Spotlight On: Raymond A. Cassar

Please tell us about your background, where you practice, and how long you have been a criminal defense lawyer.


            I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and my law degree from the University of Detroit.  I have been a criminal defense lawyer for the past 32 years.  I practice both in State and Federal Courts all over Michigan.  I have also handled cases in California, Texas, Iowa, Illinois and Ohio.  My office is in Farmington Hills, Michigan.  I have a great wife that still puts up with many late nights at the office.


What drew you to criminal defense?


            I have known what I wanted to be since I was in the 6th grade.  I got lucky not having to wonder what I wanted to do with my life.  I have always wanted to help people in trouble.  My friends and I got into some trouble when we were about 11 years old shooting off bottle rockets.  The neighbor threatened to turn us into the police after our “rocket trajectory” was off a bit and we hit her metal awning.  I remember telling my friends “let me handle this,” and I convinced this mean old lady not to call the police and, more importantly, not to tell our parents.  Boy, did we get lucky.


Please tell us about one of your interesting or unusual cases.


            Over the years, there have been so many interesting cases.  I think one of the most important cases involved a prosecutor who called the pastor of a church to testify as to the confession my client had given in confidence.  My client was 17 years old and had been a member of that church all his life, so he trusted the pastor.  The pastor used his influence over the young man to get him to admit to a crime involving an alleged sexual assault that occurred two years prior with another female member of the church.  After he confessed to his pastor, the two of them prayed for forgiveness.  However, the pastor then went and told the police that he had admitted to the sexual assault.  The police used the information from the pastor and filed criminal sexual conduct charges.  The prosecutor charged him as an adult even though he was only 15 years old when the incident occurred.


            At the district court preliminary examination, I objected to the pastor’s testimony citing MCL 600.2156 and MCL 767.5a that precludes any minister of the gospel or priest of any denomination from disclosing any confession made to him.  This is commonly known as the “Priest-Penitent Privilege,” which has been around for 1,500 years.  The District Court Judge allowed the pastor to testify.  The Circuit Court Judge agreed with me and reversed the District Court, but the prosecution vowed to take the matter up to the Michigan Supreme Court.  The prosecutor believed it was time to change this 1,500 year-old rule and wanted to start using the clergy as an arm of the law.


            Because of the nature of the case, I was very nervous about what the higher courts would do with this issue.  I called my priest to tell him what was going on, and he said, “Oh no, you cannot let this happen!”  This put even more pressure on me.  There was very little Michigan case law on the issue and not much more throughout the United States.  I had some great associates working with me, and we all knew the vital importance of this case.  I argued in the Court of Appeals how important the Priest-Penitent Privilege was and that, if we do away with it, people of all religions would no longer confide in the clergy when they are seeking guidance.  It would be a serious detriment to society.  We need more people to talk to their clergy when they have problems.


            Fortunately, we won in the Michigan Court of Appeals.  The prosecutor took the case up to the Supreme Court, but thanks to “divine intervention,” they missed the filing deadline to submit briefs, and the Court of Appeals decision still stands.  I was relieved that my case did not destroy the 1,500 year-old Priest-Penitent Privilege and that I could continue to go to church and not have my priest give me a disappointing look.  The 2012 case was People v Samuel Bragg [296 Mich. App. 433 (2012)].  It had some very interesting social implications.


What were the prosecution and defense theories?


            The prosecution’s theory was that the confession to the pastor was in his office and was not done for religious purposes; therefore, it was not covered by the Priest-Penitent Privilege.  I argued that you do not need to be in a traditional confessional for the privilege to apply and that my client had reason to believe he could confide in and trust his pastor.  They prayed together afterwards, and thus it was for religious purposes.


Were experts needed?

            I spoke to various clergy from all faiths, and they all agreed that this would set a dangerous precedent that would affect all religions.  Clearly, a great deal was on the line with this important case.


Have you seen any trends -- good or bad -- in the criminal law in recent years?


            In criminal defense, I see the trend of using more and more of a person’s social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) in order to gather incriminating evidence.  However, I also see social media information as a powerful defense tool to discredit accusers and so-called witnesses.  If you take the time, you can learn so much about people from social media.  People love to say things on Facebook that I often can use to impeach them with in court.


What advice do you have for other defense attorneys?


            The best advice I can give to other defense attorneys is to be prepared, be ethical and foster a good reputation.  That good reputation will come in handy every time you argue a motion.  If you look at all the really good criminal defense attorneys, the one common element is that they truly enjoy what they do.


            I love what I do and that gives me a bit of an advantage every time I step into the courtroom.


            Mr. Cassar’s website:  http://www.crimlaw


by Neil Leithauser

Associate Editor