Monday, April 30, 2012

Amy Senser Trial Update: Amy to Take the Stand

After a weekend of recess from court for Amy Senser, the defendant in Minnesota's most high-profile criminal trial, Senser herself will take the stand today in her own defense.  This move, while not necessarily surprising, will probably be the "make or break" moment in this trial.

Again, Senser is faced with three felony charges stemming from an incident on the Riverside ramp off of I-94.  One is for leaving the scene, one is for failure to call for help immediately, and one is for gross negligent operation of a vehicle.  The first two crimes require the suspect to know that their accident could have reasonably resulted in severe bodily harm or death or another person, whereas the negligence charge does not.  However, for Senser to be found guilty of grossly negligent driving, the prosecution will have to show that her driving would "shock the conscience."  This will be a difficult standard to meet, seeing as there were no witnesses of the accident.  The prosecution did introduce testimony from someone who was trailing Senser on I-94 a few miles before the accident, but ultimately, Senser's testimony will have more to do with this charge than any other evidence.

Senser's testimony will be important because this entire case is based on what she did or didn't know.  If the prosecution can get her to slip up during cross-examination, it could mean a victory for Hennepin County.  Senser essentially has to take the stand in order for her defense (didn't know she hit someone) to even be entered into evidence.  There will be some interesting things to keep an eye on today:

1.  Will the prosecution grill her about her drinking the evening of the accident?
One of the big question marks in this case is whether alcohol was a factor in this deadly accident.  If the prosecution can get Senser to admit to having a few drinks on the night in question, it will turn this into a nearly impossible conviction into essentially a slam dunk.  Don't expect this to be the case, however.  Defense attorney Eric Nelson wouldn't be putting Senser on the stand if she was going to admit to consuming alcohol that night.  She will deny drinking, but how convincing will she be?

2.  How will Amy Senser do when questioned about "getting lost?"
For a person living in Edina who is supposed to be on their way to downtown St. Paul, going west on I-94 in downtown Minneapolis wouldn't be the most efficient path.  Senser explains her unusual route by claiming that she was lost on her way to the Xcel Center and was trying to find her way back onto eastbound I-94.  Senser has lived in the metro for years, so getting lost on the Twin Cities' main drag is a bit surprising.  Her husband, former Viking tight end Joe Senser, already testified that such an event was not out of character for her, but it was hard to tell if he was referring to her actually getting lost or her claiming that she'd gotten lost.  How Senser holds up when pressured on the timeline of that evening will go a long ways towards determining the outcome of this case.

3.  Will Senser be "believable" with her testimony?
So much attention gets put on what people say as opposed to how they say it.  The true test of any witness is whether they can get the jury to buy into their story.  Senser's biggest challenge will be to keep her story consistent, stay even-keeled, and to avoid embellishing on the questions asked of her.  The worst thing a defendant on the stand can do is answer more than the questions asked.  This is probably the biggest benefit to hiring a Minnesota criminal defense attorney when facing criminal charges of this nature.  A good lawyer will prepare you for what you can expect while you're on the stand and can get you ready to be successful when the questions get intense.

Monday is sure to be an exciting day in the Amy Senser criminal vehicular homicide trial.  We should know a lot more about her chances of earning an acquittal after she steps down either today or tomorrow.  If you've got any questions regarding the case, you can leave them in the comments section or you can shoot me a line via email.  I can't promise I'll be able to respond to every email or comment, but I'll surely do my best.

If you or a love one are dealing with criminal charges or are the subject of a criminal investigation, don't wait too long to speak with a Minnesota criminal defense attorney.  Minnesota criminal defense attorneys can help you get your defense on the right track from the start so you have the best chance to be successful.

As always, all material on Minnesota Criminal Defense Blog is intended to be for entertainment purposes, only.  It is not intended to be construed as legal advice or legal advertising, nor does viewing this website create an attorney/client relationship between the author and the reader.  If you are seeking legal advice, contact a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction to get the specialized legal service you require.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Knowing Your Rights, Part 4: Stopped on the Street

Welcome to the final installment of this series intended to examine your rights when speaking with police officers in different situations.  In previous installments, we've looked at what you do and don't have to do during a traffic stop, when the police come to your front door, and when you meet with officers at the police station.  This week, we'll take a look at your rights when stopped while walking on the street/sidewalk.

As a general rule, police don't stop people on the street just to have a chat about something.  If you're stopped by an officer while walking down the sidewalk, chances are they suspect that you have either committed a crime, are currently committing a crime, or are about to commit a crime.  This changes the dynamic of your meeting, in that you need to be a little more on guard in this situation than you do when police come to your home.  Similar to a traffic stop, you need to assume you're being investigated in regards to a crime, and subsequently, you need to act accordingly.

