Thursday, July 29, 2010

Stuff That Makes Me Happy . . . Part I

Been a bear of a week (actually a bear of a summer), but I've developed a little hobby that helps me keep it under control. I live about a half mile from my work, so I walk every day that the weather lets me. Lately, I've been carrying a little camera in the pocket of my cargo shorts and snapping pics of things that amuse me and make me happy.

This is one of those things. This is a small mural I discovered on the side of a garage of a vacant house that is for sale. I wanted to preserve it in case the house is sold to someone with a bucket of paint and no sense of humor! How could a WOZ fan resist?



Too much neat stuff in my small town is disappearing in the name of "modernization" and "beautification." I believe there needs to be room for the eccentric and off-the-wall. What say you all?

Terri

Monday, July 26, 2010

My List of "Little Black Dress" Books: Part I

It seems that everywhere I click around, I find another list of books that are essential to read in order not to be classed as a drooling idiot. Luckily, on most lists, I have read enough to at least avoid the drooling part. However, when I look at some of the other titles on these lists, I conclude that life is just too short to read stuff I don't like.

But, I decided that if I am going to diss the other lists, I had better be willing to put up my own for consideration (and possible ridicule). I consider this bunch to be my "little black dress" book list, the books I can't do without. They've made me a better writer, thinker, and definitely helped with that drooling idiot thing (at least in my opinion).

(Prepare to marvel at my choices or roll your eyes!)

1. "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck. This is the one and only book I've ever taken out from a library and refused to return. The edition I checked out had the classic watercolor cover and I had to have it. I gave the library the "dog ate my book" story and paid the $2.52 price tag. This is one of the great and quintessential American novels. To understand it is to understand the American story. I read it for the umpteenth time when I was driving Route 66 from Tulsa to Los Angeles. Not to be missed. All those side roads and tumbledown buildings have a story. The Grapes of Wrath is one of those stories.

2. "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum. When I was a kid we didn't have much. Someone gave me one of those "young readers" classic sets and I read them until the canvas bindings worn thin. Only four books from that set made it through all the childhood moves and this is one of them. A feast for the imagination and a perfect fantasy. The other three surviving books from the series? Pinnochio, The Peterkin Papers, and Grimms Fairy Tales. All admirable in their own right.

3. "To Kill A Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. They'd take away my writer's badge and beanie cap if I didn't have this on my list. I have to admit, I didn't read it until I was a full-grown lawyer. Today, when the courtroom often has more in common with an NWO cage match than the hallowed halls of justice and reason, the ideal of Atticus Finch is worth revisiting. However, it is this small book, told through the eyes of Scout in a refreshing voice that weaves the spell. Best use of first person POV ever.

4. "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair. Most renowned for its effect on government and for being the catalyst for the 1906 legislation on food safety, this book is so much more than a guy falling into the rendering vat and being made into sausage.

If Grapes of Wrath is the story of the American heartland, The Jungle is the story of the American city during the industrial revolution. Immigrant workers were the cheap labor that fueled the machine. Grind them up and replace them with fresh ones when they are worn out. Machines were expensive and people were cheap - that was the driving force behind the business decisions of the day.

Even though the book devolves into a Socialist rant at the end, the vivid imagery of wealth created through the pain of others is still as relevant as it was in 1906. Laissez faire capitalism is not pretty.

Another little bit of trivia about this book that I like. About twenty-five minutes from where I live, Girard Kansas (of all places), was a hotbed of Socialism back in the day. In 1980, a young man appeared at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg Kansas (about a half hour south) with a truckload of moldering paper he had found at a farm. In that fetid mass were letters between Sinclair and the editors of "Appeal to Reason," the newspaper of the Socialist movement. At its height, it had a circulation of 400,000 copies per week. Also found was the original serialized version of The Jungle.

Why do I like this? Because it is part of the American story. Girard is a sleepy little town on the Kansas prairie. Driving through it, you'd never know that it was a maelstrom of political intrigue at the turn of the century. What other secrets do the small towns in the fly-over states keep? Here's hoping that the guys hired to clean the basements and haul the trash will bring them to light.

Okay, that's it for part one of my book list. Hope to see you again! What's on your list???

Sunday, July 25, 2010

An Arresting Experience . . . Part 2

Second in a series of satirical essays I wrote a few years ago.

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A few things to thing about to avoid what is known as "The Traffic Stop." If you read this and still get pulled over, don't blame me. You were warned!

