Making the season bright

Baby sitting in front of christmas treeI was out of the office late last week, and for good reason….

When I opened my law firm in early October, I had the opportunity to meet a hard-working man. Honestly, after eight years in a busy District Attorney’s office, I was eager to chat with anyone who visited my quiet office.

I learned that this young man had been married for a number of years. He and his wife had struggled for quite some time to start a family. Unfortunately, they had been unable to do so.

Like many men and women, this husband and wife wanted nothing more this Christmas – and many Christmases before – than to be parents. They wanted to share their love with a child.

Adoption is an emotionally, financially, and personally difficult process. It’s scary, exciting, overwhelming, devastating…sometimes all of these at once, and not only for adoptive parents. It’s hard to find a birth mother who is willing to give her child to be raised in a loving home.

Yet for this family, it had already happened. They had a younger relative who wanted to give her unborn child for them to adopt. What they did not have was an affordable attorney to help them with the adoption process. That is where I came into the story.

Last week, the baby was born. The adoptive parents participated in the baby’s birth, and they were able to hold and care for their newborn child. To see the light in the mother’s eyes, and to watch the father hold his child, were some of the most fulfilling moments in my career.

Most beautiful, though, was the strength of the birth mother. She has always been certain that adoption to this couple was the right choice for her unborn baby. It wasn’t a sacrifice she was making, but a GIFT that she was giving. As we left the hospital, the look on her face was pure joy. Her tears were happy ones — for the new family, for her new relationship with them, for her new relationship with the child she gave.

Hers was the greatest gift a family could ever receive.

I’ve got a court date…now what?

Bibb County CourthousePart One: Your Attorney

Whether you’ve been arrested and charged with a crime, or if you are going through a divorce, a child custody or child support hearing, or a lawsuit, you will very likely spend a day in court.

As a former prosecutor, I’ve spent a lot of my time in courtrooms. Whether you are going to Magistrate Court on a small claims case, or if you are going before a Superior Court judge to argue where your children will live, you can never treat a day in court like it’s just any other day.

Absolutely the most important thing you can do to help your case — regardless of what it is — is to hire a lawyer. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive, the best-known, or the most attractive lawyer in town. For almost all cases, two things matter more than anything else: Does your lawyer have the TIME to devote to your case, including the TIME to come to court? Does your lawyer have jury trial experience?

I’ve seen minor cases — and major ones — linger for years because while the client sat in court on his DUI or drug possession case month after month, his attorney had conflicts, leaves of absence for family vacations, or other reasons that he could not come to court. In many courtrooms, the judges and prosecutors will not excuse YOU from court even if your lawyer won’t be there. Make sure that your lawyer has the time to work your case to help you achieve your goals, so that your education, your career, and your life aren’t put on hold while you spend your days sitting in court.

If your attorney does call you and tell you that she can’t be in court, it is important that you ask her if YOU have also been excused. Don’t assume that you will automatically be excused, especially if your case involves traffic tickets or criminal charges.

It’s a surprise to fans of television shows like “Law & Order,” but many lawyers don’t enjoy trying cases in front of a jury. In fact, some lawyers have made long and full careers without EVER trying a case. While it’s fine to choose that, if it’s what you want, it’s important that you know, going into your child custody hearing, if your lawyer has NEVER chosen a jury, or made an opening statement and a closing argument to a jury. Jury trials can be nerve-wracking, for both the attorney and the client, and if you might get into one, it’s important to know that your attorney is comfortable with a jury.

I recently attended a course on divorce, child custody, and family law. It was an all-day event taught by lawyers for lawyers. One of the classes focused on presenting evidence in jury trials. When the teacher asked a room full of lawyers — more than 100 of us — how many people had tried a jury trial, a small number of hands went up. When he asked how many people had tried more than 10 trials, there were fewer than ten hands in the air!

Whether or not your attorney has “won” cases is not as important as whether or not he or she has “tried” them. Although success is good, being experienced with the trial process is crucial. Ask: How many cases have you tried? In what courts? What was the outcome? Do you feel comfortable trying my case, if it has to go to a jury trial? Have you ever advised a client to go to trial? What are some reasons why you would go to trial? What are some reasons why you would not go to trial? How many cases do you have waiting to go to trial right now? How long will it take for YOU to be ready for a trial?