Just like in other the other situations we've covered, you're under no obligation to speak with police if they stop you on the street.  You never have to answer an officer's questions other than to give him or her your identifying information.  The big difference when you've been stopped on the street when compared to the other scenarios is that a Supreme Court case called Terry v. Ohio.  The case sets legal precedent that officers can engage in custodial searches of criminal suspects on the street that included a pat down of their outer clothing and the removal of any potential dangers they discover.  If this sounds pretty broad to you, that's because it is.  There are specific circumstances that must be realized in order for the officer to have this power, but they aren't very stringent.  Basically, if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the suspect may have a weapon on his person, he's allowed to conduct the search.  This "reasonable suspicion" can be founded based on the experience of the officer, the observations he's made, the behavior of the suspect, or any other number of things that don't have very strong roots.

Personally, I feel that Terry represents a pretty significant infringement on the rights of US citizens.  It gives officers a right to a search that is less restrictive than the right the courts have to issue a search warrant.  The reason it exists is noble.  It is intended to make a dangerous job safer.  Police officers must always be vigilant and aware of the presence of a weapon for obvious reasons.  Allowing them this search privilege is intended to reduce their chances of being hurt (or worse) while questioning a suspect.  I don't have any facts or figures as to whether this aim has been successful, but it certainly has good intentions.

The problem, as I see it, is that this "reasonable suspicion" doesn't have to be based in much fact.  It's difficult to get the results of a search conducted subsequent to a Terry stop.  The reason for this is that the discretion of police officers is rarely questioned by the court when the issue involves protecting their safety.  This, again, is a noble theory, but the end result is that a lot of otherwise inadmissible evidence is allowed due to this decision.

What this means for you is that if the officer decides to pat you down when he stops you on the street, you don't have much to say about it.  The best thing to do if this occurs is to simply comply with the orders of the officer and allow the search.  If the rationale for the search is poor, any evidence found can be challenged in court by your Minnesota criminal defense attorney.

One of the biggest issues people face when stopped by police in this fashion is that it's hard to know whether or not they're being detained.  If you face this quandary yourself, this is a great time to break out your "am I free to leave?" question.  We talked about this tool when discussing your rights down at the station, but they hold equally well, here.  If you are not under arrest and are not being detained, you have every right to leave.  If you're not free to leave, then you shouldn't be speaking with the officer.  It's a simple concept that becomes hard to execute when you're in the moment.  Knowing what you do and don't have to say is a huge advantage in this situation.  By determining whether you are free to leave, you will better understand the motives of the officer and be able to more effectively protect your rights.

(Quick aside:  Traffic violations are essentially all Terry stops as well.  What this means is that if an officer has a reasonable suspicion that you are carrying a weapon when he stops you in your vehicle, the same search rules apply.  When dealing with a vehicle, the officer is also authorized to check the passenger compartment for weapons.  This gives him access to your center console, glove box, the compartments in your doors, and under the seat.  If any of these compartments are locked, he no longer has access to them.  The point of giving him access is to take away your access to weapons.  If the compartments are locked, you couldn't exactly quickly grab something from these places.  So, this privilege extends to the vehicle, as well, but is most commonly exercised in on the street stops.)

So, to recap, police stops of pedestrians are usually a little more purposeful than other interactions.  They aren't stopping you to shoot the breeze.  They likely have a suspicion that you were, are, or are going to be involved in the commission of a crime.  You are required to identify yourself to the officer, but are not obligated to say anything else.  This included saying where you are going, where you just came from, what you are doing, or anything of that nature.  If the officer continues to question you after you've told him you'd prefer not to answer any questions, ask the officer if you're free to leave.  If he says you are, take the opportunity to do so.  If he says you are not, then politely tell him that you will not speak to him without a Minnesota criminal defense attorney present.  If he has reasonable suspicion that you have a weapon, he will be able to pat you down and search your clothing.  You should comply with this search and worry about what he may find later.  As with any other situation, it's important to remain polite and courteous with the officer at all times.  Being difficult and disrespectful will get you nowhere.

So, if you are stopped on the street by a police officer and are detained, or if you believe that further investigation may follow, contact a Minnesota criminal defense attorney immediately in order to best serve your interests.  Many times, by contacting a lawyer before being charged with a crime, your lawyer can advise you in a way that will avoid any charges ever being brought.  It's impossible to call a lawyer too soon when dealing this these kind of issues.  Take care of yourself and get someone in your corner making the right decisions.

As always, the content of this website is not intended to act as legal advice or legal advertising, nor does the viewing of it create an attorney/client relationship between the author and the reader.  If you or a loved one are in need of legal advice, contact a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction for specialized legal advice.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Amy Senser Trial Continues...

Since writing about Amy Senser's trial before it began last week, I've been getting a few emails from people with questions regarding the actual trial itself.  I thought I would touch on a few of these quickly today before sending out the final installment of the "Know Your Rights" series tomorrow.

Again, my opinion on this trial is just that; opinion.  I have no inside information about the case.  I do not know Eric Nelson (Senser's defense attorney), nor do I know the prosecutors on the case.  I'm simply looking at this from the point of view of a Minnesota criminal defense attorney and opining on it as I see fit.

