One of the most difficult decisions for a criminal defence lawyer to make is whether to put your client on the witness stand during a jury trial.
Your client needs to be credible, to present well and be able to withstand lengthy cross-examination without losing their temper or coming across as rude or arrogant. They need to listen to the questions and answer only those questions – without giving long and convoluted answers which provide the prosecutor with fuel for further questioning. They need to tell the prosecutor if they don’t understand a question or don’t recall an event, or part of an event – without guessing or making-up their testimony.
But the issue of credibility took on a whole new meaning in a recent UK case, where a man standing trial for drug importation and trafficking brought a large quantity of cocaine with him to the stand.
24-year-old Waqas Khan was on trial for conspiracy to supply heroin and cocaine. Although he was ultimately acquitted of those charges, he was caught with a large bag of cocaine in his possession during the court proceedings after acting intoxicated.
He pleaded guilty to drug possession and was sentenced to 21 months imprisonment.
Detective Inspector Paul Baron made his feelings about the conduct abundantly clear:
“To turn up in the dock with class A drugs on him shows a complete and utter disregard to the law. Khan’s actions were beyond belief and I’m pleased that he will face a custodial sentence.”
But this is certainly not the only case where people have turned up to court intoxicated:
Drunk but not always disorderly
In 1968, a criminal defence lawyer in Washington DC, Mr Brownlow, had a ‘lunch cocktail’ before heading to court – where he delivered a long and rambling opening statement.
The judge grew suspicious when it became evidence out that Mr Brownlow had appeared in the wrong courtroom for the wrong trial!
The following exchange then took place:
JUDGE: Have you been drinking?
BROWNLOW: I had a cocktail at lunch
JUDGE: This morning?
JUDGE: In my opinion, Mr. Brownlow, you are under the influence of alcohol in my court, at this moment.
BROWNLOW: Do you think so, Your Honour?
JUDGE: Indeed I do.
BROWNLOW: I don’t.
Mr Brownlow was charged with ‘contempt of court’ for his behaviour.
And earlier this year, a woman by the name of Ms Smith attended Brisbane District Court for allegedly breaching a suspended prison sentence. When she appeared to be intoxicated, the judge ordered a medical test to determine whether she was of sound mind.
The test revealed that Ms Smith was drunk, which caused the judge to revoke her bail and remand her in custody to face court later that week.
Contempt of Court in NSW
Contempt of court is defined as an act that interferes with, or undermines, the authority of the court, or the dignity of the courts, or those that participate in court.
Contempt can be either criminal or civil, and the two categories can sometimes overlap.
Examples of criminal contempt of court were outlined by Justice McHugh in the case of Witham v Holloway (1995) 183 CLR 525, who found that they include:
- Defiance of the court or its procedures,
- Publishing matters that scandalise the court,
- Any act that can interfere with a fair trial,
- Threatening parties or witnesses in a trial, and
- Misconduct within the court.
It was held that civil contempt of court could also include failing to comply with certain types of court orders and judgements
Being Rude or Discourteous
Rudeness and discourtesy is not usually considered to be enough to consitute contempt of court.
In the Victoria case of Ferguson v Walkley (2008) 180 A Crim R 294, Justice Harper found that:
“It is no offence simply to be angry with the authorities (including, of course, judicial authority). Some people can articulate their anger in measured language that clearly explains their reasons for feeling as they do. Others, especially when their anger is combined with high emotional stress, or alcohol, or other debilitating factors, cannot.”
That said, it is never in a person’s interest to lose their cool inside the courtroom – whether they are a defendant, complainant, lawyer or prosecutor.
Rather, keeping calm in a stressful situation can be seen as the mark of a person of good character – which can be particularly helpful to those charged with offences of violence or public disorder.
Equally, being able to deal with an obnoxious or rude magistrate, judge or witness without becoming flustered or losing control can ultimately win a lawyer the respect of the court – which can, in turn, be highly beneficial to the client.
However, dealing with an intoxicated client –or one who brings drugs to court – is another kettle of fish.