Not every case can or should go to a jury, but if a lawyer tells you she has never “needed” to go to trial, or if a lawyer tells you that he has “won every case”, you should examine that experience more closely.

Before you ever enter a courtroom, you need an attorney, but you also need to know that your attorney is available to be in court for your case, and that your attorney is ready and able to take your case all the way to a jury.

In Part Two, we’ll discuss what YOU, the client, should do to be prepared for court.

Parenthood is under attack

Every few months, it’s a different family.

Some are charged because they let their children walk to neighborhood parks without an adult. Some are charged because they allowed their children to stay in parked automobiles — in reasonable weather — while their parents ran into stores, offices, or even job interviews. Some are charged for allowing their children to play alone on playgrounds. Some are charged because their children miss more than the allowed number of days of public schooling.

Kid pulled over by cops.The end result is the same: the children are unhurt, at least physically.

The parents are arrested, interrogated by law enforcement and child protective services agencies, every aspect of their parenting scrutinized, their choices demonized. They may be charged criminally, or they lose their children, or they lose their jobs…or all of the above. This process is far more damaging to their children than the incident that brought their parents into the seat of judgment in the first place.

What has happened to our society? We have criminalized parenthood.

I was born in 1977. As a child, my favorite movies included Goonies, E.T., and Flight of the Navigator. What did they all have in common? Children having adventures without their parents.

The 1980’s were a good time to be a kid. We lived off in the country on a dirt road, and we had free range as long as my brother and I were together and took the dog with us. We went all over several miles and several hundred acres, making our own adventures. Our parents worked in Atlanta, back then a 30-minute commute.

My parents had enough money to buy us an above-ground pool, so in the warm months, we spent a lot of time swimming. Today, my parents would be jailed for letting two 8 year-old kids stay home alone all summer, much less for allowing us to swim alone.

When storms started, we waiting ’til lightning crashed down around us and heavy rains shook the pool water before finally dashing through the downpour to get into the house.

One day in 5th grade, my brother and I walked up the path we took from where our bus dropped us off beside a busy highway. We saw sand mixed in with the dirt, leaves, and brambles. As we neared our house, we learned what happens when an above-ground pool is struck by lightning: It explodes.

Never again have I treated thunderstorms as casually as I did when I was a child.

Meanwhile, we don’t give today’s children the space to make dumb choices. We don’t give parents the chance to BE PARENTS. We criminalize behavior that harms no one, using vaguely-worded statutes about reckless conduct or child endangerment. We demand that parents watch their children 24-hours a day (while simultaneously tsk-tsking parents who choose to co-sleep with their children), keep them in school regardless if they are sick, and hover over their playtime with antiseptic, band-aids, and a cell phone poised to call 911 at the slightest whiff of disorder.

We have turned parents into criminals, and children into our prisoners.

Punishment is for the weak but justice is for the powerful

This sums up a great deal about our present day legal system. Laws are often harshly enforced against those at the bottom rungs of society who can least afford legal representation, while the same or similar acts committed by powerful people are often ignored or tolerated.

Everyone needs competent and vigorous legal defense when trapped in the web of our justice system. At the Deal Law Firm, we strive to not only bring the best in legal advocacy to the table, but to do so as efficiently and therefore as affordably as possible so that more people have a fighting chance against the eight legs and fangs of criminal prosecution.

Spider Web

Facebook can be your frenemy

Social media websites like Facebook give us the ability to share our lives with our families, friends, and schoolmates. But there is a danger inherent in social media use: many of us document our personal lives in ways that may later come back to haunt us in courts of law.

In family law cases, ranging from a divorce with division of your assets to a child custody or child support dispute, and anything in between, your Facebook account can be used against you. Most social media users are far too savvy to publicly post photographs that document misdeeds like extramarital affairs. But a series of screen captures showing post after post where you have publicly nagged, embarrassed, shamed, or argued with your spouse can be just as devastating to your case. Private messages to your spouse or ex can also come back to haunt you, along with any insults or admissions of bad behavior (abuse, infidelity, failure to support, etc.) you make.

Facebook crime scene
What you reveal online could be used against you later.

