Tuesday, November 14, 2006

City Hall, Corruption and Municipal Court - Fairfield is the Posterboy - not the Problem

The KC Star is portraying a donation made by a lawyer to longshot mayoral candidate John Fairfield as almost a bribe. They point out that within hours of voting to restore a lawyer-dominated plea system, he was emailing staff to find out whether Coult DeVries, a local lawyer, had been generous to his campaign. The Star ignores the fact that, if he were selling his vote, Fairfield would have checked on the donation before he cast his vote.

The problem here is not the timing of an email. The real problem is that the plea system in Kansas City Municipal Court is set up not to serve the people of Kansas City, or to mete out justice, but to keep lawyers' lives simple and profitable.

There are good judges and good lawyers who do fine work down at Municipal Court. The plea system is not about that. The plea system is simply that anybody with a law license can take a client's speeding ticket down and get it amended to a lesser plea, so that insurance rates don't get raised. It doesn't require forensic skills or a well-argued closing - it just requires that the lawyer fill out the forms and follow the instructions.

Here's the kicker, though. You can't do it for yourself. You cannot represent yourself in Municipal Court and get a fair shake. Unless you pay a lawyer to do this for you, you cannot get the plea deal.

You can make decent money doing traffic tickets as a lawyer. There is a small group of lawyers who survive mostly on this kind of work - and a much larger group who use it to supplement the work they prefer. This isn't Atticus Finch type work, but it's easy and it keeps bread on the table.

When Galen Beaufort, a city attorney with real integrity, upset the system, the lawyers who do that kind of work reacted with predictable outrage. Melissa Howard, an insider who was (fortunately) recently rejected for a judgeship on the Municipal Court, tried to get Beaufort fired. All the lawyers who see traffic tickets as an easy-access gravy train howled - and the ones with a real financial stake in the status qho increased their donations to members of the City Council.

The final (so far) result of the saga is that the City Council got an earful and a walletful from their lawyer friends, and overrode Beaufort's decision. They didn't do so because the old system was fair - it wasn't. They didn't do so because the old system kept Kansas Citians safe - it didn't. They did so because the old system is a form of welfare for the lawyers who worked it - and those lawyers raised a stink.

I don't care when Fairfield sent his email - if it had come 6 months after his vote, or 6 months before, it couldn't make things any clearer. Some insider lawyers saw their easy money disappearing, and the City Council stepped in to make certain that you, a Kansas City taxpayer, cannot get the same deal in Muncipal Court that the lawyer friends of the council can.


Blogger Ambitious Fledgling said...

Dan.. really.. did you just type this.."Galen Beaufort, a city attorney with real integrity" really??

I thought we agreed on most things.. odd.

I happen to know a lot of good attorneys who (used to) make a living mostly off of tickets and not merely just to supplement for what they really want to do. However, now that the system has changed it is just a cut throat system. I could easily find an attorney to amend a ticket for me for $50.00 if I looked hard enough. I'm not even an attorney and I'm irriatated with the new system. Have you tried to pay a fine lately? If not.. you'll be waiting.. usually about an hour.

Or even calling to get a court date.. ugh.. I was on hold yesterday for 35 minutes, a new record.

So.. I will agree to disagree with you on this blog.

11/14/2006 8:58 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Galen is a good guy, and I don't think staffing problems should bring his integrity into question.

The increased competition for traffic business is a fact of our more competitive world, coupled with diminished prejudice against attorneys who advertise.

The new system is the fault of the City Council, not Galen.

11/14/2006 9:13 AM  
Anonymous travelingal said...

Even though I've read both the KC Star article and this post twice, I'm still not sure I understand what's going on here. Are people prohibited from representing themselves in municipal court? Is the paperwork required available to the public so they can, if they choose, fill it out themselves and file it? How difficult is the paperwork? Is this issue only relative to speeding tickets or to all moving violations?

I've only had one moving violation ticket (in Kansas) and I simply went to court without a lawyer and represented myself..and won. I had pictures, etc. and they worked. My reason for doing this was the same - I didn't want it on my insurance record.