Hello! Your friendly neighborhood public defender is back to give some more tips on how to improve your relationship with the criminal justice system. Hope you enjoy it. Pay attention. There may be a test later.

Driving. The ultimate expression of personal freedom and a necessity in our society. However, the minute you get behind the wheel, you've increased your odds of joining the criminal justice system by a factor of about a thousand. You'd think that strapping several thousand pounds of steel and flammable chemicals onto your body would activate every ounce of education and common sense a person could ever possess.

Wrong. In fact, the mere act of turning the ignition key seems to disengage the brains of a sizable percentage of the driving population. The single easiest way to avoid the criminal justice system is to avoid driving. However, since that's not an option, here are some avoidance pointers.

1. Drinking. Don't do it. Yeah, right. Consider this. The legal limit for blood alcohol content [BAC] in most states is .08. If you are under the age of twenty-one, the limit is .02. Pretty much, if you've been in the same room with beer, you could test hot when the officer says "blow here." [Free hint #1: Replying "how about you blow here . . ." will not garner the response you want.]

Therefore, if you must drink and drive, think ahead. For example, carefully inspect your car. Are all the lights working? Do the blinkers blink? Are your tags current? Is anything on your tags obscured with mud? Is anything hanging or falling off your car? Are your seatbelts in good working order? If you can answer "yes" to these questions, you may be ready to drink and drive. "No" to any of these questions means you need a ride to the party with a more safety-conscious friend. You are not ready to drink and drive and may, as a result, find yourself in contact with the criminal justice system. Many a night in jail began with a simple traffic infraction. [Free hint #2: There is no such thing as a simple traffic infraction.]

2. Marijuana. Hey, it's just weed! No big deal. Just the man trying to spoil my buzz! Let me explain a couple of things to you. First, marijuana and its "active ingredient THC" is against the law in all fifty states. In most states, it's a class 'A' misdemeanor, punishable by up to twelve months as a guest of your county sheriff. We'll talk more about the jail experience later, this is about staying out of jail.

If you must smoke and drive, the same vehicle safety rules as drinking and driving apply. If your car can't pass a visual safety inspection, leave it in the driveway. A broken taillight screams "probable cause" to the police officer or state trooper that just saw you leave the biggest party in the county. Make them earn their taxpayer dollars, fix your freaking blinkers.

If you must smoke and drive, be sure you finish your entire stash before you leave the party. If you are heading to the party, buy it there. I don't care if BYOB (bring your own baggie) is cheaper. An arrest for possession is more expensive. I say this because, it is not illegal, on its face, to carry marijuana (and its active ingredient THC) in your body. It is illegal to carry it on your body or in your car. Yeah, you could still get busted for stoned driving, but your first offense is probably a deferred sentence and drug school. Possession is a dead-bang conviction with twelve months of peeing in a cup for your Probation Officer and the prospect of county jail hanging over your head. It has always been my opinion that it is generally better to be caught stoned than to be caught carrying. (We'll talk about the phenomenon of "pedestrian under the influence" another time."

This goes for paraphernalia as well. Paraphernalia is a big word that deserves some explanation because that roach clip will sink your sorry butt as fast as a nice fat lid. Paraphernalia is "any device used to store, prepare, inject, ingest . . . or in any way introduce a controlled substance into the human body." Pipes, straws, roach clips, aluminum foil and baggies containing residue . . . you name it and most likely they can classify it as "paraphernalia." Merely having these items is a bright shiny misdemeanor in its own right.

However, it gets better. If the prosecutor sends your paraphernalia to the lab and it tests positive for any "controlled and dangerous substance" (CDS), then you get another charge for possession. So listen up! Rinse and toss those straws. For heaven's sake, get rid of that burned aluminum foil. Leave your bong at home. Toss the roaches, and never (and I mean never, ever) leave your roach clip in the ashtray or clipped to your visor.

3. Minor In Possession: A special subset of the law, reserved for those under twenty-one. I'll make it simple. If you are under the age of twenty-one, it is against the law for you to possess, attempt to possess, consume, or be under the influence of alcohol. It is one of the few times that being intoxicated, on its face, is illegal. There's no defense, unless you find a time warp and age real quick between the time of your arrest and your court date. Probation, a fine, community service, pee-in-the-cup, and a suspended driver's license awaits you. If you are under sixteen, they wait until you turn sixteen and get your license. Then they suspend it! This awaits you if you decided to indulge in underage drinking. It ain't worth it . . .

