A public defender in San Francisco PD Jeff Adachi’s office, John Paul Passaglia, put his arm around his client. It might have been viewed as a heart-warming gesture, but Judge Ross Moody wasn’t feeling it.
John Paul Passaglia, an attorney with Adachi’s office, faces five days in jail and a $1,000 fine for allegedly failing to step away from his client after Judge Ross Moody ordered him to do so in a hearing Sept. 14.
Passaglia said he did not defy the judge’s orders, but that he was in shock and “reacted to an unethical demand” when his client was allegedly wrongfully taken in custody during the hearing. His client remained in jail Friday.
To the extent the story is told, Passaglia’s client, Michael Bayanos, was holding up the machinery of justice by not pleading quickly enough.
Passaglia said that Moody twice threatened to jail his client, Michael Bayanos — a 55-year-old Filipino immigrant with limited English speaking skills — when Bayanos “took too long” to enter a plea. Bayanos is accused of misdemeanor theft for stealing a bottle of perfume, Passaglia said.
At that hearing, Bayanos entered a “no contest” plea for petty theft and was assisted during the hearing by an interpreter.
“He was in the process of giving up his rights as part of the plea and during the plea the court asked whether or not he spoke English,” Adachi said Friday, adding that Moody allegedly grew frustrated when Bayanos requested a Spanish language interpreter.
What happened then is remarkable for its banality. The judge demonstrated a level of tone-deafness that would be laughable by anyone without the power to jail someone for annoying him.
“At this point, the judge says, ‘You are this close to finishing the plea or going into that holding cell, do you understand?’” Adachi said.
According to court trasncripts [sic], Bayanos responded that he understood. Moody then addressed Bayanos a second time, asking in English, “Do you want to finish that plea and walk out that door or do you want me to put you in custody?”
Missing from the retelling is a critical detail that distinguishes why the judge’s question is idiotic and wrong. There are many defendants for whom English isn’t a first language, and whose understanding may be pretty good, but not quite good enough to understand the nuance or jargon of a plea allocution. Hell, there are plenty of native English-speakers for whom the words are completely foreign. Sure, lawyers get them. Judges know them. But defendants? Why would they know the legal jargon that would otherwise never be heard outside a courtroom?
So on the one hand, Bayanos may well understand well enough to appreciate the threat of jail if he doesn’t move it along, since the judge is very busy and doesn’t have time to do more than go through the motions of a plea. For a defendant, understanding what he’s doing as he’s giving away his rights, condemning himself to potential deportation, and the certainty of a life as a convicted criminal, might be worth understanding.
Defendants can be so annoying to a busy judge. Why can’t they just “get it”? Why can’t they just muddle through a plea allocution, get it done, get out of the well so the judge can grind through his calendar? So annoying that they actually want to know what the words mean. All the words, even the weird legal ones?
Judge Moody finally had enough and ordered Passaglia to step away from his client so that Bayanos could be taken back into custody, jailed for annoying the judge in the first degree. Passaglia refused.
Passaglia said he was caught off guard by the order and stood next to his client with his arm around him, even when Moody ordered him to “move away.”
Jeff Adachi appeared in court on behalf of his public defender at the contempt hearing. After all, Passaglia defied the judge’s order and that can’t go unpunished.
On Friday, Adachi argued that Passaglia was justified in advocating for his client and that Moody’s decision to jail Bayanos was “unethical and illegal.”
“You can’t just take someone and put them in jail because they refuse to plea [because] it’s perceived by him as a threat that he will be taken into custody if he doesnt finish his plea,” Adachi said. “It’s completely unethical and beyond the judge’s power to do that.”
The judge’s explanation is that he was just protecting the court interpreter from Bayanos’ threat. There’s a lot of threatening going on in San Francisco courtrooms, apparently.
In a transcript of a hearing held the day after Bayanos was taken into custody, during which Passaglia asked for Bayanos’ releasee, Moody stated that Bayanos had acted “in a threatening manner towards the interpreter” during the prior hearing.
It would be nice had the story provided any actual substance of Judge Moody’s allegation rather than the meaningless conclusory quote, but it doesn’t. Nonetheless, it’s hardly unusual for a defendant, trying to understand what’s being said to him, asked of him, to question the interpreter who might suck at his job, be incapable of communicating complex legal concepts clearly or is, most likely, merely interpreting the words spoken by the judge accurately,
The problem is that the judge mutters the words, but what they mean is never said, so the interpreter doesn’t say them. Contrary to popular belief and most defendants’ expectations, it’s not the interpeter’s job to explain the law to the defendant. His job is just to translate the words. This often is a useless exercise, since the words are meaningless to the defendant or, quite often, don’t translate well. Or both. And so the defendant keeps asking the interpreter to explain, which he can’t. And shouldn’t. He’s neither the judge, lawyer nor professor.
But then, a little time, patience and effort might have enabled Bayanos to muddle through his plea and walk out of there. Judge Ross Moody wasn’t having any, so it was the long arm of the law or the human arm of Passaglia that was going to wrap up Bayanos. While there are times when a PD’s refusal to comply with a judge’s direction reflects a poor tactic, when the judge tells the officers to take charge of a guy because he doesn’t understand English well enough to be convicted right, it’s a pretty good time to be contemptuous.