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But, My Uncle Died…. Why Judges Hate Excuses.

I was in Bellflower Superior Court yesterday when a 30-something year old woman was taken into custody for failure to complete her batterer’s treatment program or anger-management classes. The public defender tried earnestly to appeal to the judge’s sympathies, explaining that the girl had suffered a pulmonary embolism and had not been working, so she couldn’t afford to pay for the classes. Yikes! A pulmonary embolism? People die from that! The woman did look healthy, but that certainly seemed like a reasonable excuse for being behind in court-ordered classes. The judge took a moment, flipped through the court file and finally said “if she wants to admit her probation violation, I’ll give her 120 days in jail.” 120 DAYS??? The injustice! How could the judge be so unforgiving? I mentally rallied to the girl’s side, until the judge sighed “counsel- she’s had FIVE years to get these classes done.” The woman took the 120 days.

This scenario is not uncommon. Walk into any Orange County criminal courtroom and you will undoubtedly see either someone with an excuse for having not performed some court-ordered obligation or being taken into custody for not performing some court-ordered obligation. This is a look at the most common (and most frustrating) excuses that judges and lawyers or attorneys hear and an explanation as to why they often fall on deaf ears.

My mom was sick and I had to go back home. Or, my grandmother was dying and I had to go to Mexico. As an appointed Orange County criminal lawyer I was told this two, maybe three hundred times, easily. Not once was I given an obituary, hospital release or airline ticket to back it up. The claim is that you were there for your family, you left town and/or were bereft with grief and couldn’t do your program or your classes. An astute judge will ask: “Did you keep your job?” “Did you keep your apartment?” The answer is almost always yes. Actually, it’s “yes, but…

I wasn’t working. This one I’ve never really understood. If you didn’t have  a job, you had lots of time, right?

I couldn’t get a ride to court. Seriously. I’ve had clients miss their own jury trials and claim this. Judges are not kidding when they tell you that you have legs- they expect you to walk. I once had a judge assure a 21-year old man that he’d arrange a ride for him next time- in the back of a patrol car.

I didn’t have time. What you mean: I kept meaning to enroll, but between work, the kids, my job and all the normal responsibilities that don’t even leave me time to floss, I couldn’t get to it before my court date. What a judge hears: this was not a priority. You are not important.

I didn’t know I had to do it. I watched one tearful young woman explain that she didn’t know she had to complete a CalTrans assignment because she was already in jail when she plead guilty to that offense. The Harbor Court judge looked at her and asked “Well, did you have ears when you were in jail?”

Why are judges generally reluctant to be sympathetic?

1. They’ve heard it before. And you will too. Just sit in a courtroom and listen before it’s your turn.

2. They don’t know who’s telling the truth. With so many people with dying relatives or near-fatal illnesses, judges tend to roll their eyes rather than console you.

3. They think you consider it unimportant. Most things we want badly enough, we can make happen. When a criminal defendant commits a probation violation by not performing as expected, he’s essentially telling the court that the case had low priority in his life. Judges want their cases to be your #1 priority. If you have to quit your job to get your classes done, they expect you to quit your job. If you have to sell your car to pay your fines, they expect you to sell your car.

4. You have created more work for them. There’s an average of 35 people that handle a file from beginning to end each and every time a case is in court. Courts are consistently working with lesser resources. By not fulfilling your obligations and and/or causing bench warrants to be issued, they think you are crowding the system and costing them time and money.

Despite all this, things happen. Good, hard-working people often do have legitimate excuses, despite earnest efforts. So, how can you avoid the judge sending you to jail? What can you do if you are behind on your Cal Trans, community service, classes or fines and need an extension?

Get a criminal defense attorney. We are in those courtrooms every day. We know which judges are receptive and which are not. We can also set you up well before we go into court so that you’re in a much better position when we address the judge. We might, for example, have an alcoholic who never did his DUI classes start an out-patient rehab program as a show of good faith first. Simply retaining a criminal defense lawyer tells the court that you are serious about the case and you respect the court’s authority.

Get something done. It is much easier to get an extension to perform 60 days of community service when you’ve already completed 30 than when you’ve done none.

Get in early. If it looks like you’re going to run out of time- if, for example, you have a 12-week class and only one month left to do it, go in and tell the judge BEFORE your time is up that you’re not going to make it. Simply showing foresight may mitigate the damage of having waited.

Get proof. If you really did have a traumatic event happen, bring something in writing to prove it to the judge. Provide documents that show you were in the hospital or receipts for funeral expenses. Remember, judges were once lawyers themselves- they can’t resist a good piece of evidence.

If you or someone you love is facing a probation violation or in need of an Orange County criminal lawyer, call The Law Offices of Staycie R. Sena at (949) 477-8088 for a free consultation today.