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The Family Lawyer
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The Family Lawyer
with Robert Rotstein
Children are of the blood of their parents, but parents are not the blood of their children.
—Bouvier's Maxims of Law (1856)
Just as Debra is about to get to the punch line, my cell phone rings.
"Shut that damn thing off, Matt," she says. "If I were the judge, I'd fine you five hundred dollars for disrupting court."
"And I'd appeal your fascist ruling to the highest court in the land."
She smiles in spite of herself. She's rehearsing for a hearing tomorrow, and I'm playing judge. Our client, an amateur photographer, claims that the cops rousted him for filming on-street arrests, so we sued the police department for violating his civil rights. That's what we do.
I should ignore the call, but the ID screen reads Westside Jail, so I answer. It's probably someone looking for representation, and the law firm of Grant & Hovanes needs all the clients it can get. There's little money in public interest law, and Debra and I are soft touches. Her case for the photographer happens to be pro bono.
On the other end of the line, a female is weeping. She sounds so distraught that I suspect she's a psych case. No matter—I represent a lot of psych cases.
Then I hear, "Dad?"
I stand up in shock and sit down again when my knees buckle. "Hailey? What…? My God, are you okay?"
"Are you hurt?"
"They arrested me!" I can hear deep breathing, a heaving sound. She's trying to compose herself. This isn't like her, not even under these circumstances. She's the eight-year-old who wouldn't cry after she cut her chin on the playground slide; the kid who wouldn't cry even when she got six stitches. A fourth-grade teacher once called her "The Ice Princess." She has titanium nerves. Which is why she's a highly recruited soccer player who should earn a college scholarship and ease our family's financial burden. I can't pay for college, and I don't want her to start adult life a hundred thousand dollars in debt.
"Settle down and tell me what happened." Easy for me to say. How am I going to settle down?
Fraught silence. The uncertainty is agonizing.
Finally: "I was going to soccer practice after school, and these police walk up and ask if I'm Hailey Hovanes. When I say yes, they arrest me in front of all my friends and the team and the coach and some teachers and parents and…They handcuffed me and hurt my wrists, Dad!"
On hearing this, I want to punch the cops who did that. But I have better ways to get back at them—through the legal system. "Have you said anything to the police?"
"Just that I didn't do it."
"Don't say another word to them."
"Okay. Just come and—"
There's an adult male's voice in the background, his words inaudible.
"They're making me hang up, Dad."
"Don't hang up yet. Tell me why they arrested you."
The line goes dead.
"Hailey's been arrested," I tell Debra as I spring out of my chair. "She was so upset she couldn't even tell me what they busted her for. She was crying."
"Hailey? No way," Debra says as she follows me out of the room.
I'm not sure if she's incredulous about Hailey being arrested or about the crying.
"I'll come with you," she says. "She'll need a lawyer."
"I'm a lawyer, in case you've forgotten."
"Right now, you're only a parent."
She's right. And, even if I wasn't, I can always use her help. We make a good team. Six years ago, a judge separately appointed us to handle a habeas corpus appeal for a death-row inmate. We won, and ever since, we've shared an office suite, assisted on each other's cases, and divided our meager profits fifty-fifty.
"Thanks, I'll handle it," I say. "You need to prepare for tomorrow's hearing." That's not the real reason I decline her offer. My wife, Janet, doesn't want outsiders involved in our personal business. She considers Debra an outsider, though heaven knows I don't.
I grab my briefcase and laptop from my office and hurry to my car. In the concrete plaza that separates the parking garage from our building, the homeless are gathering to crash, as they do every night. When Debra and I opened up our law practice, we made sure to lease office space in a poor section of town. When you represent the downtrodden, you have to come to them—they're too intimidated and resentful to come to a lavish chrome-and-glass high-rise in the Golden Triangle.
As I race to my car, the homeless man known as Downtown Dennis shouts, "Attorney Hovanes!" Imposing at six foot eight, he played college ball, might even have made the NBA if he hadn't flunked out sophomore year of college for various infractions caused by his incipient schizophrenia.
