The Virginia Verdict Review

Comprehensive and Informative Commentary on State and Federal Legal Matters

Monthly Archives: July 2011

To Protect and Serve [the interests of the state budget]

The Commonwealth’s latest installment of its traffic enforcement crack-down, Operation Air, Land & Speed, cited over 4,500 Virginia drivers this past weekend.  As was reported by Richmond media channel WHSV-TV, this particular rendition of the Commonwealth’s new favorite traffic control program, which seems to be implemented sporadically every few months, involved a coordinated police effort to patrol all 300 miles of I-64, all 177 miles of I-95, and all 325 miles of I-81.  By weekends end, a total of 3,590 speeding tickets, 897 reckless driving tickets, 18 drunk driving arrests, and 17 drug and felony arrests were handed out to traveling motorists by everybody’s favorite boys in blue.

When asked to expound upon the purpose of Operation Air, Land & Speed, Virginia State Police Superintendent, Colonel W. Steven Flaherty, stated that the purpose of this operation was “to encourage drivers to make safety a priority when driving on Virginia’s interstates.”  Flaherty also expressed his surprise that so many were “willing to break the law, despite a heightened presence of troopers on patrol”–an indication the Superintendent Flaherty believes the citizens of the Commonwealth were adequately notified that there would be an additional police presence this weekend and chose to break the law anyway.

While the VSP’s motivations may, in fact, be at least partially true, one should be sure to take them in with a generous helping of salt.  After all, when one considers that traffic fines are one of the Commonwealth’s most productive forms of raising revenue without raising taxes and then considers this in light of the current financial crisis, it seems hard to ignore the possibility that this weekend’s “operation” might also have been financially motivated.  To put this into perspective, consider that, in accordance with Virginia Code 46.2-878.3, the standard rubric for assessing fines on speeding tickets mandates a $6 fine for each mile per hour the driver was exceeding the posted speed limit.  Assuming that 1) the average speed limit on the three highways in question is 60 mph, 2) that the average driver is not ticketed for speeding unless they are going at least 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, and 3) that all of the tickets handed out are paid in full (which I seriously hope they are not), then that means that the average speeding ticket carried with it a $60 fine (before court costs), allowing the Commonwealth to gross $215,400 in speeding tickets alone, in one weekend.  This calculation is even more staggering when extrapolated out to cover all 178,766 traffic summonses and arrests that have come of Operation Air, Land & Speed since its inception in 2006.  When these cases are taken into account, the “operation” has brought in roughly $10,725,960 in the last 5 years.  When one adds in the $72 court cost associated with each ticket, these figures jump to $473,880 on the weekend and an astonishing $25,591,112 in the last 5 years.

If you happen to be one of 4,500 unfortunate drivers affected by this weekend’s sting, feel free to contact my office at (703) 406-7611 or visit our website.  We would love to help address this issue with you.

Shades of Grey: Finding justice in the Casey Anthony verdict

Every so often, cases come up that capture the public interest, pull at our heartstrings, and then, once the verdict rolls in, cause us to question the efficiency and/or morality of our justice system.  Like the O.J. Simpson trial in the 90s, the Casey Anthony trial of this year has had exactly this effect on the millions of Americans who tuned in, if only briefly, to its details.  In days and weeks following the trial, news casts have become filled with heated discussions of the “injustice” of Casey Anthony’s acquittal, social media sites haven become laden with posts lamenting the verdict, and petitions have been circulated advocating changing the law to get prevent similar instances from occurring in the future.

The problem with these reactions is not that they are wrong or unfounded.  I think we can all agree that anytime a person loses their life, let alone an innocent child like Caylee, anyone who is complicit in their death should be held responsible to the full extent of the law.  What is problematic or concerning about these reactions is that they ignore the most important fact of all: Casey Anthony was acquitted by a jury of her peers in a fair and legal trial in a court of law.  This does not mean that she was not involved in some way with her daughter’s death.  There is, after all, a substantial, though often overlooked, difference between “not guilty” and “innocent”.  With this in mind, Anthony’s acquittal only means that the state did not provide suffiecent evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that she was guilty of the specific charges levied against her.  The government failed to hold to the heavy burden which, for centuries, we have held it to.  As I posted on my Facebook page the day after the verdict was handed down:

“First degree murder requires a premeditated act in specific intent to kill. Second degree murder in Fla. is killing during the commission of another crime. Manslaughter can be the causing of the death of one under 18 by culpable negligence. Because the prosecutor sought the death penalty (my view largely to increase their own exposure), they over-charged and got the right verdict.”