Just curious - I might get a speeding ticket in KC some time.

11/14/2006 9:31 AM  
Blogger Ambitious Fledgling said...

You cannot represent yourself on a ticket here in KC. They at one time did, or were discussing making it so that you could go pro se, but then changed it back because it was "a slippery slope" and the Prosecutor's office did not want to step in to the lines of giving advice.. now that is just my understanding, and could be wrong. Then again, who would lose most if we could argue our own tickets though..
I know of a few places in Kansas where you can just go defend yourself and honestly, I liked it. The Judge was fair, and it took like 15 minutes.
Just for the record.. a monkey could do the paperwork.
As for Beaufort, I dont personally know the guy, so I can't sit here and make false judgments.
However, I will say they have DEFINATE staffing issues, and ultimately, I think it will drive cost up, unaffordably up.

11/14/2006 10:32 AM  
Anonymous Amused said...

Cool Dan.

You smear the integrity of a large number of members of the bar, ignoring that municipal court charges...which you pooh pooh...can be life changing and career changing.

By the way, Atticus Finch was a fictional character.

But he was a defense lawyer.

Defense lawyers defend all kind of cases.

Don't like it?

Go to China.

11/14/2006 5:58 PM  
Blogger Dan said...


I agree that municipal charges can be very, very serious, and I mentioned that there are good judges and good lawyers doing fine work down at Municipal Court.

How did I smear the integrity of the defense bar? I think I accurately reported the facts. Care to point out where I was wrong? Care to show me where Atticus Finch proved himself by filling out an entry of appearance card and a plea deal on a 3 X 8.5 inch card??

I sincerely admire the defense bar - they are life savers and true heroes of liberty. But I'm not buying that preserving the attorney-only plea system of KC Muni Court is anything other than an easy-money gravy train for lawyers.

Explain to me why citizens cannot get "the deal" without hiring a lawyer. I'll happily admit that I was wrong if you can come up with a convincing reason.

11/14/2006 6:28 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11/14/2006 6:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes - you can represent yourself in any court. However, it is often said that if you represent yourself, you have a fool for a client.

In Johnson County, KS, they let non-lawyers do their own plea bargain paperwork. To say that monkeys can fill out the paperwork, implies that it is more difficult than it actually is. Do you know your name? Address? Do you have the ticket? And, no, I don't think the prosecutors hand out legal advice. There is no "slippery slope." The deal that is available to non-lawyers is the same whether or not they have a lawyer.

In Jackson County, you can't do the "defective mechanical" plea bargain without a lawyer. Why? I don't think it is because Jackson County ticket recipients have difficulty writing down their name, address and ticket number on a card . After all, most of them passed the driver's test and you have to know your name and address to get a license. Instead, I think it is because for years, simple traffic tickets were a brainless way for some lawyers to make some money. It was the "weakest link lawyers' right to work law." Secondarily, it was a great way for the city to make extra money on tickets without making the prosecutor's work too hard.

What's wrong with that? It's not the end of the world, BUT as a lawyer it bothers me that some of my brothers and sisters in the bar are charging good people a bunch of money for spending maybe 2 minutes filling in about 3 lines of information on a card.

When more serious charges are at stake, folks NEED a lawyer and I don't have any problem with my fellow lawyers making a living solving those problems. I just hate to see people paying good money for something my grade schooler could do.

11/14/2006 8:16 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Damn, Anonymous. Bingo! That's what I was trying to say.

11/14/2006 8:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Dan.

We do agree about a thing or two.


11/16/2006 10:48 AM  
Anonymous Dissident said...

Attack the weakest link, and proceed up the chain.

Who needs these dam defense lawyers anyway?

And since defective equipments charges are not available to anyone accused of doing over 15 miles per hour, I know of at least two clients whose jobs may be endangered.

I bet you guys don't even know how to try a speeding case.

11/16/2006 1:01 PM  
Blogger U.S. JUSTICE & CORRUPTION said...

You think municipal court is bad, you should try getting charged in Federal court because you pissed off the wrong people and the prosecutor owes someone a favor!

6/14/2008 11:53 PM  

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