I've been getting emails for the past 2 days regarding the strategy behind Joe Senser's testimony.  A few people have noted to me that his testimony seems to be against his wife as opposed to in favor of her.  I'm not so sure this is the truth.  Some of his testimony this morning (4/26) may seem a bit peculiar, but it appears to be very carefully crafted, to me.  He testified that his wife is "fiercely independent" and that it was not uncommon for her to get lost/flake out/do her own thing.  This sounds like he's ripping on his wife, but what he's really doing is helping her to make the case that she just didn't know what had happened.  If she's a cold, calculating, reliable person, it makes it harder for the defense to suggest that she simply didn't know that she hit a person with her vehicle that night.  By painting her as an aloof, self-serving, flaky person, the defense can more easily make the claim that she didn't have actual knowledge that what she hit was a person, nor would she have considered stopping to investigate.  Remember, the issue at trial isn't whether she hit the victim.  The issue is whether she knew she hit the victim.  Joe Senser's testimony isn't going to do his wife any favors in regard to the negligence charge against her (inattentiveness is not a defense to negligence), but it will help her in the charges against her regarding leaving the scene of an accident which she knowingly may have resulted in significant bodily harm or death to another person.

Joe Senser's Wednesday testimony did even more to help her wife, despite his claim that he "knew" that she had hit more than a traffic barrel.  Joe Senser's understanding of the situation is, again, not what is at issue.  His testimony furthered the theory that Amy Senser was adamant that she couldn't have struck a person.  She was steadfast in her claims to her husband that she hit construction equipment, even after seeing a report on television of the deadly accident.  His skepticism aside, his recounting of her reaction to the incident lends to the defense's case.  So, while Joe Senser's testimony may not shine the most flattering light on his wife's personality, it has gone a long way towards helping Amy Senser and her attorney poke holes in the prosecution's case.

The most difficult thing for any prosecutor to prove is the intent/knowledge of a defendant.  It's not always that difficult to prove that a certain event occurred, but a major element of nearly every criminal charge is mens rea, which is Latin for "guilty mind."  In the Amy Senser trial, the mens rea necessary to prove is that Mrs. Senser knew she hit a person and made a conscious decision to leave the scene and continue driving.  The strategy of the prosecution has been to use circumstantial evidence to piece together the events of the evening and make an appeal to the jury to put themselves in Amy Senser's shoes.  Basically, they want the jury to ask themselves "If I was driving 50 mph and struck a person, wouldn't I know that I did it?"  The psychology behind this is that people (in general) like to rate themselves against others.  If you can get them to put themselves in the shoes of Amy Senser, they're going to want to believe they would have acted properly in this situation.  You want them to think "I would have stopped," or "I wouldn't have hit the person in the first place."  If the prosecution can accomplish this goal, they greatly increase their chances of getting a guilty verdict.

With the trial winding down, I suppose it's time to offer up my opinion on how things will end.  I believe that it's going to be difficult for the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Amy Senser left the scene of an accident that she knew resulted in the severe bodily harm or death to another person.  I think the circumstantial evidence is impressive, but ultimately, circumstantial evidence doesn't usually win trials.  Without a witness who can testify to her knowledge, all the prosecution has is circumstantial evidence.  The appearance of the vehicle, the missing text messages, the failure to pick up her daughter, and her erratic behavior following the incident likely won't be enough to slam the door on this case.  I think Mrs. Senser is acquitted of all three felony charges against her.  If she is convicted of anything, it will be the gross negligence charge.  Negligence is always an easier charge to get to stick because it is so all-encompassing.  I think the task in front of the prosecutors is just a little too daunting.  I believe their strategy has been sound throughout, but I feel like this specific charge is extremely difficult to prove.

Amy Senser isn't the only person in this state facing criminal charges.  If you or a loved one have been charged or may soon be charged with a misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor, or felony charge, do what Amy Senser did and call or email a Minnesota criminal defense attorney to get someone on your side.

As always, content on the Minnesota Criminal Defense Blog is not intended to be viewed as legal advice or legal advertising.  Use of this website does not create an attorney/client privilege between the author and the reader.  If you are in need of legal advice, call or email a Minnesota criminal law attorney to get personalized advice tailored to your exact situation.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Amy Senser Trial Update

We'll take a break this week from the series on your rights, finishing that up next week with your rights when police stop you while on foot in public.  In the mean time, I want to take a quick peak at the Amy Senser trial in Hennepin County in light of the flurry of activity with that case in the past couple days.

I had an article almost completed yesterday on the surprising ruling by the judge in the case that would have allowed the prosecution to use Senser's unwillingness to speak with investigators against her in trial.  It was a very odd ruling and was against most precedent on the subject.  The 5th Amendment of the Constitution protects us from self-incrimination.  It gives us the right to decline to speak with law enforcement officials in order to protect our interests.  However, as I was about to start writing my final paragraph, I took a quick constitutional over to the Star Tribune's website, only to see that the judge had reversed his ruling and had allowed the motion by the defense to preclude the prosecution from using Senser's silence against her.  As an advocate of justice, I was pleased.  As a writer who had spent the better portion of my morning researching the precedent behind the ruling and the consequences of such a decision, I was a little bitter that my hard work was for naught.  Either way, Thursday was an important day in the Amy Senser trial.  Here are a few of the big decisions made by the judge regarding motions made by both the defense and the prosecution.  I won't go through all 16 of them, just three that I found particularly important.

