Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Loss of Privilege

A potential new client (PNC) contacted my office recently. He was concerned about his recent communication with a member of the clergy from whom he'd sought spiritual advice. Seeking absolution with the assistance of his spiritual adviser, the PNC confessed, in confidence, an inappropriate sexual contact with a minor child.

If you read Article V of the Texas Rules of Evidence (concerning privileges) you'll find several rules about the admissibility of statements made to certain persons. For instance, communications made in confidence to your lawyer generally cannot be disclosed. Statements made in confidence to your spouse generally cannot be disclosed. And statements made to a member of the clergy generally cannot be disclosed.

Unfortunately for my PNC, and others similarly situated, there are other rules and statutes trumping the evidentiary rules of privileges. For example, if a person obtains the services of a lawyer to enable or aid anyone to commit a crime, the government can compel the divulging of those communications. Furthermore, the spousal privilege does not apply in situations where the communications concern a crime against the other spouse or any minor child. Finally, a major exception to the rules of privilege relate to the "duty to report" provisions of Texas Family Code.

Section 261.101 of the Family Code compels the reporting of "child abuse" by just about everyone on the face of the planet. In particular, "professionals" are required to personally report the occurrence of child abuse. Following is a quote from the Code concerning this duty:

(b)In this subsection, "professional" means an individual who is licensed or certified by the state or who is an employee of a facility licensed, certified, or operated by the state and who, in the normal course of official duties or duties for which a license or certification is required, has direct contact with children. The term includes teachers, nurses, doctors, day-care employees, employees of a clinic or health care facility that provides reproductive services, juvenile probation officers, and juvenile detention or correctional officers.

(c) The requirement to report under this section applies without exception to an individual whose personal communications may otherwise be privileged, including an attorney, a member of the clergy, a medical practitioner, a social worker, a mental health professional, and an employee of a clinic or health care facility that provides reproductive services.
Note section "c" destroys the privileged communications occurring with your pastor, social worker, mental health professional, and yes, even your lawyer. Dangerous stuff. In fact, my PNC is not the first person contacting my office to discuss privileges and the duty to report. I've had this discussion with pastors at my church, accountants, and others facing similar dilemmas.

Rest assured, I believe my duty of loyalty to a client trumps even the duty to report. Over my dead body will the government compel me to reveal communications made by clients in confidence. But others must be cautious to whom they reveal private information, especially when it involves alleged child abuse of any kind. If you have any questions, call and ask. I promise I will never tell!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Conservative Bias Alive and Well

Conservative bias is alive and well. Being one myself (a conservative, that is) I support tax breaks for business, strict constructionism, outlawing abortion, prayer in schools, limited government, and yes, even the U.S.-Mexico border fence. I voted for George W., Sarah Palin, and I don't believe water-boarding is necessarily torture. However, my life as a defense lawyer has brought me into contact with the underside of our affluent, gluttonous society. Many on the underside are from other countries, other cultures, other ethnicities.

Cultural sensitivity was the theme of several posts of late. Not really a conservative tag-line, but a required mindset for those taking oaths to zealously defend the criminally accused. Following my post about the Mexican national whom we recently defended, I received the following anonymus comment:

What utter nonsense! How far do you think we should take this cultural sensitivity? Should we allow rural Nigerians to stone witches to death like they do in their home country? How about honor killings, that Muslims do when their women "dishonor" the family? Is that ok? How about polygamy? Any problems there? Should we allow Afghans to lock their women in the house and not allow them medical care or education? How about equal treatment under the law? That means that American 19 year olds don't get to boink 12 year old girls in this country, and neither does anyone else. I don't recall being a foreigner being a defense in the penal code. If the person is in the country legally, he took an oath to obey the laws, and if he isn't, then he needs his ass deported. Bottom line, if they come here, they need to obey our laws. No exceptions.