"It's Mike and Byron time!" he says.
It's a ritual that we've shared ever since I represented him pro bono on a trumped-up assault charge—we replay in pantomime Michael Jordan's game-winning shot over Utah's Byron Russell in the sixth game of the 1998 NBA finals. It started when he found out that I played in high school. Dennis always gets to play Jordan.
"Dennis, I can't—"
I've never refused him before, and despite the silliness of our trivial game, his eyes fill with a combination of confusion and disappointment. I respond to the disappointment part, because I rely on the trust of people like him. I assume my defensive stance, he pushes off though the offensive foul isn't called, and he sinks the imaginary shot. And all the while, I'm thinking Why am I letting my daughter languish in that jail even an extra thirty seconds? Yet, I simply can't let these people down, can't let Dennis down. I'll just have to drive faster.
We slap hands, and I sprint to my car, then drive to the jail through a fog of disbelief, fear, and anger. I've had practice doing this, unfortunately. Three times over the past nineteen months, I've posted bail for my seventeen-year-old, Daniel. Trespassing on school property, shoplifting, vandalism—petty crimes, but escalating. Somehow, the rides to the station to pick up my son seemed easier than this drive. Maybe it's because he's had behavioral problems since preschool, so the outcome seemed inevitable. Hailey has never been in trouble. Not like this.
I don't call Janet. She'll learn about this soon enough.
By the time I reach the station, I'm primed for battle. The cops won't get away with this. My next lawsuit against the department will be filed on behalf of Hailey Nicole Hovanes.
Walking through the entrance, I'm assaulted by bleak fluorescent lighting, a fusty odor of unbathed derelicts and underfunded budgets, and voices of the cynical and the desperate. This is no place for my daughter. I approach the watch commander, a brawny, clean-cut man in his thirties, and identify myself as Hailey's father and lawyer.
"I'm here to arrange for her immediate release," I say.
"You're Hovanes," he says, his tone accusatory. The police don't like lawyers who sue them. Worse, I was once a prosecutor, so they consider me a turncoat.
"I'm glad my reputation precedes me, officer. I'm sure it'll make things go a lot faster."
The cop makes a grand show of checking his computer and says, "She's still being processed. Take a seat in the lobby."
I lean over the counter. "Hailey is sixteen years old, and you're not going to keep her here any longer than it takes to unlock her cell."
"How are you, Matt?" someone behind me says.
I turn to find Detective Ernesto Velasquez. We worked together when I was at the district attorney's office. He's an honest cop. We were friends until I left the DA's office and began suing the department. I haven't seen him in a while, and he's aged. Wrinkles from excessive stress and too much sun score his face. His formerly jet-black hair has gone mostly gray.
"What's this about, Ernie?" I ask.
He leads me to an interior conference room and asks me to sit down.
"I don't want to sit down. I want to take my daughter home."
"It's not that simple. She's been charged with violating the cyber-stalking law. Using the internet to harass a classmate with the intent to cause severe emotional distress."
I shake my head, as much to clear it as to disclaim his statement. "You know how teenage kids are, especially girls. Hailey isn't a bully. She'd never intentionally harm anyone."
"The victim was Farah Medhipour."
I shudder. Farah was the fourteen-year-old at Hailey's school who committed suicide six weeks ago. Hailey mentored the younger girl at the start of the semester, and they were soccer teammates, but that doesn't mean they were close. The school held the obligatory grieving assembly and offered the obligatory student counseling, the local media reported the tragedy, and then everything went back to normal in the space of a week.
"We have compelling evidence that your daughter orchestrated a vicious harassment campaign against Farah with knowledge that the girl was suicidal," Velasquez continues. "Farah left a video as her suicide note. She said she couldn't stand the torture any longer, and she identified Hailey as her tormentor." He takes another deep breath. "The victim hanged herself on video. The DA is all over this one. He wants to try your daughter as an adult."