1.  The defense's motion to disallow the prosecution from using Amy Senser's silence as incriminating evidence was ultimately upheld.  What this means is that the old adage of "what you say can and will be used against you in a court of law" doesn't hold up to what you don't say.  This isn't anything new.  Any attorney worth his or her salt would have instructed Mrs. Senser to refrain from contact with investigators.  This was a case in which there is a dearth of concrete evidence.  There is a lot of circumstantial stuff that points to Mrs. Senser's guilt, but without her statements to bind everything together, I think it's going to be very difficult for the prosecution to prove that she knew she hit Mr. Phanthavong.  Her knowledge of having hit a person is necessary to create the duty for her to stop and attend to the victim.  By not allowing into evidence the fact that Mrs. Senser didn't speak with investigators, it takes away the theory that her silence has been intended to hide something.  This is important for the defense in a case that will be built so much around what the prosecution can prove, not what the defense can disprove.  I think the judge's reconsideration of this motion was clearly the correct ruling.  It's good that he was able to realize his mistake before this went to trial.  Such an error would have given the defense a clear issue to appeal upon a guilty plea.  Kudos to the judge for doing the right thing and reversing his initial decision.

2.  A motion to prevent the defense from introducing evidence that Mr. Phanthavong had a large amount of cocaine in his system at the time of his death was upheld.  This isn't a surprising ruling.  Such evidence would be more useful to the defense in a civil trial, where they could argue that the victim was guilty of contributory negligence, which would lessen the culpability of Mrs. Senser.  In a criminal case, however, such evidence would clearly be prejudice against the prosecution.  Whether Mr. Phanthavong had cocaine in his system does not change the alleged actions of Mrs. Senser.  If she indeed knew that she hit a person on that night, the condition of the person has nothing to do with her decision to flee the scene.  The only purpose for such evidence would be to prove that the accident itself was not the fault of Mrs. Senser, but since that fact isn't at issue in this trial, the prejudicial effect of such evidence outweighs its exculpatory elements.

3.  Judge Mabley has agreed to allow the prosecution to show video clips of vehicle-pedestrian accident recreations.  Not having seen the actual video, I can't comment on its content.  I can say, however, that recreation videos like this are typically the bane of defense attorneys' existence.  They tend to be incredibly prejudicial towards the defense and paint the picture the prosecution wants painted.  Senser's attorney, Eric Nelson, has said that he feels the clips do not accurately depict the crash scene.  The prosecution, on the other hand, says that the videos are intended only to bolster the credibility of a specific expert witness they plan to call and that it should be viewed by the jury in that limited scope.  I understand the point made here by the prosecution, but I can assure you that it is nearly impossible to tell something to the jury but inform them only to consider it through a limited lens.  Once the jury learns something, it colors the way they think about the case in its entirety.  However, I assume that Judge Mabley took into consideration any prejudicial affect these videos could have and weighed that against their necessity.  I will say that this is something to keep an eye on during the trial.

There were numerous other motions ruled on by Judge Mabley, but most of them were either pretty straight-forward or inconsequential.  This thing is close to getting very interesting, however, as the trial won't be too much farther down the road.  I'll keep adding commentary to the proceedings as it moves along, as this case interests me greatly.  As a defense attorney, it's always useful to get a high-profile case to follow in order to get some insight into how other lawyers handle certain situations.  In our profession, you either continue to learn new techniques or you become obsolete.  I'm excited to see how everything plays out in this trial.

If you or a loved one find yourself in the middle of a criminal investigation, you should follow Amy Senser's lead and contact a Minnesota criminal defense attorney before you offer any information to law enforcement.  Doing so could be the difference between innocence and guilt.

As always, the contents of this blog are not intended to be legal advertising, legal advice, nor does the reading of this information create an attorney/client relationship between yourself and the author.  If you are in need of legal advice, stop browsing the internet for information and get on the phone with a qualified Minnesota criminal defense attorney.  Your situation is unique and you should treat it as the serious threat to your liberty that it is.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Know Your Rights, Pt. 3: At the Station

Welcome to part three of my four part series that examines and explains your rights while talking to police in different settings and situations.  If you haven't read parts one or two yet, you can find out what you should and shouldn't do when you're pulled over in your vehicle and when police show up at your home.

While traffic stops may be the most common type of interaction between citizens and law enforcement, and home visits may be the most invasive, being asked to accompany officers to the police station for questioning is probably the most frightening.  Whenever someone is in an enclosed room with police, being questioned about their knowledge of or their role in a crime, tensions are sure to be high.  The key to being successful in this scenario is knowing your rights and exercising them as necessary.  This entry will walk you through the situation and give some helpful hints along the way.

(A quick aside:  While reading this post will surely better equip you to deal with being questioned by police, it is my professional advice that you never attempt to handle this situation on your own.  Call a Minnesota criminal defense attorney to accompany you to the station and sit with you during questioning.  You may think the Q&A session is going to be cordial, breezy, and non-confrontational, but things could turn quickly.  Detectives are very good at hiding their intentions during questioning for as long as possible.  Their job is to make you feel comfortable enough to tell them what they want to hear.  The best way to make sure you aren't lulled into a false sense of security is to have an experienced lawyer by your side to keep vigilant for you.)