4. Insurance: Every state in the country requires that a motorist carry some form of liability insurance. In some state, the requirement is as low as $15,000 (barely enough to cover the front quarter-panel of a Hummer.)

This is what the state calls a "strict liability" offense. That means you either have it or you don't. There are no excuses and no defenses. No "I just bought the car and was driving it home." No "I have applications in with three agents and none have called me back yet." No "I had it, but lost my job and missed a payment." This is one of the few black and white, right and wrong offenses on the books. Also, word for word, one of the most serious. First offense is a fine, probation, and up to twelve months suspension of your license. Screw it up twice or more and you are looking at mandatory jail time in many states.

Of course, the easiest way to get and keep insurance is never to need it. I pay sixty-seven dollars a month on a car, two vans, and a work truck. My husband and I are over forty and have boring half-page driving records. Our insurance is cheap. If it's too late for you to have a boring driving record, you have to be more creative.

5. Driver's License: You know, that little card they gave you when you were sixteen after the examiner managed to pry his hands from over his eyes. Your ticket to the open road. Yours to keep. Yours to lose. The state does not take your license away. You give it to them by doing dumb ass things and getting caught. You notice I say "and getting caught." It is theoretically possible to be a dumb ass and get away with it for many years. However, since you are most likely an idiot for getting your license suspended, you will most likely get caught. Living under the radar and off the grid takes cunning and discipline. Face it, if you had those qualities, you wouldn't be sitting in jail after the cops found you sitting in your car using your suspended license as a scraper to get the seeds out of your stash.

A suspended license is a snowball rolling downhill that is not easy to stop. I don't touch license defense cases with a ten-foot pole. They suck. Find a lawyer that specializes in this particular subset of the criminal justice system, because you're probably not smart enough to do it on your own.

All right! It's Saturday night and you've had a few beers and tokes and it's time to get in your ride and head on home. You burn rubber out of your buddy's driveway with a rebel yell, do a U-turn in the middle of the block and head on back to the crib. A stop sign roll-through and unsignaled left turn later, you see flashing red and blue lights in the rearview mirror duct-taped to your windshield. You pull over and park, only one wheel on the sidewalk, and wait.

This is it. This is the traffic stop. More nights in jail and trips to court start this way than any other. A few tips to make this encounter more enjoyable and hopefully productive.

1. From the time you bring the car to a complete stop until the officer speaks to you, keep your hands quiet and in plain sight. At all costs, avoid "furtive movements." In the county where I started, this was the number one instance of "probable cause" listed on police reports.

Keep those hands in plain sight. If you are an innocent driver getting stopped for a bit of speeding or an expired tag, don't open your glove compartment to get your registration. If you're a dumb ass, it's too late to hide your pipe and the beer between your legs.

2. This is not the time to get chatty. A hearty "Howdy Ossifer!" or "What the hell you doing in that monkey suit, Delbert!" is not going to help at this point. The officer will tell you what he wants. There is no need to do anything other than truthfully answer his questions.

Guess what? You have some civil rights in this situation and this is a good time to know a bit about them. Typically, the officer will tell you why he stopped you. He'll say something like "Didn't you see that stop sign?" or "The speed limit in this neighborhood is thirty-five miles per hour."

If he doesn't tell you, feel free to ask. He has to answer. Now, be aware, if he stopped you for "DWB" (Driving While Black or Brown, depending on the area), the officer will have to think up something quick. If you are sober enough to pay attention, watch his body language when you ask the question. He may twitch or get a bit nervous and give some lame answer like "you failed to signal your right turn at the last stop light" or "one of your blinkers is dim." Tell your lawyer about this type of behavior. It might be relevant down the road.

You are required to produce identification and give your correct name when an officer has probable cause to ask. He has to have his "probable cause" (better known as PC.) That's the good news. The bad news is that just about anything you do is PC. A traffic stop is most definitely PC.

A couple of quick topics before I wrap this up. Now, entire classes have been taught, piles of books have been written, and Supreme Court cases argued about these next two points. So, don't expect to be an expert in a few paragraphs. However, there are a few things you should know.

Can a cop search me and my car because I committed some pissant traffic infraction?

Do you want the real answer or the "real world" answer?

The real answer is that the police need PC to conduct a search of your person or your vehicle. There are a couple of exceptions. If you are asked to step out of your vehicle, the officer can do a quick "pat-down" search to determine if you are carrying any weapons. The legal standards covering "officer safety" are pretty broad and usually interpreted in favor of the cops.

