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What You Should Know

(More) Tales From The Vault: The Top Ten Things You Should Know About The Law

I have a deep love and respect for our legal system. It is indeed the glue that holds our society together and, at its enlightened best, is an equitable leveling mechanism where all Americans have certain fundamental rights that can be vindicated in a court of law irrespective of social or economic status.

I came to the law later in life, graduating from law school at age 36 and then clerking for 3 years at the Florida Supreme Court. Before that, I had been on active duty in the United States Air Force and remained a reservist upon graduation, then assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Florida. At the same time that I became a civilian lawyer in 1996, I almost simultaneously left the operations side of the military and transferred into the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps. Along the way, I had an opportunity to see the best and worst of both systems of justice, the civilian criminal/civil justice system and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and have shared those impressions with many since. I hope some of these observations will be of use to our readers.

The law is vastly complicated and is becoming more so every day. Whatever legal issue or question you may have, consult an attorney that specializes in that area of the law. Local bar associations are a great resource for referring you to the appropriate specialist. The lawyer you know at church, that lives down the street, or with whom you work out is likewise a great resource. We are all eager to see people get to the right lawyers and are flattered that our friends and acquaintances value our opinions.

When consulting an attorney, never hesitate to ask them for a summary of their qualifications and work experience. Consider it a job interview; these are completely legitimate questions to be answered before you retain an attorney and pay them for their services, which can amount to a considerable amount of money.

The American criminal justice system is slanted heavily in favor of the state and federal governments. While you should always cooperate with law enforcement when, for example reporting a suspicious incident, be very careful what you say if you have any reason to believe you are the target of a criminal investigation. Our courts have given law enforcement vast discretion in how they may interrogate you or elicit information from you, including lying to you about certain facts.

Exercise your constitutional right against self-incrimination early and often, and immediately cease any further discussions and request a criminal defense lawyer. The reason we have the 5th Amendment is that abuses perpetrated against American colonists hundreds of years ago can be replicated even today. Know your rights and retain quality criminal defense counsel before you inadvertently provide the evidence which could rightly or wrongly result in your imprisonment.

The UCMJ may be harsh in many ways, but military criminal defendants (called the “accused”) in many ways have greater rights than civilian criminal defendants. The military accused is represented, free of charge, by the most highly qualified JAGs who previously served at least one tour as a prosecutor and are handpicked to move to the area defense counsel’s office. There are many aspects of the UCMJ that provide the accused with the best criminal defense available, and certainly vastly better than what many civilian criminal defendants receive.

But, unlike the civilian criminal justice system and its prohibition against Double Jeopardy (you cannot be tried twice for the same crime if you were originally acquitted), the military does get 2 bites at the apple! If an accused is acquitted by a court martial panel (composed of military members the accused’s rank and higher), the military can still try to boot the service member through an administrative discharge board. The “judge” of that board is called the Legal Advisor, a position I occupied in one memorable case.

An outstanding Air Force Master Sergeant with 23 years of service was struck by considerable adversity in his personal life, and was subsequently charged possession of and use of cocaine. For various reasons, he was acquitted in the court martial, but the Air Force decided to take a second bite at the apple in an administrative discharge board. The board was composed of senior enlisted non-commissioned officers and several majors and lieutenant colonels. They could have recommended that this excellent airman be retained in the service but only if 6 criteria were met.

Because of the facts of the case, there was no way several of the criteria could be met, so the board had no choice but to recommend his discharge from the Air Force with loss of his retirement (which he had already qualified for at 20 years of service), which included loss of his Air Force pension which he richly deserved and all other retirement benefits. I will never forget that the president of the discharge board, a lieutenant colonel, asked me if he could speak after the board returned their recommendation. I said he could.

This honorable officer stood up, addressed the master sergeant by his first name, and apologized to him on behalf of the board. He said he thought it was a cheap shot that the Air Force could still kick him out after he had been acquitted of serious charges and specifications under the UCMJ, and cause him to forfeit all of his hard-earned military retirement benefits. It is a scene I will never forget. I ran into that officer about a year later in the gym at Maxwell AFB, Alabama and I told him how impressed I was by his integrity and honesty.

Not all civil trial lawyers are alike. If you have a personal injury case, you definitely want to be represented by a trial lawyer who has tried cases to verdict before a jury and can actually give you citations to those cases. You want a lawyer that is respected by the insurance defense attorneys, by the local judges, and certainly by the insurance industry. You not only will get a more effective, professional representation, but the value of your claim will definitely rise due to the quality of your attorney. If your attorney cannot find or spell “courthouse,” find one who can!

The same holds true for criminal defense lawyers, and is possibly even more critical. Make the same inquiries. Be diligent. While money damages are the justice that civil trial lawyers obtain for their clients, a criminal defendant’s liberty (and life, in some instances) is at stake. Ask how many “not guilty” verdicts the lawyer has obtained. A good criminal defense attorney should have many such results to their credit.

If you are starting a business, make an appointment to see a business lawyer. While the consultation will certainly cost some money, a good business lawyer can give you much great advice that can save you time and money down the road. And, depending upon the size of the business and growth projections, the lawyer may provide valuable ongoing advice that will protect and nurture your business.

Protecting your hard earned intellectual property has always been complicated, but now is vastly more so with the advent and omnipresence of the Internet and the explosion of digital media. As with starting a business, consulting a lawyer who specializes in protecting intellectual property rights is money well spent.

Finally, be very careful when conducting your own legal “research” on the Internet. There is much misleading, incomplete, and downright false information online that could lead you seriously astray.

Lawyers have a minimum of three years of advanced legal studies, have passed a vigorous bar exam(s), and have significant continuing education requirements as dictated by The Florida Bar. Don’t try to wing it on any legal issue of significance. Consult a lawyer and pay them for their valuable time. Or, go the many free legal aid clinics that lawyers donate their time to in Leon County. There is no substitute for a real, licensed lawyer who is held to the highest professional and ethical standards.