Following the short essay in which I used Billy Hayes as a preamble before discussing fair treatment of foreigners within the American criminal justice system, I got this comment after sharing facts about a Zimbabwean man I represented last year:

My attitude is short sighted? Why is that? So they were here on student visas, but she can't speak or understand English? Didn't that make it sort of hard for her to go to school? Or did they have Shona ESL for her? Hell, maybe abandoning their child wasn't really a crime, it was some sort of Zimbabwean cultural ritual? Maybe they were teaching the kid to find its way home by celestial navigation? Its always amazing to me how you libs that abhor the thought of America being a superpower or of being a world leader or of having the premier military in the world are always so anxious for us to be the super nanny state of the world and provide cradle to grave everything to everyone, regardless of whether they belong here or not or regardless of whether we can afford it or not. The only good thing about it is that American taxpayers are starting to get tired of their wallets being raped daily to pay for all this liberal crap. The easiest way to solve that problem would be to put the bunch on the nearest plane bound for Zimbabwe and get their visas revoked. End of our problem and it saves money too. And now you are going to whine about oh their rights might be violated. Wrong, having a student visa is not a right, its a privilege and it can be revoked at any time. Bottom line, if I break the law, I get arrested for it and my life is messed up bigtime. Foreigners that come over here legally and break it should be sent home as soon as possible. People here illegally need to do their 6 months federal time and then be criminally deported so they can get 20 years federal time if they get caught here again. I wonder if you have looked into those border areas where illegals caught are jailed for 6 months? Amazing how illegal border crossings in those areas have dramatically decreased. But I bet you would probably lose money representing these people if any of that happened, right? We have a duty to treat our own citizens fairly, and perhaps if we weren't shelling out to support the citizens of so many other countries, we might actually have the funds to take care of our own problems.
This is what we call law-and-order bias in our vernacular. Typically a conservative malady. However, I don't mean to suggest all conservatives suffer with this affliction. Quite a few lefties do, too. Nonetheless, a large part of my skill as Bryan|College Station defense lawyer is used to identify the bias and eliminate it with the all powerful peremptory strike or challenge for cause. I'm sad though, that so many closets are filled with these misconceptions. As a Bible thumping conservative, though, I'll take time to pray for their understanding.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Does Anyone Remember Billy Hayes?

Who remembers Billy Hayes? Oh yea. He was the guy who got caught allegedly smuggling hashish out of Turkey in 1970. For you movie buffs, Billy Hayes' story was chronicled in the 1978 film, "Midnight Express."

A harrowing tale, to say the least. Billy is caught at the Istanbul airport with 5 pounds of hash strapped to his belly. He is tried in a strange legal system, betrayed by corrupt lawyers, and toyed with by capricious judges. He was originally sentenced to about four years in prison, but later his prison term was enhanced to 30. After 5 years imprisonment, Billy Hayes escaped to Greece from his Turkish hell hole.

Besides being a great movie (with a great soundtrack, btw), what's Billy Hayes have to do with the price of tea in China? Well, imagine a friend or loved one arrested in a foreign country. Would we demand the justice system ensured our friend understood the proceedings in their native language, that they were represented by lawyers and investigators who understood American background and culture, and that they were able to consult with representatives of the United States government as part of the process? I bet we would and I doubt if Billy Hayes was afforded this basic due process.

Now imagine you are from Mexico, from China, or from Zimbabwe. You come to the United States and get charged with a crime. Will you get the procedural due process we expect for our friends and family accused in a foreign country? Maybe not bro. In fact, although the American system of justice is designed to provide this basic fairness, not all accused foreigners are getting it. They are put to trial without interpreters and are represented by lawyers who don't realize (or don't care) about the importance of cultural and ethnic issues in the zealous defense of their clients.

So what do we do then? Well, part of our job as patriotic Americans is to ensure our system provides this basic procedural fairness to people from other countries, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds. When you are called to jury duty and a foreign national in on trial . . . ask the questions. Does this guy need a interpreter? Does the defense lawyer understand the cultural issues involved in the case? And don't assume the judge gets it - they often are just as clueless.