He can also do a "plain-view" search of your vehicle. That is whatever he can see by leaning in the windows. If it's in "plain view," you are royally screwed.

Now a bit of real world. The officer will often ask, in a very polite tone, if he can search your vehicle. You have every right in the world to say "No thank you. I'd rather you didn't." If you give this answer, be prepared for some pressure, such as "So, what do you have to hide?" and "How about we continue this talk downtown?" and the killer "Look, you have a [insert something wrong with your car or license]. I'm towing your car for safety violations." He then gets to search your car to his heart's content on the justification of inventorying your property. So, if you have nothing to hide, let him search. If you have something to hide, the choice is yours. If you decline, the officer may play legal chicken with you or just impound your sorry set of wheels. If you consent, he will find your stash and it's as good as a confession.

Bottom line, if you have to party, make sure it isn't in your car!

Do cops have the right to question my passengers if I am stopped for a traffic infraction?

Another hot topic. A traffic infraction is against the driver and the officer's PC doesn't extend beyond the driver. Unless the "plain-view" search screws the passengers as well. This includes open beer cans, paraphernalia in the ashtray, guns in the backseat . . . you get the point. However, more and more jurisdictions are allowing the police to ask passengers to step out of the vehicle and produce indentification. After all, the passengers are "witnesses" to the heinous traffic infraction that the driver committed and police are entitled to gather witness information. I know . . ., but that is where the law is headed.

If you are a passenger in a car during a traffic stop, be cool. The officer may talk to you and ask to see your identification. However, his authority stops there. If he asks to search you, ask him "why?" Don't cop an attitude or get stupid, but ask him why he needs to search you. If you are innocent, be cooperative. But, don't be pushed around. You do have rights. However, this does not include the right to be a dumb ass. Err on the side of caution and you will get through this traffic stop.

Better yet, follow all the above advice and don't get stopped!

The usual, expected and [to some] entertaining "fine print" and legal disclaimers:

1. This is satire. Do not drink and drive. The odds are against you and someone could die. It could be someone you love. It could be someone totally innocent. It could be you. If you don't care about your own sorry ass, think about the people that do.

2. This is satire. I have no use for street drugs. It makes you stupid, funds criminal organizations, and saps society as a whole. If you must use, do it at home. Keep it away from kids and keep it off the road.

3. This is satire. A traffic stop is the most dangerous part of a cop's job. It is a total crap shoot. He has no idea what to expect. The average officer would rather kick down a door to serve a warrant than to pull up behind your rolling bucket of bolts and deal with you and your crap. Be polite. Be cooperative. Take your ticket. However, you don't have to take any shit. You have the right to ask questions. Just try not to breathe directly into the officer's face. Let's be realistic - you probably reek.

4. This is satire. I am sympathetic to your plight. Okay, not very. The offenses listed in this chapter are next to impossible to defend against. The easiest way not to get caught is to: have a valid driver's license, have insurance, don't drink and drive and don't do drugs. Am I a drag or what?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Favorite Cartoon Shout Out!

I love this cartoon!



Check out XKCD, which comes with the following disclaimer: "Warning: this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors).

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Contest Reminder! Come Clown Around!

On my humor blog, "Why I Fear Clowns," I am running a contest to celebrate my 100th post. Check it out and win cool swag.

Terri

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Devil Resides In The Details

Like everyone who keeps a writing blog, I love to read. My tastes run to legal thrillers, police procedurals, horror, mystery, military thrillers, etc. I like my stories tense and scary, but grounded in the real world.

To write stories grounded in the real world, the writer must do their research. A technical clunker, even a small one, can yank me out of the story and back to my hum-drum world and I hate that!

So, from time to time, I'll point out some common technical mistakes I find in books. Just like the military guy who beta read one of my chapters and reminded me that C-4 is not an incendiary material and there would be no flames in the explosion, I will pass on some of my technical knowledge.

My bona-fides. Before I went to law school, I was a civil engineer. I really need ya to believe me on this one.

Nothing is made of cement.

I was reading an ARC put out by a major house and read this line. "The street was lined with drab cement apartment buildings."

BLARGH!

1. Cement is the adhesive/binding powder that when mixed with water, sand, and small rocks (aggregate) form the building material known as concrete.