This situation starts like this:  You're having your conversation at your front door with Officer Friendly when he gets frustrated by your refusal to allow him in and is tired of standing in the cold.  He tells you that he thinks this would go a lot easier down at the station.  He even offers to give you a lift in his squad car.  What should you do?

First and foremost, unless he's ready to arrest you, you have no obligation to go to the station to answer any questions.  You may certainly choose to do so, but you are not required to go with the officer.  He may phrase the request as a statement by saying something along the lines of "Why don't we hop in the car and head down to the station to finish this up."  Don't be fooled by the officer's wording.  Unless he's ready to slap cuffs on you and arrest you for committing the crime, he is asking you if you'd like to go with him.  As always, being polite is important here, but be firm in your decision.  The officer will use different techniques to try to convince you to come with him.  Be strong.  If you don't want to go, don't go.

If you don't mind going to the station to speak with police, it's completely acceptable to head "downtown," so to speak.  There are a few things I would recommend before agreeing to this, however.

1)  Refuse to ride with the officer.  If he gives you a ride down there, he (or someone else) is going to have to drive you back.  Take your own vehicle so that if at any point you become uncomfortable with the line of questioning you are 100% free to leave.  You're free to leave the station at any point as long as you're not being detained, but if you don't have means of transportation at your disposal, you're at the mercy of whether the officer feels like returning you home.  He's under no obligation to do so.  Avoid the walk of shame.  Follow the officer in your car instead of riding with him.

2)  On the way to the station, contact an attorney.  Have the number to a local, qualified criminal defense lawyer before you leave the house and make the call while on the road (doing so within the law in your jurisdiction, of course).  Tell the attorney the situation, that you're heading downtown to answer questions right now, and find out whether he or she will be able to meet you there if anything unforeseen happens.  The attorney may offer to meet you down there immediately.  Whether or not you decide to agree to this is up to your best judgment, but having a lawyer by your side the whole time couldn't hurt.  You'll pay for this time, but if it keeps you from saying something incriminating or answering a question you really should answer, it'll be well worth it.

3)  As long as questions remain focused on what you heard, saw, or have been told regarding the incident in question, you should feel free to answer questions.  If, however, questions turn to queries regarding your whereabouts on the day in question, whether you have any actual knowledge of the incident, or whether you were involved in the crime, it's time to clam up.  The only reason an officer would ask questions like this is if they have reason to believe you were involved, or they are looking for a reason to believe you were involved.  In either case, it's best not to confirm their suspicions.  If your lawyer isn't present, state to the officer that you won't be answering any more questions for him or any other officer unless you are in the presence of your attorney.  If your attorney is not available at that moment, ask the officer if you are free to leave.  If he says that you are, get up and walk out the door.  Your conversation with police is over for now.

The main thing to remember in this situation is that giving your side of the story isn't going to save you from anything.  In the history of time, I'm not sure a suspect offering his account of the situation has ever prevented anyone from being charged with a crime.  If the police have enough evidence to charge you, they will.  Nothing you say will change their mind.  The only effect talking will have is to give them extra ammunition with which to support their charge and the prosecutions case against you.  Why give them that?  By demanding your Minnesota criminal defense attorney be by your side during any questioning sessions, you ensure that you will have the guidance to help you avoid saying something you shouldn't.  I know that, since most people are law abiding citizens, having an attorney present any time you speak with police seems like overkill.  Trust me, you won't hold that belief for long once you've been through the ringer.  Most people think talking to police is no big deal, but when folks get in front of an authority figure who is speaking to them in an accusatory manner, that confidence can go out the window quickly.  Having an attorney who has been through this process time and time again will be a huge assist in the process.  Don't let your pride get in the way of your rights.

If you or a loved one choose to go to the police station to speak with detectives regarding a crime, call or email a Minnesota defense lawyer and ask for their assistance.

As always, all material contained within this website is intended for entertainment purposes, only.  It is not intended to act as legal advice or advertising, and in no way does it create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.  If you have questions regarding a criminal law matter, contact a criminal defense attorney in your jurisdiction to give you specific assistance.

Coming Monday, April 16th:  Know Your Rights, Pt. 4:  Stopped in Public

Monday, April 9, 2012

Know Your Rights, Pt. 2: At Your Home

Today, we'll continue on with our dissection of your rights regarding contact with the police.  Last week, we kicked this series off by look at what you have to do and what you don't have to do when pulled over in your vehicle.  Today, we'll examine the less common but more "fraught-with-potential-disaster" situation of police showing up at your home in an effort to speak with you.  Again, keep in mind, this information is intended to be used only as a rough guideline to use if you're put in a situation like this.  If you encounter a situation where police show up at your home to speak with you about your involvement in a crime or your knowledge of a crime, the best thing you can do is contact a Minnesota criminal defense attorney immediately in order to best protect your rights.

