Spotlight On: J. Nicholas Bostic

Please tell us a little about your background and how you came to work in criminal law.

At some point in high school, I thought I wanted to be a police officer. I was a volunteer firefighter/EMT right out of high school. Criminal Justice was my college major. One of my professors was a military police officer in the U.S. Army Reserve and had a significant positive influence on me. During this time, I joined the U.S. Army Reserve and attended military police school and was hooked. While working as a police officer for the City of Wayne, Michigan, I watched the lawyers in court and was intrigued.

How has your past work as a police officer informed your work as a defense attorney?

In both military police school and the Detroit Police Academy, I was fortunate enough to have instructors who were respectful of the law and the duties of officers. The training focused on identifying elements and investigative tools to discover facts. It also desensitized me regarding emotional ups and downs of human behavior as well as fine-tuned the ability to read and understand people. 

Tell us about one of your interesting cases.

My client was a man just out of prison with a lengthy record who was forced at gunpoint by two other men he knew to “hit a lick” on a drug house. He went up to the door because he knew the man. When the wife opened the door, the other two pushed him through and they bull-rushed the house. Neighbors called the police. The police surrounded the house, and my client actually stuck his head out the side door with the gun in his hand right under a porch light. No turning back at this point.

As the sirens could be heard, the two instigators ran out the side door, through the back yard, over a fence and were gone. Eventually the police convinced everyone to come out through the front door. My client came out first and the lady of the house picked up a broom and started beating him over the head with it. In the commotion, my client decided to run but he was in no shape to do so and was caught quickly. 

We were about to go to trial and a 10-year deal was on the table. My client insisted he was coerced but understood that with his record a coercion defense was a long shot. The morning of trial he was going to plea and the assistant prosecutor had the male victim come in to observe the plea. The two looked at each other and started trash talking immediately and loudly. My client went back into holding and the deputies escorted the victim out. The assistant prosecutor then pulled the deal. I tried to talk him out of that, but he refused.

During trial, a detective said that my client waited until the very end of the interview to claim coercion. During cross-examination, he admitted that my client brought up coercion as soon as the initial “rapport building” was over – at about page 13 of a 75+ page interview transcript. Also, a backyard neighbor had found a jacket at the curb on the morning after, had turned the jacket in to the police, and the lead detective had it. During cross-examination, the detective admitted that he never checked the jacket for hair, body fluid, or DNA and did not send it for testing. The jury acquitted my client of all charges.

My client was so overwhelmed by the verdict that he picked me up right in front of the jury and hugged me. The Judge said, “Mr. [SMITH], put your lawyer down.”

As we continue to emerge from the pandemic, what do we need to prioritize in the criminal legal system?

I think we need to restore formalizing the judicial process and move away from the informal, video reliance. It has its place for prisoner appearances, elderly, and people with temporary illnesses, but it degrades the process. We have all seen the stories about inappropriate comments, dress, behaviors, etc., going on during court hearings. Social standards have degraded enough without losing the respect needed for our rule of law. This is a two-way street, however, and judges and courts need to remember that the defendant is the only person in the room with a constitutional right directly connected to individual liberty and freedom.

Has the pandemic had any positive effects on the way we practice law? 

It temporarily put a complete halt to the revolving door of jails and prisons. It also put a halt temporarily to the issuance of arrest warrants for petty offenses and failure to notify people of the existence of the warrant. Some of that has been incorporated into new statutes and court rules, which just makes sense. I can’t count the number of clients who have lost employment because of arrest warrants that were months or years old over traffic tickets or failing to pay fines and costs. 

What significant trends – good or bad – have you noticed in Michigan criminal law, since you began practicing? 

A negative trend is the passing of laws due to “flavor of the month” political issues. Criminal laws should reflect safety and actual threats to the stability of communities instead of pandering to lobbyists or special interest groups. I’m going to avoid the specific topics that trouble me. A part of this also includes the willingness of the Legislature to authorize draconian punishments. 
As for the changes I would make (if I were King), I would eliminate the specialty courts. No doubt this is an unpopular position, but I have seen these used far too many times to set people up for failure and to deprive them of necessary rights to defend accusations for over-zealous probation officers. This goes back to my comment above about establishing and maintaining the formality of courts. Courts should not be treatment centers. Courts are there to resolve disputes and – in criminal cases – have an absolute obligation to protect the rights of defendants. 

Do you have any advice for other defense attorneys, particularly those that are just starting out?

No matter the hearing or proceeding that is about to happen, review your file. Review the motion/response pertinent to that hearing. Review the rule or statute that has the most bearing on it from your viewpoint and your opponent’s viewpoint. This takes discipline and time but welcome to the world of lawyering. If you do these three simple steps every time, you will give the impression of being the smartest person in the room. 

I have some advice regarding motion practice as well. The art of motion practice is almost lost. If you – as a defense attorney – do not like to be told no, then switch to the other side of the courtroom. A good Assistant Prosecutor might win the motion but he or she will also know they have a problem and want to avoid an appeal. As a defense attorney, you have to have a flexible definition of “winning” when it comes to motion practice.

Kathy Swedlow
CDRC Manager and Editor