Down at the Gucci Jail
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Down at the Gucci Jail

December 2013

Robert Rotstein

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Life Beyond a Big Firm May 2010

After law school, I spent a year clerking for an appellate court judge in Los Angeles, researching whether courthouse visitors could be required to pass through a metal detector; whether an angler had trespassed by fishing in Native American tribal waters; and whether a racketeer's conviction was based on an unlawful search. Heady issues for a baby lawyer. Later, I joined a law firm that represented movie studios. This was the late '70s, I was 26, and I'd decided I'd rather work near Rodeo Drive than next to the downtown jail.

One afternoon the managing partner summoned me to his office. "When you clerked, did you handle criminal cases?" he asked.

"Yes, but - "

"The police have arrested Maggie Spangler for stealing a Porsche."

Ms. Spangler (not her real name) was married to one of the firm's movie-producer clients. Apparently the Porsche had been used in a movie, and she was thinking of buying it. Ms. Spangler had run a red light during a test drive, and when the cop who stopped her checked the license plates, they came up as bogus. The studio's prop department had forgotten to replace the dummy movie plates.

"Get down to the station," the partner said.

I started to explain that I knew nothing about the practical aspects of crim law, but his icy glare stopped me. I went back to my office and looked around for the California Penal Code. I had the Civil Code, the CCP, the B&P Code, and the Copyright Act. No Penal Code. So I went to the Beverly Hills station blind, identified myself, and asked what Ms. Spangler was charged with.

"Violating Penal Code section 487(d)(1) and Vehicle Code section 10851," the watch commander said.

When I tried to act like I understood, he gave me a disdainful eye-roll and sighed. "Grand theft auto and joy-riding."

I took the elevator to the second floor. Back in those days, people joked that the Beverly Hills jail was like a five-star hotel. After all, the city's parking enforcement officers (a.k.a. meter maids) truly did carry their ticket books in Gucci bags. The lockup was clean and quiet. But the cells still had bars across them - no privacy, no freedom. I shuddered. I wouldn't have wanted to be caged in there for two seconds. Suddenly, my client's arrest became not a joke, but injustice. I had to make things right.

I waited 15 minutes. Finally, the officer from downstairs appeared.

"Where's my client?" I asked.

"Penal Code 849(b)(1)," he said.

"Which is?"

"Her husband arrived, explained the situation, and took her home."

So I played no role in my client's release. The incident became a funny war story to tell at cocktail parties.

Years later, after I'd made partner, I got a call from a lawyer at the ACLU. He asked me to author a U.S. Supreme Court amicus brief supporting plaintiffs who'd been arrested in Riverside County without warrants. Despite the constitutional mandate to promptly hold a "probable cause" hearing within 48 hours, the county excluded weekends and holidays from the count. An innocent person arrested the day before Thanksgiving, then, could languish seven days in jail without a hearing.

At the time, I was handling a copyright infringement suit brought against Michael Jackson over two of the biggest-selling songs in music history - a lawsuit that could make my career. In that era, some firms discouraged attorneys from doing pro bono work. Why take on a matter that I didn't have time for, especially when it didn't pay?

I took the assignment anyway. I remembered that hour Maggie Spangler had spent in the Beverly Hills jail. County of Riverside v. McLaughlin (500 U.S. 44 (1991)) presented the same type of injustice, on a much grander scale. Ultimately, the high court required Riverside County to hold probable cause hearings no later than 48 hours after arrest.

Drafting that amicus brief was the most gratifying work I've ever done. And all because I sat waiting for Maggie Spangler at the Gucci jail.

Robert Rotstein, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp, wrote the legal thriller Corrupt Practices (Seventh Street Books).

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