Justice Prevails: Law Clinic Students Team Up for Big Win
When Jair and his then-girlfriend drove home to the East Bay after a concert in San Francisco, they didn’t know it would be the beginning of a 15-month legal ordeal. By the end of the night, he had been charged with driving under the influence of MDMA, commonly known as Ecstasy, and she had been subjected to degrading treatment by the police. But with the help of students from USF School of Law’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice Law Clinic, his case was finally dismissed this fall.
“The clinic doesn’t usually handle DUI cases, but this one was different,” said the clinic’s director Associate Professor Lara Bazelon. “It’s hard to think of a better case to train young lawyers. It included so many elements, such as litigating multiple complex pretrial issues, working with an expert, and establishing a relationship of trust and rapport with the client.”
Fake Facts Speak for Themselves
Dash cam footage from the CHP patrol car showed Jair, a 25-year-old Brazilian native who asked we not use his last name, was driving carefully, signaling as he changed lanes. And while the police moved him out of view of the camera to perform the field sobriety tests, the audio made it clear that he followed the officer’s instructions. The police report included false statements from his girlfriend about whether or not she’d seen Jair take any drugs. “And the so-called science that the district attorney was relying on to show he had drugs in his system was so unreliable it would be a stretch to call it science at all,” Bazelon said.
Bazelon and the students discussed how to frame the case, and decided to focus on the facts. “We decided the racial overtones and the false statements in the police report would speak for themselves,” she said.
After fighting two previous continuances, under the supervision of former clinic director Professor Sharon Meadows and former interim director Assistant Professor Kate Chatfield, the students knew a trial was imminent. They went to work writing and practicing the direct and cross examinations, poring over the dash cam footage, and distilling it into a transcript. The students prepared to argue the pretrial motions. “They strategized each step of the way. Throughout, they were poised and professional,” said Bazelon.
The clinic filed a 90-page opposition to the prosecutor’s request for a third continuance, which they argued was in violation of Jair’s right to a speedy trial. After the judge ruled that there was no cause to further delay the trial, and the prosecutor was forced to drop the case.
The Importance of Preparation
Darlene Balagot 3L, part of the clinic team who worked on Jair’s case, joined the clinic because she wanted to get as much hands-on experience as possible in law school. Her interest in trial law has grown as she’s been in law school, partially because of her exposure through the clinic and USF’s Intensive Advocacy Program. “I’m a pretty reserved person, and when I’m really prepared, I feel more confident. I’ve learned how important preparation is in the law,” she said.
Balagot stressed the group effort involved in succeeding on Jair’s behalf, and was struck by how far in advance an attorney has to prepare for cross examinations and motions. “You have to write a question in a way you want him to answer, and be prepared to rehabilitate it to get the answer you want,” she said. “When writing the opposition, we had to think of every single thing the DA might say and have a response to combat it. It’s a lot of predicting and if we went to trial, we would have to be prepared for every scenario.”
Jair says he is thankful that he can finally sleep better at night knowing this case isn’t dragging on any longer, and for the support he received from the team of students and Bazelon. “They never let one little detail get away,” he said. “Everyone contributed a lot of time to my case, including going out of their way to meet me on Sundays to accommodate my work schedule. It wasn’t just one student helping, and they were all very sharp — I didn’t see a weak link.”