Members of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association is handing out big yellow cards to the people entering courtroom 14.
They read in part “the judge or court staff may try to get you to plead guilty or ‘no contest’ without a lawyer.”
A fascinating concept, particularly given that whole constitutional right to counsel thing.
The Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association (HCCLA) was the group passing them out in the halls. They told Eyewitness News they’ve heard too many complaints against Judge Michael Fields in the past few weeks.
“At this point, we’re concerned. It’s gone on for too long. We feel like it’s appropriate to step in,” said group president Carmen Roe. “They have the right to an attorney. They have the right to remain silent, they have the right to a jury trial. We believe those rights are not being given to these clients.”
The group accused Judge Fields and court staff with pressuring for guilty and no-contest pleas. They argued that strips defendants of their constitutional rights.
Well, yeah. One would think. But that leaves a huge gaping hole between what the law seems to require and what happens when you pass through the doors of courtroom 14. Much as I appreciate what the HCCLA is trying to do, it’s a stop-gap measure so that defendants aren’t pressured into pleas without counsel. But how does Judge Michael Fields get away with this, and why isn’t there a supervising judge who sends Fields a note saying, “you can’t do that”?
Apparently, this has been going on for a while. Too long, according to HCCLA president Carmen Roe. How long is too long? It strikes me that one second would be about right.
Judge Fields offers a curious explanation:
We’re not always going to agree, but if we’re always trying to do the right thing, then the best thing happens for both the public and the citizens accused.
Whatever that means. It’s always heartwarming when a judge explains his conduct in a manner utterly devoid of any cognizable meaning whatsoever.
And I’m following the law to the letter, and I believe the spirit as well.
You’re gonna get a fair shake, and the judge is gonna follow the law.
So Judge Fields is long on empty platitudes, even if he’s a bit short on this whole right to counsel thing. A lot of folks hear someone utter some feel-good nonsense and find themselves satisfied that all is right with the world. After all, the judge said you’re gonna get a fair shake. The judge says he follows the law. He said so.
It was explained to me that while a defendant is entitled to counsel at arraignment, each judge in Harris County is allowed to handle the nuts and bolts as they see fit. Apparently, Judge Fields doesn’t see a lawyerless coerced plea before whatever it is he deems the official arraignment as a problem. He’s a judge who wants the wheels of justice to grind smoothly. That’s long been a big problem in Houston, as brother Fickman took pains to explain.
But Judge Fields is a bit of a special case. His idea of justice hasn’t always meshed well with the ideals others find worthwhile in the law. Paul Kennedy had some incisive commentary about Judge Fields’ notion of justice:
Last June Michael Giacona got behind the wheel of his van after drinking and ended up in an accident that claimed the life of Aaron Pennywell. Mr. Giacona was charged with a misdemeanor DWI because investigators could not determine who was at fault for the accident.
As part of a plea, Mr. Giancona was sentenced to one year in the Harris County Jail. After 90 days, Judge Michael Fields ordered that Mr. Giancona be released from jail and placed on probation. The terms of that probation included standing at the intersection where the accident occurred on four consecutive Saturdays wearing a sign that said “I killed Aaron Pennywell while driving drunk.”
But dead body, defendant, so why not some humiliation regardless of whether he killed anyone. Judge Fields says he follows the letter of the law, and spirit as well. Can’t you feel the spirit?
But eventually, the HCCLA is going to either run out of bright yellow cards or members willing to stand outside courtroom 14 all day to warn people entering to abandon all hope. It will work for a while, but not forever. [Edit] Though I’m informed that while it may not last forever, they are determined to outlast Judge Fields.
And defendants who have the misfortune to enter Judge Michael Fields’ courtroom will make decisions that will fundamentally alter their lives without the benefit of counsel, and some of those other technicalities the Constitution requires.
On the bright side, Judge Fields doesn’t appear to be a whole lot more fun during voir dire than at arraignment. Maybe the only good answer is to stay out of Harris County, Texas. Except they’ve got some fine barbecue there. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether it’s worth the risk.
H/T Rick Horowitz