2. Once the mixture of water, cement, sand, and aggregate is hardened, it is known as concrete.

Buildings, sidewalks, swimming pools, etc. are made of concrete, not cement. It's really miraculous stuff. A bit of trivia, every year about six billion tons of concrete is produced, one ton for everyone on the planet.

Please have your characters wake up on the "hard concrete floor" or break their noses when thrown into "hard concrete walls" or have your streets lined with "drab concrete apartment buildings." It is correct and realistic. A small detail that adds to good writing.

Yes, using "cement" instead of the correct "concrete" is sometimes common usage. However, it's wrong. You wouldn't have a character sit down at a counter and enjoy his "milk" when he is actually enjoying a mixture of milk, syrup, and partially melted ice cream all blended together into a "milkshake."

I love it when a pro catches me in a blunder. No, I don't love making a blunder, I love it when I can correct an error and make my story more correct and realistic. So, I'll toss these out from time to time when I come across common errors. Until then, to quote Mac at Absolute Write, "Write hard. Write true. And write on."

Monday, July 19, 2010

Flash Fiction - "Fluffy's Revenge"

I love flash fiction. Typically, the little tales run between 55 and 1,000 words and capture an odd bit of life and story in those few words. The following is a 300-word story I wrote for a contest sponsored by "Dream People," an eccentric and eclectic journal of surreal tales. I made the cut and was pubbed there back in 2005.

The writing prompt was "Decapitated Cat Soup." I know, just roll with me, I think you'll be amused, or possibly appalled.

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"Fluffy's Revenge"

I'm an artist. Visual arts mostly, I like to incorporate the remains of once living things into my sculptures. I'm quite popular. My latest work, "Gerbil-Head Barbie ~ Mint In Box," is nominated for a national award.

I carry gloves, tongs and plastic bags at all times, because I never know when I'm going to find pieces of something dead on the side of the road. Today was no exception.

Freeze it, skin it, boil it, scrape it . . . An artist's work is never done. However, today's find can simmer in a big pot on the back burner, because I'm expecting important guests. The kind of guests that carry fat checkbooks.

After the catering-service maids serve the soup course, conversation flows nicely. Everything is perfect. The wine is just the right temperature. The chunky meat soup is on the bland side, but tasty. Everything seems perfect, that is, until I feel a jabbing pain in my mouth as my teeth grind on something metal. Surreptitiously, I spit the offending object into my napkin. Disgusted and fascinated, I wipe off the spit and bits of broken tooth that obscure the writing on the small flat metal heart:

"My name is Fluffy. If found, please call 'Meow-Minders' at the number on the reverse side."

Grossed out, I'm about to speak, when one of my guests, a pale lady stuffed into an undersized satin sheath, says, "This soup is delightful. So . . . piquant, vibrant and earthy! What do you call it?"

My stomach turns and rumbles as I see what could only be a tuft of fur bobbing in the corner of her mouth as she speaks. I think fast and smile, "Thank you Mrs. Coventry. I'm glad you like it. It's a special recipe, just developed today. I call it 'Sopa de Gato Descabezado'."

Their eyes widen at the exotic name, and they dig in with gusto. Soon my table resounds with babble as each tries to outdo the other with fulsome praise. I harbor no doubt that each will be bragging tomorrow about their dinner with me, the famous artist who made a special dish just for them.

I aimlessly stir the globby gray mass in my bowl as I run my tongue over the jagged edge of my broken tooth and watch these sophisticated patrons of the arts relish their meal. It wouldn't be the first time I'd sacrificed something in the name of my craft. I guess tonight I specialize in performance art.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

An Arresting Experience . . . Part 1

This is the first in a series of satirical pieces I wrote several years ago about the criminal justice system. It's snark, but there is a lot of truth and information in here. I hope you enjoy it.

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Welcome to the criminal justice system. Let me be your guide . . . Just what is the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor anyway?

So, you've been arrested, or are thinking of doing something that might get you arrested. Well, there are a few things you need to know beforehand.

My name is Terri and I'm a criminal defense attorney. I'll be your guide to the criminal justice system. I wear several other hats as well, but that's the job that accounts for the majority of my student loan debt, and it's the job I write down when I have to fill in the 'occupation' blank on a document.

I'm not just a criminal defense attorney; I'm a public defender. If you can't afford to retain your own attorney, your transgressions against the peace and dignity of the state will land in my inbox. Therefore, this set of essays will center on criminals and criminalities from a common-man point of view. I'll talk more on how to get the most out of your relationship with your attorney and how to make the most of your time in the criminal justice system. However, today's discussion covers some of the basic information you need to know to get around.

