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Thursday, January 29, 2009

As the Legal World Turns

Some curious cases are making their way through the briar patch of American justice. Here is a Schnauzer wrapup:

A Stripper's Story
I'm not the savviest blogger in cyberspace, but even I pretty quickly grasped one of the truths of the trade: If you want to increase traffic to your site, figure out a way to write something--anything--that has to do with sex.

We recently wrote about the growing incidence of online porn in the workplace (here and here) and immediately saw our traffic shoot up. That's why Legal Schnauzer readers can look forward to upcoming posts about "Online Porn and the Crisis in Gaza," "Online Porn and the Music of Gilbert O'Sullivan," and "Online Porn and the Heartbreak of Psoriasis."

But seriously folks, we have a sex-related legal case in Birmingham that demands discussion. Patsy Hamaker, a dancer at a local strip club called The Furnace, claims that mandatory on-the-job drinking led to a drunken car crash that left her disfigured and with a broken back.

Hamaker sued The Furnace, seeking compensation for medical and vehicle-repair bills, lost income, and punitive damages. The club says Hamaker is responsible for her injuries. A judge recently refused to dismiss the lawsuit, and the case is set for trial in October 2009.

Court papers offer a behind-the-scene glimpse at the stripping business. Consider these insights:

* Dancers must enter the club from a side door--never using the front entrance--and surrender their car keys when they arrive;

* Under house rules, dancers are to subtly encourage customers to buy them "dancer drinks," ranging in price from $12 to $2,500. (What on earth is in a $2,500 drink?!) Dancers get the drink and $5 to $900 from each sale;

* Dancers must pass a breathalyzer test before receiving their car keys, the house rules say. But Hamaker and a former manager filed sworn statements saying they never saw the breathalyzer used for dancers;

* A "house mother" inspects the dancers to ensure that no body parts are exposed that the law requires to be covered;

* Dancers pay a series of fees after work, including $3 to the house mother, $10 to the DJ, and a $35 "house fee." Security is supposed to escort dancers to their cars after work;

* The club has a dancers' manual that takes a pep-rally approach to the business at hand. It's all part of what the club calls "Showtime." And here's a shocking revelation: Women taking off their clothes is the prime attraction at The Furnace. "We make the difference," the manual says in all capital letters. "Not the tables, not the chairs, not the bars, and not the lights."

Gee, I could have sworn that guys go to strip clubs to check out the furniture.

A Coach is Charged with Homicide?
A high-school football coach in Kentucky has been charged with reckless homicide in the heat-related death of a 15-year-old player who collapsed while running sprints in August heat.

David Jason Stinson, head coach at Pleasure Ridge Park High School in Louisville, pleaded not guilty in the death of offensive lineman Max Gilpin.

It is believed to be the first case in the nation where a coach faces criminal charges for the death of a player on his team.

Gilpin's parents have filed a lawsuit against Stinson and his coaching staff. The case has generated national attention and strong emotions in Louisville.

Unfortunately, heat-related deaths connected to August football practices are not uncommon. The mainstream media has addressed the issue, and academic researchers in Alabama have studied it. During my newspaper days, I covered the funeral of a University of Alabama defensive tackle who died during a practice in the mid 1980s.

Lawsuits, against coaches, trainers, school officials, are to be expected in cases like these. But to charge the coach with a crime? That has the smell of grandstanding on the part of David Stengel, the Jefferson County Commonwealth attorney who is handling the case.

The reckless homicide statute from the Kentucky Code is short and to the point. I'm sure the full statute and the case law provide more details about the elements of the crime.

Even if the prosecution is successful at the trial level, our research indicates that reckless-homicide convictions often do not hold up on appeal.

In a 2001 Kentucky case, a father was convicted of reckless homicide based partly on his failure to obey the state's seatbelt-restraint law in an accident that caused the death of his daughter. The conviction was overturned.

In a 2007 Kentucky case, a man was convicted of reckless homicide based partly on the fact that his vehicle had worn tires when he was involved in an accident that led to a death. The conviction was overturned.