"That's absurd. She just turned sixteen."
"Her mature demeanor works against her."
I raise my hands in defiance. My daughter is being charged with a crime that could bring her a life sentence. The cops are calling her a cold-blooded killer.
Hailey is no murderer," I say. "The other girl took her own life."
"The charge isn't murder. Under the penal code—"
"I know the law as well as anyone, but I'm not talking about that right now, damn it. You're saying my daughter intentionally tried to hurt another human being. Hailey would never do that. And, if you want to talk about the law, there's never been a successful prosecution against a cyber stalker where the alleged victim committed suicide." I raise an index finger and point it at him as if I, not he, am the accuser. "Hailey's a juvenile with a spotless record. More importantly, she's innocent. Now, release her. I'm not leaving this place without her."
"We need to bring her in front of a judicial officer who'll set bail, and it's late. There's no time to do that today."
"If she's not released now, I'll ring up every superior court judge and crime reporter I know and tell them that the department and the DA want to put a child in an adult jail with a bunch of dangerous adult criminals. For a crime she didn't commit."
"Don't threaten me, Matt. I'm the lead investigator on this, and we have more than enough evidence against your daughter."
"Who's the assistant DA on the case?"
"Now I get it. That son of a bitch is putting my daughter through hell because he has a vendetta against me." Back in my days with the DA's office, Joshua Lundy and I were work buddies. We played basketball in the city leagues together, he the point guard and I the power forward, though that was thirty pounds ago. Then I discovered that he was withholding exculpatory evidence from defense counsel in a kidnapping case. He lied and claimed it was an oversight. When I blew the whistle, our superior backed him, so I quit and went into private practice. Lundy has held a grudge ever since. So have I.
"That's not what's going on here," Velasquez says. "You've spent your entire career involved in the criminal justice system. You know that the parents are always the last to accept the truth."
In that moment, I transform from combative lawyer to desperate, frightened parent. "I know my child. She's innocent. She's certainly not a flight risk or a danger to herself or others. She should be released on her own recognizance. Please, Ernie." I pause. "How's Maggie doing?"
Eight years ago, his youngest sister, Margaret, was charged with possession of crack cocaine with intent to sell. He hired me to defend her, and not only did I get the charges reduced to simple possession, but his sister avoided jail time and got into a diversion program.
"She's doing real good." He thinks for a long moment, then sighs. "I'll see what I can do."
I nod in gratitude, return to the main room, and sit down on an uncomfortable wooden bench. I pass the time speaking with a mother who's there to post bond for her son, another kid who's never been in trouble with the law. He had too many vodka and tonics at a frat party and then got stopped at a random highway-patrol checkpoint. I know she's hurting, but I envy her. This arrest will turn out to be a cheap but important lesson for her son. I don't know that I can say the same for my daughter. Just before her son is released, I give the woman the name of a friend of mine, the best driving-under-the-influence attorney in town.
Forty minutes later, Velasquez emerges from the back, escorting Hailey. She's a willowy brunette like her mother, tall like me. Statuesque like neither of us. Now, she's walking down the corridor poised and serene as an English duchess mingling with the commoners. The Hailey I know. All at once, I find this more distressing than her panicked phone call, because it isn't natural for a sixteen-year-old kid to behave this way. Not here and now. I blame those beauty pageants that Janet was obsessed with. Yes, my wife entered Hailey in kid beauty contests, JonBenét Ramsey's murder be damned. The pageants taught Hailey to pose and preen and behave like an adult when she was just a toddler. At the moment, adult is the last thing she should seem.
When I make a right turn out of the station parking lot, Hailey asks, "Where are you going, Dad?"
"Home. Where do you think—?"
"My car's at school."
That's what she cares about? I thought she'd want nothing more than to explain what happened.
"I'll take you to school tomorrow."
"Dad, I don't want—"
"Consider me your own personal Uber driver who's desperate to earn five stars—we'll get the car tomorrow. Tonight, why don't you tell me why the police think you had something to do with Farah's death."