Feel free to print out or take notes. I consider the following a public service and a way to clear out my inbox. Unlike private attorneys, I get paid whether you get arrested or not. So, by helping you keep out of jail, I'm helping myself keep my Fridays free.

Since the criminal justice system is just a traffic stop away, I thought I'd give you all a few pointers to help avoid being flattened by the wheels of justice. Like everything else, the "law" has its own set of players. Knowing the basics will make your relationship with the justice system go more smoothly.

1. City Cop vs. County Mountie vs. Trooper Scooper: Of course, these are all euphemisms for law enforcement officers. The guys who exist just to spoil your good time and make your life miserable. The guys who lurk behind every bush and know your every move, usually before you do. That is, until someone breaks into your house. Then they are slow-moving stupid oafs who, in your exalted opinion, couldn't catch a cold. In other words, they can't win. Since they can't win, some will not hesitate to score a point or two at your expense whenever possible. How many chances they get depends on you.

The main distinction among the three types of officers usually comes down to one key word: jurisdiction. That's legalese for "turf." Where you commit your crime will typically dictate who will be knocking at your door or on your car window. It's important to know where you are when you are breaking the law because each type of officer has their own quirks.

There are exceptions to every rule, but these generalizations are accurate enough to be, well, generalizations. If you ever have any doubts, check with your local government.

The city cop (or policeman) works for your city or town and has basic jurisdiction within city limits. Call him "officer." He works for the Chief of Police, usually an appointed or salaried official. If you are in a small town, chances are this officer is very young and makes less than your babysitter. Therefore, he may be a bit edgy from hunger and a trifle self-important. He's certainly not doing it for the pay. He considers himself part of the "thin blue line" between civilization and anarchy. Either that or he's trying to build enough cred to get hired by a city that pays better.

This is not a time to be witty. Statements like "Well, I was too drunk to walk" or "Don't you have a jaywalker to pick on?" will not get the response you want. [Free hint #1: the later it gets, the less funny you get].

The county mountie (or deputy) works for the county and answers to the Sheriff, an elected official. Call him "deputy." His beat is everything that is inside the county line, but outside the city limits. Unless there are legal papers of some sort involved. In just about every county in America, the Sheriff's office is an arm of the court system. If you hear a knock at the door and see a deputy through the peephole, odds are he has some sort of legal papers (warrants, summons, etc.) to give you. They call this "being served" although I've never understood what benefit this "service" confers on the recipient.

As a result, the public sometimes sees deputies as errand boys who only ask your name and then give you stuff you don't want. They also often have odd looking two-tone uniforms (ie - olive green with red pocket flaps and epaulets). This can lead to an inferiority complex. They don't miss a chance to get involved when there is real crime afoot. Deputies chase speeders and kick in doors on meth labs, just like "real" cops. They also carry guns. Dismiss (or diss) a deputy at your own risk.

The trooper scooper (or state trooper or highway patrolman) pounds a beat along the state and federal highways of our great land. Call him "trooper" or better yet, "sir." They consider the speed limit to be the eleventh commandment and that the governor should have carved it on a stone tablet. Your scoff-law behavior on the highway is a direct affront to their sense of duty and well-being. A disorderly highway leads to a disorderly society. It is their job to prevent that.

If you are not sure whether you've been pulled over by a sheriff's deputy or state trooper, run this quick test. If you see a starched khaki, navy, or black uniform, mirrored sunglasses (even at night) and a flat-brimmed hat, you are probably dealing with a trooper. If you are still not sure, tell a joke. A deputy might just crack a smile. A trooper will find another law you've violated. All troopers have their humor glands removed at the academy. Remember, you've been warned.

2. Lower Court Judge vs. District Court Judge: Every state (and even some counties) have a variant on the same court system. They may go by different names, but all the judges fall into one of two camps. Elected or governor-appointed District Court judges and all the other assorted lower court judges. As one lower court judge put it in court, "I'm a small 'j' judge. You need to take that to the capital 'J' Judge upstairs."

How do you know who you are in front of and why does it matter? First, the physical signs. For example, you are in an elevator and two judges get in with you. How can you tell? Both wear black. However, the District Court judge may wear a robe of better quality material. Typically there is no nylon for an elected official. A fine wool or silk robe is a tip-off.

