Spotlight On: Melonie Bates

Please tell a little of your background and how long you have been practicing criminal law.

After I graduated with my undergraduate degree and master’s degree, my career began in the field of human resource management. I was employed at my alma mater, Grand Valley State University, located in Grand Rapids, MI. As a human resources specialist, my duties and responsibilities were to ensure that the university complied with several employment laws, such as the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Employment Security Act, and Worker’s Compensation. I decided to attend law school believing that I wanted to practice employment law. But I did not know that my focus would drastically shift. While attending moot court, trial skills, and mediation classes, half of the students were given a civil case project and the other half were given a criminal case project. Eventually I received a criminal case. The fact pattern stimulated my interest, fascination, and curiosity. Was this defendant guilty or innocent, I thought? What should or should not happen to him and how will his life be affected, I thought? How would his family be affected, I thought? During those moments, the criminal law seed was planted. I went on to intern at the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office for two semesters. While interning, I observed several felony trials, I was the pre-exam assistant prosecutor, and the traffic/misdemeanor assistant prosecutor. I did many formal hearings, 2 bench trials, and about 3 jury trials. After I graduated from law school, I returned to Detroit and, for the past 8 years, I have been practicing criminal law and family law.

What drew you to the practice of criminal law?

I mentioned earlier that my criminal law seed was planted in law school. Later, I began learning about the high number of wrongful convictions and the high number of individuals who are incarcerated for low level offenses. I would hear about the excessive number of individuals who cannot afford bail and the number of individuals who become repeat offenders due to the lack of specific and targeted programs. I have not personally conducted any research to obtain actual numbers, but I know these issues are of great concern to me. I know these issues negatively affect the defendants and their families. A defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty, but often times, in our justice system, it appears that the defendant is guilty until proven innocent. When I thought about the mentioned issues, I did not have any idea of how I could fix anything. However, I knew that I would give my energy and devotion to the practice of criminal law. I would simply focus on helping defendants in the various ways of which I could control, no matter how big or small.

Please tell us about one of your interesting cases.

My client was charged with assaulting, resisting, and obstructing an officer. He was the passenger in a vehicle that was pulled over for a traffic stop. He thought the driver was traveling the speed limit, so he believed the traffic stop was unlawful, pretextual, and unconstitutional. During the stop, the officer who interacted with the driver asserted that he smelled marijuana. The driver gave consent for that officer to conduct a search of his car. The officer’s partner interacted with my client and directed him to exit the vehicle. Before my client would get out of the car, he questioned the officer. He wanted the officer to articulate why they were initially stopped, why he had to exit the car, and why the car had to be searched (especially because of recreational marijuana). While my client was conversing with the officer, the officer’s partner angrily stormed up to the car and stated, “Get out of the car before I put you out!” My client responded, “No,” and proceeded with his original inquiries. He also told the angry officer to call his supervisor. My client eventually stood up and got out of his passenger seat. The angry officer then placed handcuffs on one arm of my client and claimed that when my client snatched his other arm away, he hit him in the face. The entire incident was captured on the officers’ body worn cameras. In reviewing the videos, my client looked guilty. He was clearly angry and irate. He failed to obey officer commands when he refused to exit the car and when he reached up preventing the officer from placing him in handcuffs. My client was adamant about proceeding to trial based solely on principle, but I had reservations. Naturally, I only focused on the video that appeared to show that my client was guilty of resisting and obstructing an officer. My client liked to talk and talk and talk. I then listened and listened and listened. After hearing his thought process at the time of the incident, I understood the reason that he desired to have a trial. I was then challenged with developing a defense. I was determined to make the jury understand two main points. First, that it was alright for them to dislike my client’s video performance. Second, that despite their dislike for him, they should be open to my client’s thought process at the time of the incident in conjunction with the officer’s performance. After conclusion of a 2-day trial, the jury found him not guilty of resisting and obstructing an officer.

What changes could or should be made to improve our criminal justice system?

The smell of marijuana, search, and seizure should be changed to improve our criminal justice system. Marijuana legally passed muster, is now recreational, and many people partake in such activity. Some people smoke marijuana inside of their homes, while others choose to smoke in their car to prevent the odor in their home. The smell of marijuana is quite pungent and lingers in clothing and other fabric materials beyond the point of smoking. So, when a car is pulled over for a traffic violation, many officers who smell the marijuana (no matter how strong or faint) desire to search the car for other evidence of a crime. The police report will almost always say there was a strong odor of marijuana. But now that recreational marijuana exists, the scent of marijuana should not necessarily be the basis for probable cause to search one’s vehicle for evidence of a crime or other contraband. I am not saying that all officers conduct searches based on the smell, and I am not saying that I know the solution, but this is an issue that should be reviewed to ensure the protection of citizens’ rights.

What trends, good or bad, do you see in our criminal law?

I’m hoping to see a trend in bail reform. All too often, bonds are set at excessive amounts for the offense and/or for the facts of the case. It is my understanding that the ACLU has been working on bail reform for quite some time. However, criminal defense attorneys have not seen any real change yet. We must continue making our bond arguments even if a judge or magistrate appears uninterested or appears to have already made a decision prior to our bond argument. 

Do you have any advice for new lawyers interested in criminal law?

My advice for new lawyers: Absorb as much knowledge as possible, watch other lawyers, but definitely develop your own style. Research your issue and read the corresponding case law; become one with your issue. I also suggest that you seek out a mentor or someone with whom you can exchange ideas and points of view. Some clients will take a substantial amount time, but be courteous and listen to their story (you may have to keep them on track and narrow the issue). Make sure you have your client’s best interest at heart as many of them may be scared, confused, first time offenders, repeat offenders, young, old, angry, or nonchalant, etc. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your client’s freedom is in your hands.

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor