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Everything You Want to Know About Pretrial Conferences in Macomb County

December 7, 2012,

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This year, we have published several blogs dedicated to "frequently asked (criminal law) questions". Whenever possible, we endeavor to avoid legalese by providing articles in layman's terms. The focus of this blog is pretrial conferences in Macomb County District Courts.

What is a pretrial conference?

A pretrial conference is a meeting that is attended by the attorneys for the parties in a criminal or civil case. The major purposes of a pretrial conference are to facilitate resolution of a case, management of a case for trial or management of a case regarding pertinent issues (as listed below). A pretrial conference is scheduled after either a criminal or civil case is filed with the court, a case number and a Judge are assigned. In Macomb County, criminal pretrial conferences are held soon after the arraignment. For misdemeanors, which occur in Macomb County, the pretrial conference will always be held at the district court (click here for complete listing of links to Macomb County District Courts). Felony pretrial conferences can occur on the date scheduled for a preliminary examination and again after the case is bound over to the circuit court. A person charged with a crime (the defendant) is required to be present on the date scheduled for pretrial conference. However, he or she is usually not allowed in the conference room with the attorneys. On the other hand, police officers and victim's rights advocates with court business are allowed in the conference room. Likewise, an alleged victim may be present at the pretrial conference as the prosecutor must obtain the victim's consent for a plea bargain in most criminal cases.

The direction of a criminal case is often determined after a pretrial conference. Pretrial conferences are a vital tool, which a skilled criminal defense lawyer will utilize for several reasons:

  • Promote dismissal of the charge(s) under certain circumstances
  • Negotiate a favorable plea bargain
  • Address bond, bond conditions and/or release from jail
  • Adjourn the pretrial conference to seek a deviation when strict policy obstructs a plea bargain
  • Request modification of no-contact order (domestic violence cases)
  • Negotiate restitution when financial losses are claimed
  • Meet with the Judge when judicial support is needed to discuss various matters, such as sentence bargains, creative plea bargains or to simplify issues of the case when set for trial
  • Size up the prosecution's case, witnesses and evidence
  • Request copies of discovery (police reports, videos, chemical test results)
  • Schedule one or more motion dates to attack the evidence, or to weaken the case
  • Set future pretrial conference date(s) when delay can tend to improve the defense position
  • Schedule the case for a bench or jury trial

Factoid: A person who is accused of a crime is not considered a "defendant" until that person is formally charged with a crime. Our criminal defense lawyers never refer to our clients as "defendants" when speaking to the court or prosecutor because of negative connotations. We prefer to refer to our clients by their given name or "the accused".

What is the attorney's role at a pretrial conference?

The best way for me to summarize an attorney's role at a pretrial conference is by mentioning a few passages from the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct.

A lawyer is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.

As advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client's position under the rules of the adversary system.

As negotiator, a lawyer seeks a result advantageous to the client but consistent with requirements of honest dealing with others.

What is the defendant's role at a pretrial conference?

Macomb County (as well as Oakland, Wayne and St.Clair), require the attendance of the defendant at the pretrial conference. If the defendant "fails to appear", an arrest warrant may be issued. Prior to the pretrial conference, our criminal defense attorneys discuss goals and/or strategies with our clients. Even though the defendant is not present in the conference room, he or she is well informed of our intentions. We advise our clients to be punctual, dress appropriately and to refrain from discussing their case with anyone at the courthouse. We assume that our client's conduct is "being monitored". Therefore, we discourage any interaction with the victim or any conduct which draws unfavorable attention. Any progress towards working out a deal can be blown if a client offends certain key decision makers at the pretrial conference or at any other time while a criminal case is pending!

Is there an appearance in the courtroom after the pretrial conference?

After the pretrial conference, the defendant and his or her attorney will appear in open court and inform the Judge of the results. The Judge has the final say regarding the outcome of a pretrial conference. For example, certain plea bargains may be against the Judge's own policy and may require some persuasion and legal authority. In addition, the Judge may show frustration when the parties are attempting to adjourn (delay) cases. Since adjournments tend to clog court dockets, the Judge will require that "good cause" be shown.

Our experience is that a pretrial conference is an invaluable opportunity to advocate on behalf of our clients. Advocacy includes elements of assertiveness and diplomacy. We often can achieve a disposition after the pretrial conference. This may result in a plea bargain, which may have the effect of dismissing the criminal charges in exchange for completion of probation. It is our job to protect our client's rights and seek the best possible outcome, which may mean saving a client from being exposed to egregious facts and the expenses of an unnecessary trial. The defendant remains the ultimate decision-maker when presented with options after the conclusion of a pretrial conference.

Some other important things to know about pretrial conferences:

-Denial of a pretrial conference may constitute a denial of "due process" rights. US vs. Ataya, 864 F2d 1324 (1988)
-No admissions made by the defendant's lawyer in the setting of a pretrial conference are admissible against the defendant during trial.
-Pretrial Conferences for federal criminal cases are governed by Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 17.1

The addresses and phone numbers for all Macomb County district courts can be found at the following links:


Warren
37th District Court

Eastpointe
38th District Court


Roseville and Fraser
39th District Court

St. Clair Shores
40th District Court

Sterling Heights
41-A District Court

Shelby, Utica and Macomb Township
41-A District Court

Clinton Township, Mt. Clemens, Harrison Township
41-B District Court

Romeo, Washington Township, Armada, Bruce Township, Ray Township, Richmond, Memphis
42-1 District Court

New Baltimore, Chesterfield Township, Lenox Township, New Haven
42-2 District Court


Proving Drug Possession: "Actual Possession" is not always required

August 31, 2012,

Every drug crime requires the element of "possession". In fact, drug crimes rank high on the list of frequently occurring felony cases in Michigan. Drug crimes include: "possession" or "possession with intent to deliver" marijuana, heroin, cocaine, MDMA or analogues.