The second hint is the courtroom. Look around. Is the courtroom paneled and softly lit with Art Deco light fixtures? Is there a Depression-era fresco of Lady Justice on the wall? Is the ceiling molded? Is the bench high and made of dark glossy wood? If so, you have likely entered the lair of a District Court Judge. On the other hand . . . is the lighting mostly fluorescent fixtures with yellowed covers? Are the walls covered with calendars to cover the cracks? Is the carpet stained and squishy? If so, you are in the bowels of the courthouse, the home of the "lower court." (free hint #2: if you look around the courtroom and see a pressed glass pitcher with matching tumblers, get out as fast as you can. You've accidentally stumbled into Federal Court. Trust me; there's nothing for you there!)

The lower court judge is the crossing guard of the justice system. They set bail, conduct first appearances, take pleas on misdemeanor cases, officiate at felony preliminary hearings, and generally deal with all the criminal mundania. In many states, they exist to make sure that as few troublesome cases as possible make it to the District Court. The typical docket case count ratio is about five-to-one with the lower court seeing the five.

However, you rarely hear a lower court judge mentioned in the press unless they screwed up (ie - released a murderer after a preliminary hearing, even if it was the prosecutor's fault).

The District Court Judge is a different animal altogether. At least in the lower court, you know you're dealing with someone who is underpaid, overworked, and bored half to death with petty crimes and the trivia of the system. Like them or not, as an attorney, I have something in common with the lower court judge: frustration.

The District Court Judge, on the other hand, projects an aura that is wise and urbane. The surroundings of the main courtroom fosters a solemn respect for the justice system. However, under the robe is a human being, no different than the rest of us with good days and bad. However, unlike the rest of us, he has the power to ship your sorry butt off to prison. Therefore, dress decently, stand up, take off your hat, and act respectable.

3. Misdemeanor vs. Felony: One of the most misunderstood, yet important, distinctions of the criminal justice system. How they classify your crime determines on how the police treat you, which judge they assign you to, and where you could end up for your punishment.

A misdemeanor is generally thought to be a low-level crime, whereas a felony is a high level crime. It's a little more complicated than that.

The definitions are (pay attention there may be a test later . . . ):

A Misdemeanor typically carries a maximum sentence of twelve months in the county jail. Could be less, can't be more. You cannot go to state prison for a misdemeanor, even if you want to.

A Felony typically carries between one month and the rest of your natural life in a state correctional facility. While there are one or two exceptions (drunk driving is one), you cannot serve your felony sentence in a county jail. So, heigh-ho, heigh-ho, off to the Department of Corrections you go!

Okay, what's the real difference between a misdemeanor and a felony? Ummm . . . not exactly sure. The state legislature makes that distinction. Complain to them.

A few illustrations. In many states, it's a felony to write a $501.00 bad check, and a misdemeanor to beat the crap out of your wife and kids (as long as you didn't use any weapon except your bare fists). Run from the cops after you've committed a misdemeanor and your "fleeing to elude" charge is a misdemeanor. Run from a felony warrant and you've racked up a new felony charge. Cocaine, even residue in a pipe or a baggie, is an automatic felony. A pound of weed, as long as there is no "sales-related" paraphernalia, can be considered as "personal use" and classed a misdemeanor. While in jail, if you take a pop at a fellow inmate, it's a misdemeanor. Spit on a guard and it's a felony. Get the picture? It's okay, neither do I. I have to check the paperwork every time.

So, what does this mean? Is a misdemeanor better than a felony? Should you steal $499.00 worth of goods or $501.00? The answer is, it depends. A few truths about the court system:

a) A misdemeanor is heard by the overworked and tired lower court judge who just may drop the hammer on you to show he is "tough on crime." I have also found that statistically, you are more likely to spend time in jail on a misdemeanor than a felony.

b) Misdemeanors are not governed by the state's sentencing guidelines. Therefore, there is no guarantee or presumption of probation. It's all up the judge. One smart comment could land you in county jail from one to twelve months.

c) The District Court Judge is less likely to be impressed by your low level felony (especially if it is a property crime and no one got hurt). He has to figure out what to do with child molesters and meth cookers. Your first offense felony theft or bad check isn't going to raise his blood pressure. You'll be given the sentence mandated by the guidelines and most likely be on probation before you know it. Once on felony probation, it's difficult to get yourself sent to prison. You have to really want to go.

d) If you do find yourself incarcerated, statistics show that you'll serve a smaller percentage of your sentence in state prison than county jail. There is no automatic good time or parole in county. It's all up to the judge.