If you think, “well, that’s okay, I’ll just block him…,” don’t be too hasty. If you’ve ever shared the account, and he knows the password, he can still access the account and use its contents against you. Even if you create a new password, it’s hard to know which of your mutual friends (or even your own family members) are on her side, and willing to pass along screenshots to her after she’s been blocked.

Particularly in child custody disputes, you need to be cautious of what you post on Facebook. In a perfect world, divorce parents would not express their frustrations at each other in front of their children, or on social media. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and if your wife is late bringing the kids back from visitation a fifth or sixth time, it’s understandably upsetting. But posting a diatribe isn’t the best idea, especially if your children also have Facebook accounts. Many child custody orders include provisions that parents will not speak negatively about the other parent in the presence of the children, and even if you DON’T say anything to the kids, a slew of Facebook posts can certainly create the impression that you are.

What if you’ve been charged with committing a crime? While law enforcement generally can’t use your Facebook account against you in court without obtaining a subpoena and/or a search warrant, they CAN look at your publicly available Facebook content during an investigation. Law enforcement in Middle Georgia, including Macon and Warner Robins,¬†often use your Facebook friends list to identify possible sources of information, including potential witnesses, who they will interview in their efforts to build a case against you.

Man messing with a cop car's fuel tank.
Sometimes a photo has the same effect as a signed confession.

Just as married men and women rarely post photographs of themselves cheating on their spouses, people rarely post photographs of themselves actively violating the law…with the possible exception of those under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Unlike with family law, we criminalize various forms of association, and if you’re on Facebook, you need to be aware of them.

In Georgia, there is a strong law enforcement effort to investigate and prosecute gang activity. The criminal street gang activity law is broadly written, and the penalties for violations are high. Facebook is a big source of information about who are members of gangs, and if you appear prominently in photographs “throwing gang signs,” these photographs can draw attention to your profile, your friends’ list, and your offline activities, even if you are not a member of a gang.

There is also a concept called party to a crime under Georgia law. Generally speaking, a party to a crime is someone who knowingly participates in the crime, even if that person doesn’t directly commit the crime herself. If you are on Facebook, publicly posting encouragement for your friend to commit a criminal act, perhaps beating up a common enemy, telling your friend when and where she can find this unknowing victim, and your friend follows through on your plan, you may become a party to that crime. Even if you delete your post, with a swipe, it can be captured forever in someone else’s iPhone.

The lesson in all of this is easy: don’t say anything on Facebook that you wouldn’t want repeated on a witness stand in a courtroom, or in front of your spouse and children. Choose your friends, and your privacy settings, carefully. Remember that what you post online can be forgotten, but it is never truly gone, even if you delete it or block another user.

Facebook can be your friend — but it can also become your enemy.

Should you call the cops on your neighbors?

Arguing Neigbors

In the linked article, Findlaw examines various reasons on why you might call the police on a neighbor.

When your neighbors annoy you, there is a temptation to involve the police, sheriff or some other authority to resolve the dispute. For minor things, it is best to ignore them and give your neighbors a wide berth, as you would hope they would do for you. Sometimes, hArguing Neigborsowever, behavior crosses the line and then you have to make a decision if police involvement is worth the possibility of escalation and harming your relationship with your neighbors.

One issue that has been a big deal in Georgia this year and especially in Macon/Bibb County is the recent legalization of fireworks. Unfortunately, the newly legalized fireworks are fairly loud and in most neighborhoods in the more urban parts of Bibb County, homes are too close for the noise and what might seem like a fun show for family and friends turns out to be unbearable to someone who turned in early.

The best preventative medicine for disputes with neighbors is to be friendly and to introduce yourself long before any trouble arises. It is a lot easier to ask a friend to turn the loud late night music down than a bunch of strangers. Also, treat your neighbors with respect and consider how your actions might be annoying to them. If what you are doing would anger you, then why are you doing it to your neighbor?

Rescue dog finds Subway spokesman’s child pornography stash

Bear the police dog.
This black lab was instrumental in finding Jared Fogls’s child pornography stash which sent him to prison.

According to the FindLaw weird news blog, Jared Fogle was brought down by a rescue dog. Trained to sniff out small electronic devices, “Bear” uncovered the evidence that law enforcement needed to force his guilty plea on child pornography charges. According to the story, without the work by Bear, Fogle would not likely be facing 5-12 years in prison.