Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Hart v. Parks (9th Cir. - June 19, 2006)

This opinion (by Judge O'Scannlain) is interesting if you love lawyers. Or, especially, if you hate them. For two different reasons.

First, I love how the attorney in the underlying transaction was involved therein. The case is about the (well-publicized) theft of Oscar statuettes back in early 2000. As you may recall, someone stole all of them from a truck as they were being shipped to Los Angeles, which prompted the Academy to go ballistic as well as to offer an ever-increasing award. The Academy eventually got the statuettes back, and, in the process, the police made a couple of arrests. One of the arrestees was Anthony Hart, who eventually pled to receiving stolen property, and who was potentially guilty of even more. And, showing chutzpah, he promptly sues the police for false arrest. Which in turn leads Judge O'Scannlain to issue this opinion, which affirms the district court's grant of summary judgment to the LAPD.

What's most interesting about this story -- a fascinating tale itself -- from the perspective of legal ethics is how Daniel Pearson (a sole practitioner in Glendora) fits into the picture. When the Academy offered a reward for the return of the statutes -- a reward that had only been publicized to the employees of the trucking company (the thought was that one of them was the thief) -- Pearson called the trucking company and said that he had a client who knew the location of the statuettes and wanted the $25,000 reward. The police -- no dummies -- figure that Pearson's client was the one who stole them, and is now looking to cash in. Which makes sense; after all, it's not like Oscars are easy to sell in a pawn shop, and even if you could, you're not going to get $25,000 for them. Which perhaps was one of the central points of the reward in the first place: to get the thief to turn over the goods for a healthy reward.

The thing is, Pearson thinks he's cagy in saying that a client has retained him and wants the reward; that way, they won't know who the client (and hence potential thief) is, right? Attorney-client privilege and stuff like that. Well, wholly apart from the privilege issue, that particular plan only works if you keep your client's identity a secret. Which Pearson does. Sort of. Except, if you're trying to keep your client's identity a secret, after you phone to get the reward on his behalf, let me give you a important tip: Don't promptly drive from your office to your "anonymous" client's home. Or, if you do, how about doing a little counter-surveillance, or at least some evasive driving. Because, Mr. Pearson -- and I know this will shock you -- the police are tailing you. See that car that keeps following you? That's the fuzz. Who -- again, shockingly -- figure that's how they'll find out who your client is. So, when you do indeed drive to your client's house; well, let's just say, the jig is utterly and completely up.

Oh, one more thing. Let's say you're Anthony Hart. You work at the trucking company from which the Oscars were stolen. You've got prior arrests and convictions for -- you guessed it -- theft. And the police have gotten tips that you were the thief. Notwithstanding all of this, let's say you want to retain an attorney to get the reward on your behalf without the police discovering your identity. Let's see: Who should you retain? Remember: It's very important that the police not figure out who you are. Pick someone out of the Yellow Pages? Sounds good. Walk into a random attorney's office off the street? Seems reasonable. Hey! I got it! Instead of doing either of those, why not use your brother-in-law! There's the one attorney in the universe who can easily be linked to you and your identity thereby discovered. Yeah, that's the ticket!

Needless to say, Hart chooses this last option. Brilliant. By both attorney and client.

Anyway, they bust Hart, the Academy gets the statuettes back, and everything is fine. Even for Pearson. who (as far as I can tell) never gets punished or disciplined for his role in the transaction. (Judge O'Scannlain's opinion makes Pearson sound a little sleazy -- as well as only marginally competent -- but that's about it.) There's an interesting question here whether you should represent your brother-in-law in attempting to get a reward for the return of stolen goods when there's a fair chance that (1) he was the one who stole them, (2) he might well be arrested for the offense, and/or (3) they can discover his identity as a result of your representation. My take on the issue: I wouldn't have done it. By a fair piece.

Judge O'Scannlain is actually fairly nice to Daniel Pearson. By contrast, you should definitely see what Judge O'Scannlain repeatedly says about Hart's counsel on appeal, the (in)famous Stephen Yagman. Let's just say it's nothing good. At all. I won't isolate any of the particular insults; they're simply too pervasive. You get a keen sense from virtually every page of the opinion that Judge O'Scannlain doesn't like Yagman. And potentially for quite good reason, not merely because their politics are (undeniably) divergent.

Two interesting lawyers here. None of whom come out smelling particularly like a rose.