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Whenever someone is charged with any drug crime, our criminal defense attorneys will question whether the accused legally possessed the alleged drugs.

Michigan Courts Define Possession In Criminal Cases

In Michigan, a person must knowingly and intentionally possess an illegal drug to be charged with possession of a controlled substance under Michigan's drug possession statute. But what does that mean?

The courts in Michigan consolidate possession into two categories

1. Actual possession: an individual has drugs on their person (pocket or shoe)
2. Constructive possession: individual has the right of control and dominion over the controlled substance



Actual possession is simple. If the drugs are in a person's pocket, that person possesses the drugs. But what if the drugs are found in a home where multiple people are present? What about in a car with more than one occupant? What if the person was unaware the drugs were in the car? Determining whether or not the individual had a right of control or dominion over the drugs, or over the premises (car, apartment, house) in which the drugs were found, is critical in these situations. However, an individual's presence in the same house or automobile as the drugs is insufficient to establish possession; a connection between the drugs and the individual must be found as well. When a person is merely present at a place where drugs are found or is an innocent bystander, our firm will argue that there is insufficient evidence to establish the element of possession.

Michigan Courts broadly interpret possession:

People v Nunez (2000): In this case, police entered a home and discovered, along with several occupants, a large stash of cocaine. Although Mr. Nunez didn't have the cocaine on his person, he was charged and convicted of possession of cocaine. The police arrived at their conclusion by observing the apartment and its contents. Mr. Nunez had a key for the apartment and stayed at the apartment most of the time. His name was also found on bills within the apartment. The connection between Mr. Nunez and the drugs was straightforward in this case.



People v Meshell (2005): In this case, police observed a man emerging from a garage in which they later discovered methamphetamine. Upon entering the area, police noticed a strong chemical odor coming from the garage. Mr. Meshell was the only person in the area of the garage and when police ran his record, they discovered past issues with methamphetamine. Because Mr. Meshell had past issues with meth, it was obvious that he knew the smell. He was also the only one in the area at the time police observed him exiting the garage.

People v McKinney (2003): In this case, police entered a home and discovered a large amount of cocaine. Police found crack in drawers containing women's clothing, and linked the drugs to Ms. McKinney because she was frequently staying at the apartment. Drugs were also found within the pockets of women's clothing in the bedroom she was sharing with the owner. By using the drug's location as evidence, the police were able to successfully charge and convict Ms. McKinney of possession of cocaine.

As you can see from the cases above, police can use the surrounding circumstances to establish an individual's possession of a controlled substance:

1. Any past drug-related criminal activity
2. The smell of the drugs, particularly marijuana
3. Whether or not the person was alone
4. Utility bills for the home in which the drugs were found


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St. Clair County; An International Border to Protect, Miles of Shoreline and Major Summer Events

May 18, 2012,

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St. Clair County is located in the south eastern part of the thumb area of Michigan. It is the gateway county to the northern thumb and the Great lakes. It is known as the Blue Water Area. St. Clair County borders Macomb, Lapeer and Sanilac Counties and is just a short distance (across the Port Huron River via the Blue Water Bridge) from Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. The Blue Water Bridge is a major international crossing from Canada into the United States. Interstate expressway I-94 runs north and south through St. Clair County, I -69 runs east and west and ends in the City of Port Huron. M-29 is the highway that is located on the eastern shoreline of St. Clair County which takes you in and around the St. Clair River and Anchor Bay. Map of St. Clair County Link.

The eastern side of St. Clair County consists of shoreline on the St. Clair River, Lake Huron, Anchor Bay and Lake St. Clair. The major cities which border these bodies of water are Port Huron (the county seat), St. Clair, Marine City and Algonac. One can enjoy views on the river (freighters, Canada) in any of the cities along these shoreline cities.

Click this link for a live web-cam of the Port Huron River and the Blue Water Bridge.

Recreational attractions in this area include boating, hunting and fishing. The City of St. Clair would be my top pick for dining (Charly's River Crab, St. Clair Inn) or enjoying the charm of a small town with a large park area dedicated along the river. In 2012, more than 50,000 visitors are expected to attend the Blue Water Fest which occurs just prior to the Port Huron to Mackinac Race.

St. Clair County is well guarded and policed because of its international border with Canada and heavy recreational traffic. The courts in St. Clair County see a fair amount of cases associated with recreation violations, DNR violations, border crossing issues (on both the US and Canada side) and drunk driving cases. A drive along the winding highway of M-29 which meanders along the St. Clair River is not a place to be if you have had any alcohol or drugs. In some places, the road is only a matter of feet from the water. Unfortunately, a fair share of accidents and OWI cases occur on this road.

A traffic violation, drunk driving or criminal case (such as domestic violence, disorderly conduct, boating under the influence, drug crimes) in St. Clair County will wind up in the 72nd District Court in either Port Huron or Marine City:

72nd District Court (Port Huron)
201 McMorran Blvd.
Room 2900
Port Huron MI 48060

72nd District Court (Marine City)
2088 South Parker (M-29)
Marine City, MI 48039

The courts and law enforcement officers in St. Clair County tend to be protective of their communities. They have the responsibility of keeping order in an area which has an international border and hosts recreational activities which often involve alcohol. (Jobbie Nooner). Our experience in these courts has been positive. I find the Judges to be reasonable when it comes to first time offenders of criminal acts such as drunk driving, disorderly conduct or simple drug possession charges. Often, such an offender is looking at probation. If the offense involves a first time drug charge or the offender is age 17 but under age 21, a dismissal is possible special Michigan statutes (HYTA and MCL 333.7411).

Continue reading "St. Clair County; An International Border to Protect, Miles of Shoreline and Major Summer Events " »