Spotlight On: Michael H. Dagher-Margosian

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

I grew up a son of two criminal defense attorneys who were (and are) truly devoted to The Cause. Early on, my parents instilled in me what it is to be compassionate, empathetic, and non-judgmental. They taught me to stand up to injustice, and to be an advocate for the underdog. I attribute my work ethic and passion for criminal defense to Gary Margosian and Jeanice Dagher-Margosian.  

I went to Michigan State University for undergrad and law school. I graduated law school in 2014 and have been practicing for just over three years. I did private practice devoted solely to criminal defense once I graduated, but I was just waiting for the right public defense office position to become available. In December 2015, I joined the inaugural full-time Lenawee County Public Defense Office and have been there since.

Please tell about one of your interesting or unusual cases.

While I’ve had some interesting jury trials, what I’m most proud of (and what has been the most influential) are the appeals I’ve done as a public defender. My initial role at Lenawee PD was handling misdemeanors in front of a particularly pro-prosecutor judge (shocking, I know). It had long been thought that this judge knew criminal law better than just about anyone in the county; after all, he was the chief prosecutor for quite a few years, he was the chief appellate prosecutor of the county before that, and he prided himself on specializing in criminal law. Enter stage left a “young hippie kid from Ann Arbor,” trying to tell this judge what is, and is not, legal. I quickly learned that he was not going to listen to my arguments. He consistently denied my requests. He knew, or so he thought, he could get away with these oppressive tactics because nobody was going to challenge his rulings. After learning that placating to his style would not result in the desired results for my clients, I decided to go in a different direction. I decided to appeal his practices. My first challenge dealt with the judge ordering, as part of retail fraud probation, the statutory civil demand by the store to be included in the probationer’s fines/costs. My argument was that this is a civil demand and should not be included in a criminal probation. I filed a brief, had oral arguments in circuit court, and the circuit court agreed. So, the judge no longer included that in his probation orders. Next, I had a client who, to get the benefit of concurrent sentences, wanted to decline probation. The judge would not let us do that, so I took that case up on appeal. After oral arguments, the circuit court again agreed with us, that a probationer can reject probation and be sentenced accordingly. We got a written opinion from Circuit Court. The prosecutor’s office has filed an application for leave in the Court of Appeals on this case. We’ve appealed three similar fact patterns and have won on all three.

The latest issue that I’ve appealed is whether a sentencing judge can tell a probationer, with a valid medical marijuana card, not to use medical marijuana while on probation. While the Circuit Court didn’t outright rule in our favor, it did shift the sentencing practice in district court. I’ve gotten reversals on 5 district court rulings, which has shifted how the judge approaches my sentencings. The local newspaper even sat in on one of these hearings and wrote up an article of how the district court judge was getting reversed every time we took an issue up on appeal. The judge now thinks twice about denying my arguments because he knows people are watching and he does not want to be shown up by some “young hippie kid from Ann Arbor” again. We are slowly but surely untying the knots.

How could the criminal justice system in Michigan be improved?

Prioritize public defense. A system that represents 80% of criminal defendants needs to be prioritized. The amount of resources and efforts devoted to improving public defense is egregiously under par. As a society, we lament the fact that our “justice” system puts so many of our own behind bars or into the system, yet we continue to tighten the chokehold on the efficacy and competency of public defense. Under-funded, over-burdened, time-chasing public defenders cannot do an effective job if this trend continues. Programs like Gideon’s Promise are improving the culture of public defense, but much more needs to be done. Hopefully the MIDC can continue to improve public defense in Michigan.
Any recurring issues that you see?

As a fairly new attorney, I watch other attorneys to see what works and what doesn’t. The biggest concern I see is a sense of callousness on the part of the attorney. “Oh, this guy again.”  “Ugh, what’d (blank) do this time.” “He’s been in jail before, I’ll talk with him in a couple days. He knows how to handle it.” When we lose empathy for our client for who he/she is as a person, we’ve given up. And we’ve given the client up. As criminal defense attorneys, we are the aegis between the government and our client. And we all know the government doesn’t give a damn about our clients. If you lose feeling, you need to cut off the callous. Do not be a lawyer’s lawyer; be a client’s lawyer.

What advice do you have for other defense attorneys?  

Don’t be afraid to be wrong. If you think something is wrong, say it. Make an issue of it. Even if everyone in the courtroom is saying you’re wrong, make your arguments. Preserve the record. Don’t worry that things have been done a certain way for so long; who’s to say that way is the right way? Don’t be afraid to challenge. Follow your instincts and be true to your intuition. If you are afraid to be wrong, then you are afraid to grow. The best way to predict the future is to create it.

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor