20 years in state prison. I've got another client who lost his leg in an accident. Those cases are more important. But the clients do not understand this. That $300 fee is a lot of money to them. The case is on their minds. They fear that something will go wrong and they'll be arrested (doesn't happen on a speeding ticket in NY) or their license might be suspended (rare, but it can happen). The traffic stop was a dramatic intrusion into what had been a safe and secure life for them.

For the lawyer, the $300 fee on a speeding ticket is not a whole lot. Figuring a typical lawyer needs to bring in $150,000 in revenue to cover overhead and make a decent living. FYI, a full-time secretary will cost $50K/year or more including benefits. Then there's rent, etc. So to get to $150K in revenue if you only do $300 speeding tickets, you'd have to handle 500 speeding ticket cases a year -- more than one a day.

I put it another way to the traffic ticket clients: If you find a lawyer for whom your $300 speeding ticket case is their most important case, he's not a very good lawyer. By that I mean that he isn't handling more serious cases and he's probably not that experienced.

Nevertheless, it's important for lawyers to see how our world affects our clients. A little understanding goes a long way.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Respecting the police

I was deeply saddened by the death of Trooper Longobardo. He died in the line of duty attempting to apprehend an escaped criminal.

Readers of my blog will often see comments from me critical of prosecutors, and sometimes of police as well. While I will not hold back in my criticism of police or prosecutorial misconduct when I see it, that should not be misread to imply any dislike of the police.

One of my best friends is a New York State Trooper. I've known him for 20+ years, and I know that could have been him. I know his wife and his children, and I know what his loss would mean to them, not to mention what it would mean to the rest of his family and his friends - including me.

I deal with police officers more than most people. I see Troopers in Court a few times a week, and deputies once in a while. Occasionally I cross-examine police at hearings and/or trials. It's easy to perceive us as being on opposite sides. In reality we're all serving different roles with the same purpose - making sure justice is served. They are mostly good people trying to do the right thing. I disagree with them on occasion but I have little doubt that the vast majority mean well the vast majority of the time.

Police officers have very difficult and dangerous jobs. It's not that their work is that way all the time. They have easy days as well. But just about every police officer has those moments when they look death square in the face. And they have to deal with the most unsavory characters on a pretty regular basis.

My main concern related to policing is not the inevitable misconduct that goes along with putting humans in difficult spots, but rather the policies we (as a democracy) put upon our police to enforce. I'm an outspoken critic of the drug war not just because it's a failure, but also because of the situations it forces police into - situations that tempt them to lie, cheat and steal as well as situations that put them in grave danger. I serve as General Counsel, pro bono (for free), to Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of primarily retired (but with some active duty) law enforcement officers who oppose the drug war for these reasons.

Meanwhile, the focus on speeding tickets and DWI enforcement is a horrendous waste of the skills and training we invest in our police - turning them into trolls under bridges.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Cops, prostitutes and the dying population centers of Central NY

Well that was interesting. I recently had the pleasure of visiting one of the population centers in Central NY. My client was charged with having something you're not supposed to have. I'm pleased to report that the case was dismissed (thanks, of course, to my fine legal work ... and a good judge, reasonable prosecutor, and some well-written laws).

Anyway, the circumstances were interesting. Client approached a woman on the street and invited her for a drink at a bar. She declined. He then asked if she'd like to try an illicit substance. She agreed, and then arrested him. She was an undercover cop, posing as a prostitute. I should note here that there's no indication my client made any attempt to seek sexual contact with our intrepid police officer.

When I was in Court, the lawyer next to me had a similar case where a different woman cop from the same police force was also posing undercover when his client offered her a substance about which the laws of the State of New York are not quite as tolerant.

What is going on in Central NY where so many women cops are doing undercover work posing as prostitutes? I've been handling criminal defense in Albany Schenectady Troy etc. for over three years now and haven't even seen one case like this. It's my impression that there is a fair amount of prostitution going on here, but maybe Central New York has us beat on this industry.

Word to the wise - don't have sex with prostitutes. So many reasons why this is a bad idea. Following the great Joycelyn Elders (our former Surgeon General) I have to suggest that sex with a prostitute can't be that much better than masturbation.