“The law can be a funny thing, Luke....”
This is a famous line and applicable statement uttered by the “Dragline” character, played by George Kennedy, in Cool Hand Luke.
I am here to tell you firsthand that this is every bit as true as it could be. You can have a court’s ruling on one issue contradicted by another court on virtually the same points. Go figure.
Sometimes it is not necessarily the truth or accuracy of the facts of the case that emerges, but rather the oratorical skills of the arguing parties that prevail and carry the case. Sometimes it’s the knowledge of an obscure fact of law or an even more obtuse precedent case that prevails in determining the outcome of a case. Procedural errors or miscalculations also come into play. The law can be both fascinating and frustrating in the same moment.
If you have ever been in court observing an attorney questioning someone on the stand, you have seen this. The attorney poses a simple question that makes sense to the jury and non-participants. The opposing attorney instantly objects on the basis that it lacks foundation or facts not in evidence. This entails carefully restructuring the question so that the answer reflects a certain point in space and time relative to the posed question. This restructuring of the question often requires the attorney to make several attempts to restate the question while being objected to all along the way. When all is said and done (and this process can take some time), the question has to be restated because the witness has forgotten what the question was in the first place.
This is why it can require an entire day or portion thereof to get through just a few details relative to a case. There are many Latin phrases thrown back and forth and many prior case decisions referred to by a combination of names and numbers that cite legal precedence, all of which are difficult or impossible to understand unless you’re an attorney.
A few intrepid souls elect to represent themselves. A recent case involved a police officer who fired in immediate defense of life at a suspect who had pointed a handgun at him. The incident transpired very rapidly.
The suspect represented himself and was questioning the officer. He wanted to know why he had shot him. The officer responded, “Well, you were pointing a gun at me.” The suspect wanted to know how the officer knew it was he specifically who had pointed the gun at him. The officer responded, “Well, you were the only one on the roof with a gun and when you were hit, you fell down and you were still the only suspect in the area with a gun.” The suspect pressed his questioning further. “But how do you know that I am that same person here in court today?”
For some reason, the court allowed this silliness to continue all through the day. Sometimes the court allows such frustrating avenues of questioning and sometimes it does not.
Based on what I’ve witnessed in many, many trials over the years, Pro Se (representing yourself in court) is always a very bad call. The courts will allow this under certain conditions.
I once had a suspect whom my partner and I had arrested with a chunk of rock cocaine the size and configuration of a softball. (No kidding.) When I was on the stand, I had to open the evidence package, which had been analyzed by Scientific Investigations Division. The one massive piece of rock cocaine had been broken by the scientists in order to analyze it. The suspect instantly jumped to his feet and stated to the court, “Your Honor, that is not my rock cocaine. My piece was about this big around and in one piece like a ball!” Very funny stuff.
In another case, a suspect going Pro Se was questioning me about stopping him for probable cause for being a “pediatrician in the roadway.” I explained to him that being a pediatrician was not why I had stopped him, but being a pedestrian in the roadway was. The Judge simply buried his head in his hands.
One of the best court bits of LAPD history involved a legendary figure on the department known for his wit. When on the stand, he was pressed about the keenness of his visual acuity as it related to an observed narcotics transaction. The defense attorney apparently had little faith in the officer’s recollection of events and physical attributes. “Officer Hoar [his real name], just how good is your vision?” “Well,” Jack reflected and pondered his response, “I woke up this morning and saw the sun, and they tell me that &*%#@ is 93 million miles away!” The court laughed and Jack took days for his response, but it did go down in LAPD history.
When I was a young LAPD officer, I used to become upset by court proceedings and their seeming lack of common sense and efficiency. As I matured, I saw the reasoning for some of it, yet I still remain perplexed by other aspects. As the joke goes, God woke up and thought he was a Federal Judge.
You as an individual had better be on time when responding to a court subpoena. The judge, however, can take his time. Cases get trailed to forever, and you may dress, drive downtown, park and check in with the court only to find that the case has been pushed to another day, and now your day off is completely blown.
Appearing in court does demand your full attention, especially if you’re testifying. When a question is posed to you, you must carefully analyze and think through every word and inflection thereof that you are going to say. This is very much an art. Young officers often misspeak and get themselves into a terrible mess. If you have ever watched a pad of butter melt in a skillet, this pretty much reflects the meltdown of an officer who has been cornered by his own words. My advice to younger officers is to watch seasoned officers and better yet, seasoned detectives, who have a handle on this sort of thing. They carefully consider their responses and answer accordingly.
If you have never been in court, you owe it to yourself to go to a major trial for just one day to observe how all this plays out. It can be an eye-opening experience. Sometimes it’s boring and sometimes it’s not. But here’s the real worth of all this: should you ever apply deadly force, you will probably be directly involved in court proceedings in one form or another. Most individuals do not realize this, yet it is one of the most critical aspects of emerging unscathed through the entire process.