Friday, July 6, 2007

The Road to Legal Perdition

Prepare yourself for a journey into the land where the law does not always make sense. In fact, in this land, the law sometimes contradicts itself. And regular folks, like you and me, can suffer the consequences.

This can happen even when we are in one of our most vulnerable moments--as the victims of a crime.

In our previous post we showed that, under the law, an acquittal is a relatively weak finding. In fact, the United States Supreme Court has found that "an acquittal is not a finding of any fact. . . . (It) can only be an acknowledgment that the government failed to prove an essential element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt." Furthermore, the nation's highest court has held that "acquittal on criminal charges does not prove that the defendant is innocent; it merely proves the existence of a reasonable doubt as to his guilt."

So if an acquittal is such a flimsy finding, how is it that a defendant who is acquitted of criminal charges can turn around and sue the person who signed the criminal complaint against him? That is exactly what happened to me, and it can happen to you if you are ever the victim of a crime.

In an earlier post, I noted that my road to legal perdition started when my Neighbor From Hell (NFH) repeatedly committed a crime against my wife and me. When I told NFH to refrain from violating our rights under the law, he threatened to sue me.

I took this threat seriously enough that I contacted an attorney acquaintance of mine. The attorney told me that NFH was violating criminal law and offered to write a warning letter that he thought would solve the problem. The attorney wrote the letter, but it didn't solve the problem.

When NFH continued to commit the crime, I consulted the district attorney's office in my county and swore out a criminal complaint against NFH. The case went to a bench trial in district court in Shelby County, Alabama, and NFH was acquitted.

Now, we've just learned that the U.S. Supreme Court has found that "acquittal on criminal charges does not prove that the defendant is innocent." But acquittal, in Alabama and other states, gives the criminal defendant a weapon he can use to punish the victim who had the audacity to seek justice.

The weapon is a tort known as malicious prosecution. Criminal defendants who are acquitted (such as my Neighbor From Hell) often sue their victims for malicious prosecution and an associated tort known as false imprisonment. In Alabama--and I believe this is true in all other states--malicious prosecution is considered a "disfavored tort." It receives that label because citizens who feel they have been wronged, either criminally or civilly, are supposed to be able to seek redress in court without fear of being sued.

That's how things stand in theory. But in reality, crime victims are sued all the time by acquitted defendants--you are victimized by the crime and then victimized by a lawsuit.

My Neighbor From Hell was charged with a very low level crime--criminal trespass, third degree. In Alabama, this crime is considered a "violation," which is even lower than a misdemeanor.

But victims of serious crimes can still find themselves on the receiving end of a malicious prosecution lawsuit. All it takes is for the person who violated you the first time to find an unethical attorney who has no problem filing a lawsuit for a "disfavored tort." And my Neighbor From Hell found just such an attorney in Bill Swatek.

We will provide much more detail on the concept of malicious prosecution, and the threat it poses to crime victims.

But for the moment, let's savor this lovely contradiction in our justice system: An acquittal, under the law, is not a finding of fact and does not mean a criminal defendant is innocent. But a criminal defendant can take an acquittal and sue the person he victimized.

And the victim can wind up spending thousands of dollars and several years of his life (not to mention many sleepless nights) having to defend himself against a lawsuit that, in theory, is not supposed to be filed.

Does that sound fair and just to you? I didn't think so.

Could this happen to you? You bet it could.

One of my goals here at Legal Schnauzer is to help ensure that it doesn't happen to you. And to expose the corrupt judges, attorneys, and prosecutors who allow it to happen.

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