A year ago I left private practice to become the Executive Director of the Federal Defender Services of Idaho (FDSI). I became the head of the office, hoping to manage, supervise employees and practice federal criminal defense.

I had been handling federal criminal cases as private counsel and as a member of the Criminal Justice Act Panel (CJA) since leaving the Army in 1985. The Defender job seemed like a good fit, but by springtime I was seriously missing the courtroom and my old private practice. The Executive Director position simply did not provide enough time for me to be a good manager, good supervisor and stay active as a criminal trial lawyer.

By May, I had decided to return to private practice with my daughter. Back with old friends. Back with the wider variety of state cases and my year of experience focused solely on federal criminal law and procedure, I was ready to rejoin Peterson Lawyers.

Today I am back in my old office, with new clients coming through the door in search of help and advice in criminal cases before the state and federal courts.

Here are three things I take away from my year-long “federal only” experience.

  1.  The lawyers and staff at FDSI are great advocates. While they may not see as many trials as their private practice counterparts, the Assistant Federal Defenders there spend a ton of time focused on federal law, federal criminal procedure and federal sentencing. If you are in a federal criminal case you need a lawyer who can unravel the federal sentencing guidelines and who understands the impact of the latest cases from the Circuit Courts and the United States Supreme Court. Your future depends on that. Federal cases are different from state cases. Federal prosecutors (Assistant United States Attorneys) rely on their investigators and time to build nearly airtight cases before they seek an indictment. So if you are charged in a federal criminal case you need your own team of lawyers to level the playing field and to catch up with the team that built the case against you. You need experts in federal criminal law. FDSI lawyers are just that, and FDSI is staffed with great paralegals and investigators. As important, everyone at FDSI is committed to indigent defense and focused on the mission of providing the very best representation money cannot buy. Kudos to each and every one at FDSI, I will miss them.
  2. Winning criminal cases takes incredible preparation. Ok, this is not news but it was reaffirmed by the results I observed from the two trials the office defended during the past year. In each, the teamwork of the lawyers, paralegals, investigators and admin staff produced an approach that held the government at bay. In one case, a young man was acquitted of unlawfully possessing a handgun during an altercation with his ex-girlfriend. He had been told by deputies at the scene to turn the gun (the ex-girl friend’s gun) into the local police, and had done so. Federal charges followed and he was acquitted. Great teamwork by FDSI kept him free. Another case that had been ongoing for two years went to trial with nine defendants facing a variety of charges arising from the sale of cell phones – most of which had been refurbished. FDSI lawyers represented only one of the defendants, but they pulled the laboring oar for all the defendants and their lawyers (most were CJA lawyers) and not a single defendant was found guilty. Two defendants (both represented by CJA lawyers) were acquitted completely and the balance of the case was hung – meaning they face another 6-8 week trial this spring. I know from my experience handling state and federal trials, both civil and criminal cases, that the key to winning is preparation. Understanding the details of a case can take countless hours, but the best preparation will likely decide who wins. And in our business, winning is freedom.
  3. Federal criminal case experience is a huge benefit in ANY criminal case. Let’s say you are charged in Idaho state court with a possession of a controlled substance. You were stopped as you drove home around midnight, and the officer said you were speeding. Was there actually a legal basis for the stop? Were proper procedures followed to insure your rights were protected against an unreasonable search? Should your lawyer file a motion to suppress? How will the case be framed? (Coming soon – a discussion of case framing to win). Having a lawyer who has federal criminal law experience will greatly assist in deciding issues related to your case.

I mentioned the Criminal Justice Act above. CJA lawyers are selected and appointed by the federal courts to represent indigent defendants in conflict cases. CJA lawyers have ongoing training and yearly requirements to stay on the panel, assuring their clients they will have federal criminal case experience. That is a good thing. You want an experienced lawyer in your criminal case.

So if you are charged in a federal criminal case and you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, be assured that the FDSI will provide a great team to represent you. If they can’t do so because of a potential conflict, the Court may appoint a CJA lawyer to lead your defense. That lawyer will have federal criminal case experience and training that will benefit you greatly.

As for me, it’s back work doing what I love. Courtroom work. Jury trials. Engaging with nice folks facing tough situations in their lives. Lawyering.