My general conclusion is that if you wake up one morning with an uncontrollable urge to commit a crime, you should choose a low-level property felony over a high-level violent misdemeanor. You're less likely to go to be incarcerated. If you do go to prison, you're likely to get out faster. Finally, the felony courtroom is usually cooler and nicer than the misdemeanor courtroom. If you're going to be in trouble, you might as well be comfortable. So, think about it before you commit your next crime.

That's enough of the basics for today. Subsequent chapters, issued when I feel like it, will explore topics such as: The Traffic Stop, The Search Warrant, Probable Cause, Your Rights, County Jail, Your Attorney and You, The Trial, and so on.

Now, let me close with a few comments:

1. This is satire. Nothing replaces the advice of a living, breathing attorney. Listen to him. He's not making it up. Every jurisdiction is a little bit different and "that's not how they do it back home" gets you nowhere.

2. This is satire. While some of the jargon is particular to some jurisdictions, I've culled these portraits from a wide variety of my experiences, opinions, attitudes, and observations. Resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

3. This is satire. I have nothing but respect for law enforcement. An impossible job with impossible conditions. Cut them a break; they're just doing their job. The way to stay out of trouble is to stay away from trouble.

4. This is satire. I care about my clients and work hard for a fair and equitable resolution to their cases. However, I don't pull punches or make pets out of them. I don't want to hear excuses. I want my clients to face facts and realize that they are in trouble.

5. Oh yeah, this is satire. Let that cover anything I've forgotten.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Contest! Check It Out!

On my humor blog, "Why I Fear Clowns," I am running a contest to celebrate my 100th post. Check it out and win cool swag.

Terri

Friday, July 9, 2010

One Town's Trash . . .

I live in a pretty small town, so I've learned to take fun and amusement where I can find it. Fort Scott, Kansas is a good place to live. It's quiet, with wide brick streets and quaint houses tucked behind ancient trees. A great place to walk and take in the gardens and loveliness of this Civil War landmark. I carry a camera with me when I walk, so I won't miss a moment of beauty or tranquility.

However, twice a year, city government sponsors "townwide clean-up day," which I refer to as "crap amnesty day." No matter what you pile on the curb, the city will make it go away. What comes out from behind the gingerbread trimmed eaves and closed doors is vast and amazing.

I have to confess, I missed photographing some of the best piles this year. Across from my house, they brought in a bucket loader and two dump trucks to deal with one family's contribution. It was like a train wreck. I was too engrossed to get my camera.

However, I was able to capture a few moments in crap-dom. This turned out to be a special year. I am a fan of quirky Internet sites (go figure) and one of the quirkiest is the "World's Ugliest Couch Contest 2010."

A contest celebrating ugly furniture and a town divesting itself of its junk? A match made in Internet heaven. It seemed everywhere I looked, folks were literally kicking sofas to the curb.

My first entry came from the street where I live. I'm proud and pleased to introduce you to Entry #178:



What makes this feral couch and chair combo really special is that it has been on a flatbed trailer in an alley for over a week and it rained every day. Ummmmm . . . the smell of mold in the morning . . .

But wait! Things only got better as I continued to hike the brick-lined streets of my fair city. Some couchs, after being set free by their owners, didn't fare well in the wild. A warm blogger welcome for Entry #179 (golf clap, golf clap):





I'm not sure exactly what happened. In my entry, I blamed a pack of roaming hyenas.

Your vote would be appreciated! As much as I would like to heap more glory on my hometown, (we already have the honor of the Guiness Book of World Records longest row of pennies laid end-to-end), I will understand if you feel the need to enter your own sofa-saurus-rex in the contest. Please let me know if you do, so I can give it the respect it deserves!

But please take a message as you look at these sad photos and spay and neuter your ugly furniture. Do it for the ottomans . . .

Later!

I'm Baaaaccckkkkk . . .



Some severe life changes took me away from this blog for far too long. Well, I'm back and I'm ready to rumble.

I got out my "delete" feather duster and swept out the cobwebs and old posts (mostly apologizing for not posting) in preparation for remodeling and redecorating.

Welcome to "Readin, Rittin & Rhetoric," (v.2.0) my own version of the "Three Rs." My name is Terri and:

I'm a lawyer by education,
a toymaker by trade,
a writer by night, and
an unrepentant geek the rest of the time . . .

See ya soon!