"I have no idea."
"What was your relationship with the girl?"
"I was her mentor when she started ninth grade. She was on the soccer team, so they assigned me to her. She became obsessed with me, started stalking me. I told her to stop. That's it."
"Stalking you how?"
"Didn't Mom tell you about this?"
"This is the first I've heard about it. How did she stalk you?"
"Like sending creepy text messages. Acting like we were best friends when I wasn't her friend at all. We didn't want her in our group. That upset her, I guess. Then she hit on Aaron." Aaron is Hailey's boyfriend.
"Why would she accuse you of bullying her?"
"She's trying to stalk me from the grave, I guess."
"That sounds insensitive, Hailey. Under the circumstances, it's important that you don't—"
"Please don't lecture me. I'm having a bad day."
"Hailey, the cops don't just arrest people for no reason."
"You always say they do! I can't believe you're accusing me!"
"I'm not accusing you. I'm just trying to—"
She folds her arms tightly across her chest and retreats into that teenager's impenetrable shell of silence. When my daughter goes into that place, she's unreachable.
I process her reaction. The lawyer in me suspects she's hiding something. The father in me wants nothing more than to believe in her innocence. I must believe in her innocence.
Night has fallen. When I finally turn onto our street, I squint at the glare of flashing red and blue lights. A police patrol car is parked in front of our house. Our family's nightmare is just beginning.
Janet, arms crossed, is waiting on the porch, along with two uniformed officers.
"Why are they here?" she says as soon as I climb the steps.
I inhale deeply. "It's a mistake. Hailey was arrested for—"
"I know that, and of course it's a mistake," Janet says. "Why are they still here? I assumed you'd clear up this mess by now."
I shrug helplessly.
Almost looking amused, the older of the two officers—his nametag reads OFFICER CRANE—holds up a document and says, "Mr. Hovanes, we have a warrant directing us to seize all computers, smartphones, and tablets belonging to your family or otherwise located on the premises. We'll need you to gather the electronics and give them to us, and then we'll search the residence for any other device. We waited until you arrived to enter the residence, counselor. As a courtesy." From this guy's smirk, I can tell they waited so they could enjoy turning our house upside down while I was present.
"How very, very kind of you, Officer Crane," I say. "I wish the others in the department were so considerate of the people whose privacy they invade without probable cause." I take the warrant and read it carefully, searching for any irregularity that would allow me to quash it. Unfortunately, everything is in order.
An impassive Hailey hands her cell phone to the younger cop, an Officer Verlander.
I glance at Janet, who frowns but walks inside. The police follow, and Verlander begins in the living room, opening a drawer in the buffet in the dining area. I suspect the cops are going to use this warrant to tear the house apart.
"Please be careful," Janet says. "The china belonged to my mother."
"Yes, ma'am," Verlander says, and he seems to mean it, because he opens drawers in the buffet gingerly and doesn't throw anything on the floor. Crane begins rummaging through a media console, and he's much rougher.
My son appears from the hallway and moves within two feet of Verlander. Too close.
"Please step back," the cop says.
Daniel holds his ground. "This is an illegal search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. I know all about you fascist paramilitary types. I've been the victim of police brutality."
Daniel insists that after he was arrested the second time, the cops abused him in the patrol car. The cops told me he was lucky they didn't charge him with resisting. Since then, he's been obsessed with real or imagined police misconduct—not with the cases that I try, but with the dangerous drivel spouted by radical fringe groups that lurk in the dark recesses of the internet and call for violent resistance against the police and the US government. As hard as I've tried to explain that it's better to work within the system to effect change, he won't stop looking at that junk.
"Daniel, give the officer room so he can do his job," I say in my calmest voice.
To my relief, he steps back. But he says, "Why aren't you jerks out catching murderers and rapists instead of rousting an innocent family and harassing a sixteen-year-old girl? You guys have no balls. But I guess this is better than committing genocide against innocent black and Hispanic people."