State of mind is a critical component in this crime. And Kentucky statute states in pertinent part:

A person acts recklessly with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the result will occur or that the circumstance exists. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.

The heat index on the day in question was reported to be 94, which means the temperature probably was in the high 80s. That's not excessively hot, and it's hard to see how a coach conducting football practice in such weather would have a state of mind that could justify a criminal indictment. Did Stinson exhibit a "gross deviation from the standard of care" that a reasonable person would observe? I don't see it, and I don't understand how a prosecutor could see it?

I'm sure more information will be coming out on this case. But for now, the prosecutor's actions smell like those of Mike Nifong in the Duke lacrosse rape case.

Victims of Sexual Harassment Receive Added Protection
Here's a case that will make you ask: "Why did this have to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before what should have been an obvious standard was settled law?"

Believe it or not, an employee who voiced complaints about a supervisor in a sexual-harassment case had no protection against being dismissed or demoted. Protection did exist for an employee who made discrimination complaints. But an employee who was interviewed as part of an investigation was vulnerable to being fired or demoted.

A 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Monday changed that. The case involves a woman who was fired after she agreed to be interviewed by a human-resources officer as part of a sexual-harassment investigation. The officer asked if she had witnessed inappropriate behavior, and the woman said she had seen a male supervisor grab his crotch and make crude comments to several women.

The woman now will be able to sue on grounds that she was fired in retaliation for speaking candidly in the sexual-harassment investigation. It's mind-boggling that the right to sue under such conditions was granted only four days ago.

Cheerleading Becomes a Contact Sport
High-school cheerleading is a contact sport, and its participants cannot be sued for accidentally causing injuries, according to a ruling from the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The court ruled that a former cheerleader cannot sue a teammate who failed to stop her fall while she was practicing a stunt. The court also said the cheerleader cannot sue her school district.

Brittany Noffke fell backwards off the shoulders of another cheerleader and suffered a serious head injury. She sued a male teammate who was supposed to be her spotter but failed to catch her.

Noffke's attorney argued that contact sports should include only aggressive sports such as football and hockey. But the court found that contact sports include any sport that includes "physical contact between persons."

This brought back frightening memories for your humble blogger. I was covering a college basketball game in the early 1980s when a cheerleader fell backward off a pyramid. A single male teammate was the spotter, but he wasn't looking and failed to catch her. She crashed to the floor, about 15 to 20 feet from where I was sitting. Thankfully, I was looking down and didn't see the accident. But I still remember the sickening thud of the young woman hitting the floor. Remarkably, she was shaken but not badly hurt. Even after she was examined, I believe doctors found that she did not even have a concussion. Being in good shape, and hitting the floor in the best possible position, probably saved her from a catastrophic injury or death.

I'm still amazed that cheerleaders are allowed to do some of the dangerous stunts they try. Whatever happened to "rah, rah, sis, boom bah?"

A Quarterback and the World's Dumbest Criminals
It's Super Bowl week, so we need to conclude with a legal case involving football.

This one comes from Donovan McNabb, the star quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles who has an off-season home in Chandler, Arizona. When McNabb's Eagles were about to play the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL playoffs, a couple of Arizona fans decided to have a little fun with the opposing QB.

First, the fans hung a Cardinals flag in one of McNabb's trees. McNabb laughed it off and even left the flag hanging.

The fans returned and left a cardboard box in McNabb's driveway, with "Go Cards" written on one side and "Beat Philly" on the other. McNabb thought that was funny, too.

But the quarterback stopped laughing when he went outside one morning, smelled diesel fuel, and realized someone had burned Cardinals cheers into his lawn, causing about $2,000 in damage.

Here's the great part: Police checked the box that had been left on McNabb's driveway and found an address. That led them to 37-year-old Chandler resident Rex Perkins, who later admitted to the pranks. Perkins helpfully admitted that a co-worker, 28-year-old Ryan Hanlon also was involved.

Memo to stupid criminals: Don't leave your address at the crime scene.

Some of our favorite stories here at Legal Schnauzer involve the incredibly dumb things people do while committing crimes. Who is the world's dumbest criminal? Well, the Arizona brainiacs will have to go a ways to top this guy:

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