Monday, July 20, 2009

Technically speaking...

Technicality: something technical; especially, a detail meaningful only to a specialist.

Technical: 1a: having special and usually practical knowledge especially of a mechanical or scientific subject technical consultant b: marked by or characteristic of specialization (technical language) 2 a: of or relating to a particular subject

We hear people complain about criminal defendants getting off on "technicalities", so let's at least think about what that really means. First, let's keep in mind that in most cases, when you hear about a defendant having a conviction overturned on appeal (on a "technicality"), that just means that the defendant will get a new trial at which all those pesky "technical" rules will be followed.

Now, if a "technicality" is a detail meaningful only to a specialist, I guess that means that things like due process, search warrants, the right against self-incrimination, the right to effective assistance of counsel, the right to a speedy trial by a jury, and the right against cruel and unusual punishment are details that are not meaningful to the majority of the public. Instead, those technical details must only be meaningful to lawyers. Ok, so maybe the general public really isn't interested in the technical requirements of the 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments. I sincerely hope that's not the case, but maybe I just have to accept that's so.
And maybe the general public doesn't care about the ins and outs of how we instruct juries, what evidence is and is not admitted at trial, etc.

But even then, even if all those constitutional and statutory requirements can properly be labeled "technicalities", why does that mean there's somehow something invalid about a defendant receiving some form of relief when one of those "technicalities" is violated in his case? When I hire an electrician to do work at my house, she has to pay attention to a whole lot of technical details that mean nothing to me because I don't understand them. But when the city inspector comes and finds a problem with one of those "technicalities", I sure as hell expect the electrician to redo the work. Otherwise, I might worry about my house burning down.

So, maybe the reasons why some criminal defendants get new trials or even get off completely don't seem meaningful to the general public, but maybe the general public should consider that the lawyers and judges involved in the case do care about those technical details and do understand why they matter so much. And that, like with the electrical wiring in houses, it's important when we do make a mistake with one of those technical details that we go back and redo the work. A house won't burn down if we don't, but the wrong person may get convicted or the government may violate more and more of our rights.

I'm still not willing to concede that the rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights are "technicalities" instead of matters of tremendous meaning and importance to all of us. But even if they are just technical details that aren't meaningful to most people, that doesn't mean the detailed rules we lawyers insist on following in criminal trials aren't significant. Nowhere in the definition of "technical" or "technicality" will you find the words "trivial" or "unimportant."

1 comment:

Language Lover said...

I still remember when you said to me, "The Constitution is not a technicality." Indeed, that characterization of defendants' rights by a term that implies nitpicking and insignificance does great disservice to our justice system.

I was rightly put in my place, and I don't think I have ever been prouder to be your friend than I was in that moment.

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