Hailey goes into her bedroom and returns with her computer and smart tablet. "It's okay if you search my room," she says. "Just please don't make a mess."
"Show us your room," Officer Crane says to Daniel.
Daniel chortles, and then dashes into his bedroom and slams the door. The behavior is irrational for a seventeen-year-old, but Daniel is very immature. He's also something of a savant at using a computer and a whiz at video games. They're the only things that seem to interest him—that and his internet crusade against police misconduct. Now, these officers are about to deprive him of his most precious possessions.
The officers follow, and Crane orders Daniel to open the door.
"Fuck off, pigs!"
That's not what you say to a cop. Crane places a hand on his holster, and I take a step forward but stop when he drops his arm. Reason has overcome reflex for both of us—this time. What the cops don't realize is that Daniel is still a kid although he's a grown man physically—six foot one with a deep baritone. Grown men use profanity with cops at their own risk. I've represented quite a few clients who swore at cops and ended up hurt.
"Open the door, or we're coming in," Crane says.
When Daniel doesn't respond, Crane tries the handle. Daniel has locked the door.
"Last chance," Crane says in a tone that confirms he'd love to break in.
Janet looks on in distress, while Hailey observes this with a clinical frown, as if her brother were a lab rat in the midst of an experiment.
"Let me talk to my son," I say.
Crane doesn't react, but Verlander taps his partner on the arm, and Crane stands aside.
I knock and say firmly, "That's enough, Daniel. Open up and let them have your computer."
He opens the door a crack. "It's an illegal search and seizure. Stop them. You're a lawyer."
"That's exactly why we're going to follow the law. That's what lawyers do. These officers have a valid search warrant, and they're just doing their jobs."
Daniel glares at me, considering. It's that fragile moment when events could go either way. To my relief, he opens the door, fetches his computer, and shoves it into my hands. Then he tosses his cell phone and tablet at Crane's feet.
The officers spend the next half hour searching for other electronic devices, finding nothing. They do make a mess, but it could be worse, though I'm sure Janet doesn't see it that way. When they finish, they finally make the demand I've been dreading.
"You'll need to give us your computer and electronic devices, Mr. Hovanes," Crane says.
"I'm afraid that's not going to happen," I say. "It's my work computer and work phone. They both contain information protected by the attorney–client privilege. Including information about lawsuits that I have against your department. As far as my personal use goes, I borrow my wife's computer, which you already have."
"As you told your son, counselor, we have a valid search warrant and are just doing our jobs," Crane says. "Please surrender your phone and tell us where the computer is."
I pull out my cell phone, but instead of handing it over, I call Debra and inform her of the situation.
"I'm on it," she says and hangs up. She and I often read each other's thoughts.
Meanwhile, I stall for time. I argue the law, which doesn't impress the cops one whit. I call Ernesto Velasquez and ask him to tell his guys to back off, but he says he can't do anything without the approval of the district attorney. So I phone the DA's office and ask to speak with Joshua Lundy, but Lundy has left for the evening—or so the secretary claims.
"Hand over your electronic devices or we'll have to place you under arrest, sir." It's Verlander who makes this threat. So much for the good cop.
"Don't do it, Dad," Daniel says. "It'll bullshit."
"Stop it, Daniel," Janet says. "Matt, I don't understand what you're doing. Haven't—?"
- "Behind all the noise and the numbers, we shouldn't forget that no one gets this big without amazing natural storytelling talent--which is what James Patterson has, in spades."—Lee Child
- "It's no mystery why James Patterson is the world's most popular thriller writer: his uncanny skill in creating living, breathing characters we truly feel for and seamless, lightning-fast plots. I do this for a living, and he still manages to keep me guessing from the first to last page. Simply put: Nobody does it better."—Jeffrey Deaver
- "James Patterson is The Boss. End of."—Ian Rankin
- On Sale
- Sep 5, 2017
- Page Count
- 496 pages
- Grand Central Publishing