Spotlight On: Mary Chartier

Please tell us something about your background, where you practice, your areas of practice, and how long you have practiced criminal defense.

 My business partner, Natalie Alane, and I founded our law firm – Alane & Chartier, P.L.C. [in Lansing] – five years ago in September 2007.  We were working for Justice Cavanagh at the Michigan Supreme Court and left great jobs to start our own firm.  Everyone thought we were crazy – we left secure, well-paying jobs with benefits to start a business in a bad economy with absolutely no clients.  Luckily, we were busy from the beginning and that has continued.  Our firm has grown, and last year we purchased a beautiful Victorian house built in the 1800’s to move our firm into - everyone is enjoying our new place!

I practice criminal defense work around the state in both state and federal courts.  Last year I won a multi-week federal trial in the Western District that involved allegations of drug dealing and money laundering where the government put on well over a dozen witnesses who said my client was a drug dealer.

I also do quite a bit of appellate and post-conviction work.  Currently, I’m co-counsel on two medical marijuana cases at the Michigan Supreme Court with Matt Newburg – State v McQueen and People v Koon.  A couple of years ago, I won three cases in one year at the Michigan Supreme Court, so that was a nice string of victories.  I also recently won a habeas case after a day-long hearing, and the judge wrote a nice compliment to my advocacy skills in a footnote of the opinion.  I really enjoy my practice, and I can’t imagine another practice area that would provide me as much satisfaction with my work.

You recently had success in a suppression motion; please tell us about the main issues in the case, and the grounds for the suppression.

The client was stopped because she was driving her grandmother’s car and there was a coconut air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror.  People v Dillon [__ Mich. App. __ ; __ N.W. 2d __ (2012), decided May 15, 2012 (Docket No. 303083)] from the Court of Appeals made the stop issue less likely to be successful based on the air freshener.  But the winning issue was that the officer knew my client had a history of drug crimes, so he asked her repeated questions about her current drug use.  Ultimately, my client admitted to having drugs in the car, and she was arrested.  We argued that the seizure became illegal because the officer exceeded the scope of the basis for the stop.  It helped that the stop was for a civil infraction, so we used MCL  257.742(1), which required the officer to complete his duties “as soon as possible.”  We were in front of a tough judge, but he made the right call.

What trends -- good or bad -- have you noticed in the law in recent years?

A negative trend is the general hostility toward defense attorneys that exists, and there is a notion among some defense attorneys that they need to be apologetic for what they do.  We should never apologize for defending the Constitution and standing between the government and our nation’s citizens.

A positive trend is the unity that criminal defense attorneys share.  I’m always amazed at the generosity among criminal defense attorneys to share their time, knowledge, and work product.  I think that is in large part because we realize that when we unite together we can really uphold the Constitution and help our clients.

Do you have any advice for other lawyers?

Pick a practice area that you love working in – I think that is the best “secret” to success and enjoyment.  There is so much ongoing education that you have to engage in while you’re practicing law.  Like many of us, I spend a great deal of time attending conferences and seminars, as well as reading cases and materials, to stay current.  There is always so much to learn that I cannot imagine not enjoying what I’m learning about.

Criminal defense attorneys are generous and bring so much wisdom to a case – reach out to others to try and achieve the best results for your client.  Strategize with others, run your case by others, and co-counsel on cases when it’s appropriate.  As defense attorneys, we need to rely on the great brains of other attorneys.  The deck is really stacked against us on so many cases, so we can help level the playing field by working together and enjoying and celebrating each other’s successes.

What advice do you have for trial lawyers?

Run exams, file motions, and try cases.  I won a jury trial after multiple officers took the stand and said my client confessed because my client took the stand and said he never confessed.  I had success at a preliminary examination because an officer was not prepared and couldn’t link my client to the drugs found at the house.  My client was facing prison time, but running the exam made all the difference.  It saved the client a lot of money and a lot of stress.  The prosecutor kept wanting to know why I wasn’t waiving the exam – well, not waiving resulted in the dismissal of the charges.  In both cases, the prosecutor thought these were “slam dunks.”  In another case, when we ran the exam, we all learned – the prosecutor included – that the “witness” to the case wasn’t the witness at all.  He was the store manager.  The employee had told him what happened, and he reported it to the police and acted like he was the one who was working at the time.  The employee had since moved out of the country so the case was dismissed.   It was actually one of those “Perry Mason” moments where I couldn’t believe the answer to my own question.

Do you have any specific advice for new attorneys?

Keep educating yourself, and commit to meeting new people and networking.  I have been teaching at Thomas M. Cooley Law School for the past ten years, and most students don’t realize the tremendous time commitment that law entails.  Many students also don’t realize that even the most talented lawyer has to commit to bringing in business, so it’s important to get out there and meet people so they think of you when they need to refer a case.  Work hard, but have fun – life is short and we need to enjoy ourselves!

Ms. Chartier's website:  Alane & Chartier, P.L.C., 403 Seymour Avenue, Lansing, MI  48933  (517) 482-2000

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor