Ninth Circuit Annoyed When Drug Agents Talk Like Joe Friday

court condemns police talk

Appellate court doesn't like drug agents talking like this guy.

In suppressing evidence in a drug case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had some harsh words for the federal drug agents who were involved.  The Court also did not take kindly to the trial judge threatening to put one of the lawyers in jail for failing to answer phone calls from the court reporter about a disputed bill.

But first, the court’s indictment of Dragnet-ese. The court did not like the way the drug agents talked, as it explained in a footnote (paragraph breaks inserted):

1. The agents involved speak an almost impenetrable jargon. They do not get into their cars; they enter official government vehicles. They do not get out of or leave their cars, they exit them. They do not go somewhere; they proceed. They do not go to a particular place; they proceed to its vicinity. They do not watch or look; they surveille. They never see anything; they observe it. No one tells them anything; they are advised.

A person does not tell them his name; he identifies himself. A person does not say something; he indicates. They do not listen to a telephone conversation; they monitor it. People telephoning to each other do not say “hello;” they exchange greetings. An agent does not hand money to an informer to make a buy; he advances previously recorded official government funds.

To an agent, a list of serial numbers does not list serial numbers, it depicts Federal Reserve Notes. An agent does not say what an exhibit is; he says that it purports to be. The agents preface answers to simple and direct questions with “to my knowledge.” They cannot describe a conversation by saying “he said” and “I said;” they speak in conclusions. Sometimes it takes the combined efforts of counsel and the judge to get them to state who said what.

Under cross-examination, they seem unable to give a direct answer to a question; they either spout conclusions or do not understand. This often gives the prosecutor, under the guise of an objection, an opportunity to suggest an answer, which is then obligingly given.

As a side issue, the opinion contains a lengthy discussion of an incident in which the trial judge humiliated one of the defense lawyers in court and threatened to send him to jail for raising questions about the court reporter’s fee. The court reporter, who charged by the page, indented the text on each page so it began in the middle of the page, used only 25 lines of type per page instead of the standard 28, and used a font that was larger than normal. The lawyer tried to present an affidavit establishing that the transcript was twice as long as it needed to be, and thus twice as costly. The judge’s response? Here’s a snippet:

MR. LANGER (defense counsel): You say you spoke to me?

THE REPORTER: No. [TO JUDGE:] He wouldn’t even answer my phone calls.

MR. LANGER: Your Honor–

THE COURT: I know it. That is another thing. I ought to throw you in jail for not doing that, for not answering the phone calls of the reporter.

The Ninth Circuit disapproved of the trial judge’s conduct.

United States v. Marshall, 488 F.2d 1169, 1171 n.1, 1200 (9th Cir. 1973). Thanks to Frank Zotter.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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