We'll set the stage.  You're at home on a lazy Thursday evening preparing dinner and watching your favorite television program (maybe "Family Feud with Steve Harvey") when, all of a sudden, there is a loud knock at your front door.  You walk over to the door, look through the peep hole, and see two uniformed police officers standing on the other side.  At this point, you're mind is racing.  "What could they want?" you wonder.  Every little misdeed you've ever committed is now at the forefront of your mind.  Startled and vulnerable, you open the door.  (Note:  You're not required to open the door.  You can tell them through the door that you'd prefer to not open it for them, but unless you've got marijuana smoke billowing out of your front door or something like that, just open the door.)

You greet the officers with a simple "Good evening."  They ask if you are you, to which you reply "yes."  The officer on your left (who's clearly in charge of this show) tells you that they're investigating a break-in that occurred down the street a couple of nights ago and were wondering you could answer a few questions for them.  This is the beginning of when you need to be vigilant regarding your rights.  What you tell the officers will be used by them to attempt to solve the mystery of the break-in.  Whether or not you are a suspect in the crime doesn't matter.  The job of police is to solve crimes, and if you give them a reason to wonder whether you were involved, they will.

Your response to their initial questions should be something along the lines of "I'm not sure I'll be of much assistance to you, officers, but I'll do my best to help."  Police have a tough job, and offering to help them in any way you can will go a long ways.  Whether you are a suspect or not, it's likely that you will be asked if the officers can come inside.  You do not have to let them into your home, so it's completely up to you whether you choose to allow them in.  There are two reasons officers want to come inside to question you.  One is comfort, both theirs and yours.  Sitting on your couch and talking is much more comfortable than standing outside in the cold to speak with you.  You will probably be more comfortable, as well, because sitting in your living room with the police is a lot less intimidating than going to the station to give a statement. The second reason is that by gaining entrance to your home, the officers will have the opportunity to look around and see if any of the missing items from the burglarized house are in your home.  I know the odds seem small that the actual thief would be dumb enough to leave stolen materials laying around their house, but you'd be surprised.  Police don't use this trick because it's a waste of time.  Even if you aren't the person who broke into the house in question, it's possible that you have the same television, pewter picture frame, or Target-issue lamp that the victims had taken from them.  You can save yourself the hassle of proving that your property is, indeed, your property by just telling the officers that you're perfectly comfortable speaking in your doorway.

By talking to the officers at your doorstep, you might encourage them to be a little quicker with their line of questioning.  If it's cold or there's precipitation falling, they likely won't take too much of your time.  Unless you're a suspect, it's unlikely they'll ask you to accompany them to the station to speak, but we'll get to that scenario on Wednesday.  For the time being, offer to speak to them at the doorstep.  If you'd be more comfortable speaking with the door chain connected, feel free to do so.  Do not walk outside and don't let them inside.

Now, once they start asking questions, it's very important to listen carefully to what kinds of things they are asking you.  If, in your opinion, the questions they are asking you are intended to determine your level of involvement in the crime they are investigating, you should refuse to answer any more questions without your attorney present.  Questions that should trigger this concern are things like "where were you the night of...," or anything that seems overly broad.  If they ask something like "Do you know anything about the burglary?" you need to be wary about how long of an answer you give.  This type of questions encourages the questioned party to offer up a lot of information without a specific path.  The best thing to do is to keep your answers to any questions short to avoid offering up information you didn't intend to disclose.

If the officers are asking questions like "Did you see or hear anything out of the ordinary" or "Have you noticed any suspicious people in the neighborhood in recent days," it's unlikely they consider you anything other than a potential witness.  Many times, people witness a crime without even realizing it.  Police know this, so they ask these kinds of questions to see if you noticed something that you didn't realize might be connected with the crime.  Feel free to answer these questions.

If you are the focus of a criminal investigation, the officers might not be so friendly.  If the officers really want entrance into your home, they will say a lot of things to try to get you to consent.  It's much easier for them to get permission to enter than it is for them to go to a judge and get a warrant.  They'll say things like "This will go a lot easier if you just let us in," "We just want to ask you a few questions.  You don't have anything to worry about," or "If you don't let us in, we'll just go get a warrant and try this again."  Remember that no matter what the police say to you, they don't have the right to enter your home without your permission unless they have a warrant.  Tell them to get the warrant and then come back.  Again, if they want to talk to you bad enough, they will ask you to come with them to the station.  I'll tell you what to do in that situation on Wednesday.

If the police just want to know if you saw anything that could be useful to them, the conversation will likely be pretty quick.  If they are investigating you to determine if you had any involvement in the crime, it may be a more lengthy conversation if you allow it to continue.  Again, if you believe that the line of questioning being utilized by police is an attempt to build a case against you or support a charge against you, refrain from answering any further questions and contact a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer immediately.  Even if you KNOW you are not responsible for the crime in question, this won't protect you from being charged, or even from being convicted.  Don't leave your freedom up to chance.  Contact your local Minnesota defense attorney to make sure you are protected.

