An experienced criminal lawyer I know says you haven’t really practiced criminal law until you’ve represented gypsies. He’s right. These children of Romany are literally a breed unto themselves. They bring an unmatched sense of adventure to the practice of criminal law.
The starting point with every gypsy case is the crime. It is inevitably a flimflam; perhaps a garden variety pickpocket, a somewhat more elegant boosting or shoplift, a water thin driveway resurfacing, or the water company “We’re here to check your meter, ma’am” scam which has defrauded more than one gullible widow of her life’s savings. Whatever the particulars, the common ingredient is always fraud, laced with chutzpah, flavored with the smell of garlic and spiced with the ever-present sympathetic and unhappy victim. These cases have adventure written all over them.
No lawyer ever enters a gypsy case on their own. It is always done through an intermediary, always a self-appointed “Prince” or “King” of the gypsies in the geographic area in which his countrymen have been wrongfully accused. Each of these gypsy royals has a wide jurisdiction, covering many states. When a gypsy — any gypsy — within that jurisdiction is arrested, the King or Prince appears and engages an attorney. For this he receives a finder’s fee from the accused and his family.
The Fee Negotiation.
Negotiating a legal fee for a gypsy defendant through an intermediary is a bit like doing a mating dance with a praying mantis. First is the preening. The Prince sits before you accompanied by at least one indignant relative and, if not yet apprehended, the woebegone defendant. The Prince knows of you, of your sterling reputation, how you and only you are capable or representing his comrades in their hour of need.
“Well, yes, I have had some experience in matters like these. Yes, I do know the judge; I have appeared before him recently; I’d certainly like to think I can get a good result. Of course I will need $X to appear in the case.”
“Well, yes, precisely, Attorney. Of course we would be happy to pay you, but perhaps you could first make a telephone call the to prosecutor to see if the charges can be dropped or reduced. This is a young man. I am sure there was some mistake. The police have no proof. I am sure you can convince the prosecutor not to press forward.”
“Well, my policy is not to talk to prosecutors until I am paid. The prosecutor won’t talk to me until I have an appearance in the file; and I’m not filing an appearance until I’m paid. I’ve told you what I need and I don’t intend to do anything until payment is made.”
“Of course. Of course. But perhaps you could just call over to see what the bond is. I assure you, you will be paid.”
And, of course, the call is made. Representation without adequate compensation has begun. The praying mantis has engaged the object of its affection.
The Plea Bargain.
Very often a gypsy case can be effectively resolved at arraignment. Having been caught in the act — a female flimflammer was once described in newspaper accounts as running down the street from the victim’s house with her skirt pulled over her head leaving the rest
au naturale — and taken into custody, the defendants adopt a Slavic-sounding language to use on their captors. Unable to decipher what is being said, the police hold them for court. The bail commissioners at the courthouse, attempting to determine identity call the nearest university and ask for a Hungarian interpreter who, upon arrival, announces that the prisoners don’t really speak Hungarian, but rather a dialect like Hungarian but closer to Romanian, or perhaps Polish. A second call to the university. While this ballet of uninterpretable tongues spins out of control — a new dialect for each new interpreter — time passes, other cases are called, the docket is now empty except for these two defendants whom no one can communicate with, and the judge is anxious to go home. The prosecutor is now ready to talk. The uninterpretable language ploy triumphs again.
“How about they put up a $2,500 cash bond each and we’ll give it a long continuance date?”
“Done. About that date, you don’t really expect them to come back to court, do you?”
“Of course not. Let me talk to the Prince.”
And so a private conversation occurs between the prosecutor and the Prince which amounts to an “out of town by sundown” commitment by the Prince and a promise that these particular miscreants won’t return to this jurisdiction for a specified period of time. The agreed-upon cash bond is posted only to be forfeited later when the defendants fail to appear. More than one widow has been spared the future loss of her savings by such negotiations between a savvy prosecutor and a trustworthy gypsy royal.
Speed is of the essence in these negotiations. The unstated given to this drama — known to all players — is that proper identification of those in custody will likely reveal a complication that neither side wants: the true identity of and, more importantly, the actual criminal record of the individuals in custody, including outstanding warrants.
The out of town by sundown defense works in many instances, often at arraignment. There are those cases, however, that require an intense application of that special gypsy mystique: cash money. Speed remains an essential ingredient of these negotiations as well. True identity is fatal to a successful gypsy defense.
True identity in fact is also fatal to a successful prosecution. Gypsy cases, after all, are flimflams. They are not crimes of violence. They are thievery by a guile and boldness that is curiously admirable and amusing if you’re not the victim.
So a gypsy prosecution, then, is in many ways like the successful prosecution of a personal injury case: the prosecutor tries to make the victim whole. Jail won’t solve anyone’s problem. To that end the gypsies will devote cash, piles of cash. It is produced through waves of tears and great protestation. But when absolutely necessary — and not a moment before — it is produced. And it is produced with such drama, such emotion and demonstrations of excruciating pain, that this part of the process is almost always worth the price of admission.
Gypsies turn the concept of restitution into a death-defying high-wire adventure PT Barnum would admire. A frequent dialogue begins with the client’s protestation that there was enough cash to pay the fine but not enough for the lawyer’s fee. The attorney then reminds the client that no, there may be enough money for the fee, but what is missing is enough money for the fine. And in the end when the lawyer has been paid and the judge calls the case, like the loaves and fishes, there is, miraculously, enough money for the fine.
It is said by some that if the problem is money, it’s not a problem. This is somewhat true of gypsy cases. While money is always the solution, getting it is the problem. That’s where the adventure comes in.