Given an understanding of the specifications of the charges brought against Anthony, the real injustice surrounding the verdict becomes clear: the state of Florida sought the maximum punishment possible–the death penalty–rather than limit their charges those which they had sufficient evidence to prove.  Ultimately, it was this error in judgement, as well as what now appears to be potentially serious ethical lapses, not the actions of the defense attorney or the decision of the jury, that prevented those responsible for Caylee’s death from being held accountable for their crimes.

Lastly, before joining the bandwagon of those claiming outrage over Casey Athony’s release, consider this blunt, but true statement: while Casey Anthony’s acquittal did not provide accountability for her daughter’s death, as many hoped it would, the verdict insures that Justice (capital J intended) lives on for the rest of us.  We all cringe at the notion that a beautifully innocent child has lost her life and that no one will be held accountable for her death.  However, the alternative– a world in which someone can be found guilty and sentenced to death for a crime which specifications are not fully supported by the available evidence–is a far worse reality to imagine and is one that would hold much more serious consequences for all Americans.  So, while I join all those who mourn the death of Caylee Anthony and the thousands of others like her, I urge you to stand with me in applauding the fact that, thanks to a jury that remained focused on the facts despite media frenzy, the legal system operated as it was intended to in this case.  Though this may seem an insufficient victory to some, I at least rest more peacefully knowing that I can rely on a jury of my peers to save me from an over-zealous prosecutor.

Show Me The Money: Personal Injury takes the lead in million dollar verdicts, but money often hard to collect

Attorneys at Westlake Legal take pride in their ability to advocate for clients, and are currently eligible for membership in the Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum with more than four judgments in excess of $1 million dollars (one for $1.125 million, one for $2 million, one for $3.5 million, and one for $15 million).  However, although Westlake Legal has had success in collecting verdict awards for its clients, recent research highlights that this is not always the case.

In this week’s edition of Virginia Lawyers Weekly, author Paul Fletcher tips his hat to two Richmond lawyers for winning the largest jury award since 1986.  Discussion of the case, in which the jury originally awarded $212 million to a Vietnam vet who suffered brain damage as a result of a botched Botox injection, brings to light a number of important facets of high-payoff personal injury (“PI”) cases such as this.

For starters, it is noted that “PI [cases] lead the way” when it comes to multi-million dollar jury awards.  Of the top 25 Verdicts of the last 25 years, as ranked by Virginia Lawyers Weekly, ten involved a personal injury component.  That is a staggering 40%.  Put in terms of the men and women that fight for these million dollar verdicts, only 4,000 lawyers nation-wide claim membership in the “Million Dollar Advocates” Forum, and fewer have claimed membership in the “Multi-Million Dollar Advocates” Forum, organizations comprised primarily of personal injury and or/wrongful death lawyers who have won verdicts in excess of $1 million.  Considering the shear magnitude of attorneys out there and the even greater number of trials that take place each year, both of these statistics are pretty outstanding.

However, while large verdicts  dominate the news on million dollar verdicts, the statistics can often be misleading.  Put more bluntly, there is a BIG difference between what the jury awards and what the plaintiff receives in terms of cold, hard cash.  Take, for example, the previously mentioned list of top 25 verdicts in Virginia.  In six of these cases (more than 20%), the plaintiff ended up empty-handed because of an appeal.  In another 11 cases, the case was either settled for less in lieu of an appeal, or the judge granted a post-trial motion that drastically reduced the amount awarded by the verdict (in some cases by more than a factor of 10).  When you count the additional five cases that made the list but are still out on appeal, you end up with 23 out of the original 25 cases that either resulted in or have the potential to result in a actual payout that is substantially less than the original verdict awarded.

To further illustrate, the $212 million dollar verdict referenced above was reduced to $12.5 million dollars.  Of course, in order to have such a reduction, you need to get the big verdict in the first place.  Westlake Legal is available for your inquiries.

Disclaimer:  Virginia Verdict Review is not an advertisement, it is a blog.  The views and opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of attorney Thomas K. Plofchan, Jr. or the author of any individual post, should guest authors be used.  The purpose of these articles is to inform the public regarding various issues involving the criminal justice system.  Information posted on this blog should not be construed as legal advice or to suggest that a similar outcome can be guaranteed in any other case.

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Ever wonder how you can best protect yourself from frivolous lawsuits and/or steer clear of legal troubles?  Want to know if recent State or Federal court decisions will impact your daily life?  Are you looking for some common-sense commentary that makes the complicated legal world a bit more clear?  Look no further than The Virginia Verdict Review!  It is our goal to provide relevant, informative commentary/analysis of recent court decisions that have the potential to impact life in the Commonwealth, as well as to educate the average Virginian on some simple legal concepts that can help keep you out of legal trouble.

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