As always, none of the information contained within this article is intended to act as legal advice or advertising.  Minnesota Criminal Law Blog is intended to be used for entertainment purposes only.  If you are in need of legal advice or representation, stop looking to internet articles for answers and call or email a Minnesota criminal law attorney today.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Know Your Rights: Traffic Stop

I'd like to preface this article by saying that police are not bad people.  I know the tone of a lot of my articles is that of the badgering police officer harassing the unassuming citizen, but this is far from the norm.  Police provide a vital service for our society, and do a fantastic job of keeping us safe.  I would never speak an ill word about the work police, especially Minnesota police, do on a day to day basis.  Whenever you're dealing with police, be polite, be attentive, and be respectful.  They've earned at least that from everyone.

Having said that, a lot of what officers are asked to do involves a certain level of prying into the private lives of people.  If a crime is being investigated and you "meet the description" or are in the wrong place at the wrong time, it is the job of police officers to do their due diligence and find out what you know.  If you ever find yourself in this situation, whether it's the result of being stopped on the street, greeted at your front door, or called in to the police station for questioning, it's important to know what you must do and what you may do.  I use those words because just because you aren't required to provide certain information doesn't mean you shouldn't.  In this article, I will go over what you are required to provide to police when asked and what is completely optional.  Over the next few articles, I'll touch on one of the four most common situations in which one may be questioned by a police officer.  We'll start with the most common.

The Traffic Stop

Let's start with when you're pulled over while driving.  There could be any number of reasons you were pulled over:  Speeding, running a red light, weaving, cutting someone off, or even something silly like a broken tail light.  The point is, unless you know how long the officer has been following you, you might have committed any number of infractions he could call you out on.  The key is not to help him out.  The officer is likely going to ask you something along the lines of "Do you know why I pulled you over?"  Your answer should be "No, I don't."  If you say "yes" and them give him the reason, that's all he needs to know to write that ticket with confidence.  Even if you think you are 100% sure you know why you've been pulled over, you could still be wrong.  Don't be that guy who gets pulled over for a flickering tail light who ends up driving away with a ticket for running a stop sign.  So one "don't" to remember if you get pulled over is don't give the officer reasons to write you tickets.  Another don't is don't go on the offensive.  The last thing an officer wants to hear is you questioning his motives.  He's probably got perfectly fine motives, and eventually he'll let you know what they are.  By asking "What did I do?" or "Is there a problem, officer?" you are making your first contact with the officer aggressive.  Questions like that might seem harmless enough, but the best thing to do is let the police officer lead the conversation.  When you are waiting for the officer to come to your vehicle, simply get your driver's license and insurance card out, roll your window down, and wait.

That brings us to your first required action -- giving the officer your license and proof insurance.  If you've been pulled over while operating a motor vehicle, state law requires you to present both of these things.  This is called the implied consent law.  If you have both a license and valid auto insurance but don't have them with you in the vehicle, you do have time to show them to the court before additional citations are issued.  In most cases, providing proof of license and proof of insurance for the date of the traffic stop before your first court date is sufficient.  If you have your license and insurance and just don't want to show the officer, then you're crazy.  Just show him.  If you've got warrants, outstanding tickets, or something of that ilk, they're going to find out, anyway.  Just cut to the chase and take your medicine.

Another thing that technically you don't have to do, but it's certainly in your best interests, is to exit the car if the officer asks you to.  Basically, you don't have to comply with his request, but if you choose not to, it will no longer be a request.  Make sure to close the door behind you, however, as leaving it open could lead to the officer using plain sight to see something you'd rather him not see.  

There are a number of things you don't have to allow the officer to do.  First and foremost, you have no obligation to agree to any search of your vehicle.  Even if you have nothing to hide, there is no reason to allow an officer to rifling through your personal property.  If he asks to search the interior of your vehicle, politely turn him down.  If he asks you to open your trunk, politely decline.  If he asks you to open your glove compartment, politely decline.  Sometimes, officers will phrase such requests as statements, saying something blunt like "Open your trunk, sir/ma'am."  Don't be fooled.  A police officer can not order his or her way onto or into your personal property.  If they would like to search your vehicle, they'll have to get a warrant.  If they tell you they have probable cause to search your car and forcibly enter your vehicle to do so, contact a Minnesota criminal defense attorney immediately.  The search taking place is likely illegal.  There are some certain circumstances where courts have allowed officers to search cars, but that is for another day.

Lastly, the best way to avoid saying or doing something dumb is to remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible.  In most traffic stops, the end is very apparent.  The officer will talk to you, get your information, write you a ticket/warning (or not if you're lucky) and tell you to be on your way.  In some circumstances, however, the nature of the stop is more ambiguous.  If the officer is asking you a lot of questions, asking to search your vehicle, or threatening to bring in back up if you don't adhere to his instructions, you need to determine what kind of trouble you're in.  The easiest way to do this is to ask the officer if you are being detained.  If the officer says that you are not being detained, politely ask if you are free to leave.  If the answer to this is "no," then disregard the officer's first answer.  You are being detained.  If this is the case, assert your right to speak with your Minnesota defense attorney immediately.  If the officer says that you are free to leave, simply get in your vehicle and slowly drive away.  If he says you are free to leave but continues to ask questions, keep asking if you are allowed to leave until he stops.  Never walk away while still being spoken to.  As always, if you have to have this exchange with an officer, be polite and courteous.

