The Little Things Matter

You may have been following the criminal case against Jeronimo Yanez – he’s the St. Anthony police officer who shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop last year. Yesterday, his attorneys asked the Minnesota Court of Appeals to reverse the Ramsey County District Court’s decision not to move Yanez’s trial to a different county. You can find the document, a petition for a writ of mandamus, here.

I’m not familiar enough with the case to be able to opine on the merits of the petition. What caught my eye, though, are some small errors that make a big difference. For example, the caption of the filing (the top of the first page) starts out with a goof. Minnesota Rule of Civil Appellate Procedure 120.01 provides that “[t]he petition shall be titled ‘In re (name of petitioner), Petitioner,’ followed by the trial court caption . . . .” Thus, the case name in the petition should read “In re Jeronimo Yanez, Petitioner, State of Minnesota, Plaintiff, vs. Jeronimo Yanez, Defendant.” Further down on the page, Mr. Castile’s first name is misspelled “Philado.” On the next page, “sheer” is misspelled as “shear,” and one sentence reads, in part, “the incident . . . has since been constantly report in the Twin Cities news media.” There are other errors scattered throughout the document.

When lawyers are in court, especially in appeals, we’re advocates, and it’s our responsibility to advocate as hard and as well for our clients as we know how. Much of that advocacy is usually done in writing. No matter how good the argument, though, it’s difficult to advocate effectively when the writing isn’t top-notch. It’s just hard to take as seriously a memo or brief that looks bad and reads badly. That means that well-formatted, carefully proofread filings aren’t a luxury – they’re essential. This isn’t a novel observation – courts sometimes even issue sanctions for writing issues. But poorly drafted filings persist.

This post isn’t meant as a criticism of Officer Yanez’s attorneys, all of whom are well-known and well-respected defense lawyers. They’ve got a lot of balls in the air on this case and are undoubtedly crunched for time. Even so, criminal defendants in the appellate system usually need all the help they can get, and this petition doesn’t make Officer Yanez’s case as forcefully as it might have. That’s a big deal when you’re talking about an appeal from a key motion in a case that could send him to prison.

We’re typically not filing documents that we expect more than a handful of people will ever read. Even so, our goal is always that every document that leaves our office – filings, letters, notices, what-have-you – is as close to perfect as possible.

By David L. Liebow

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Posted in: Appeals

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