Being armed withe knowledge of your rights is very important, but can also be detrimental.  All too often, citizens will get "snippy" with officers in an effort to protect their rights.  Your first instinct when dealing with police should not be to get defensive and assume that they are trying to take advantage of you.  Police exist to help in our society.  Always assume that they are doing things the right way until they give you reason to believe that they are not.  By keeping these simple concepts in mind, however, you could avoid putting yourself in more trouble than you deserve the next time you're pulled over when driving.

As always, the views expressed in this blog are not intended to be legal advertising or legal advice.  The Minnesota Criminal Defense Blog is intended solely for entertainment purposes.  If you have been charged with traffic violations or believe that your rights have been infringed upon by an officer of the law, contact a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer directly in order to get the legal guidance you will need in order to obtain the best possible result in your situation.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

My Kid is in Trouble -- Making the Right Decisions

One of the main reasons I decided to go into criminal defense was to assist juveniles charged with crimes.  I have believed for some time that one of the biggest failures of our justice system is their inability to effectively rehabilitate juvenile offenders.  For years, the basic aim of juvenile courts was to find ways to rehabilitate juvenile offenders and return them to a law abiding lifestyle.  This is in stark contrast to the goals of the adult justice system, which attempts to use punishments as deterrents with adult offenders.  However, something significant has changed with the juvenile system.

More and more, we are seeing prosecutors certifying juvenile offenders as adults.  In the state of Minnesota, a motion for certification can be filed if the alleged offender is between the ages of 14 and 17 and the crime they are accused of is at the level of a felony.  This certification process has been essentially the same for a long time, and by US standards, isn't particularly strict (Kansas, for instance, can certify children as young as 10).  However, as news media puts more and more emphasis on crimes committed by juveniles, public pressure on prosecutors has increased significantly.  Victims families, community members, and victims' rights groups are asking for tougher and tougher punishments for juvenile offenders, meaning that kids as young as 14 can go to state prison for things like schoolyard fighting, shoplifting, and possessing drugs.  The question that begs to be answered is whether this change in strategy is effective, or whether charging young people in this fashion does less to discourage future bad behavior and more to help create the "career criminal" that juvenile courts were created to prevent?

The reason for this shift is understandable.  Crimes committed by people under the age of 18 don't affect their victims any less than crimes committed by people over the age of 18.  A crime is a crime and has consequences.  People affected by crime want retribution for their suffering, and the easiest way to get it is to punish the person responsible to the fullest extent of the law.  It's easy to understand the potential consequences of allowing a 16-year-old to walk away after less than 5 years of detention for shooting a 12-year-old boy.  While in Minnesota, a felony charge is all that is required for prosecutors to move to certify a minor as an adult, usually such measures are reserved for violent crimes, gun-related crimes, sexual assaults, and other crimes that create a threat to public safety.  Most "minor" felonies (if there is such a thing) won't meet the standards prosecutors use to determine whether to motion to certify a minor as an adult.

The truth is that for kids on the young end of the spectrum, being charged as adult could result in an earlier release than that which would be granted by juvenile courts.  For example, if a 14-year-old is accused of felony sexual assault, being charged as a minor would almost assuredly place the child in custody until at least their 19th birthday.  Being tried as an adult could result in a sentence as short as 3 years, which would have them back home before graduation.  Also, keep in mind that the entire time this "child" was in prison, they were more or less left to their own devices.  While minors and adults are housed separately in jail, there are very few opportunities for rehabilitation when in a general prison.  The child would not have access to the same services that they would have in a juvenile detention center.  Those three years of incarceration would largely amount to wasted time that could have been used to fix the issue that cause the problem in the first place.

So, as a parent, what can you do to ensure that your child, if charged as a juvenile delinquent, is given the best chance to succeed in life moving forward?  Sometimes it's not working every possible angle in an effort to exonerate them.  It's never easy to believe that our children are capable of criminal behavior, but when a problem arises, getting that child help is of the utmost importance.  By hiring a Minnesota juvenile defense attorney, you are hiring someone who understands what you and your child are going through.  You're hiring someone who can help walk you through the process and help you to determine the best path to ensure the best possible outcome for your son or daughter's life, not just for this trial.  If your child has found themselves in a compromising position with the law, it's up to you to help them do what's best for them.  Contact a Minnesota juvenile defense attorney today to get your child on the road to a better tomorrow.

*An important note regarding Minnesota juvenile defense attorneys:  When you hire an attorney to represent your son or daughter, that attorney is not employed by you.  They can not share what they discuss with your child with you.  They can not take direction from you regarding defense strategy.  The attorney will be your child's attorney, not yours.  This is an important distinction, as what is in the best interests of your child might not necessarily be what's in your best interests.  Keep this in mind as you move through the process of defending your child's criminal case.

As always, any content provided in this blog is not intended to be legal advertising or legal advice.  It is solely for entertainment purposes.  If you have a matter that needs the attention of a lawyer, don't try to piece together a strategy by reading online blogs and advice.  Contact a Minnesota criminal defense attorney today to get the legal services you need to be successful.