Nailed It

Al Johanson stormed into Leonard Bartson’s law office and shouted, “I need to sue my neighbor!”

“Calm down, Al, calm down,” Bartson gently replied with his hands held up.

It was a warm spring day in 1885. The doors and windows to Bartson’s office were fully open and a slight breeze was interrupting the flight of flies and files of paper.

“Now, sit and tell me what’s wrong.” Leonard said.

“That no good drunken Irishman Dale McCarthy stole my favorite hammer. I need to sue him to get it back.”

“I’m sorry, Al, but that is not the way to go about it. I cannot sue a fellow countryman unless there’s a case or controversy.” Leonard’s use of legalize was not wasted on Al.

“There is a controversy,” Al responded. “He stole my hammer and I want it back. He won’t give it back, so there’s your controversy.”

Leonard realized that he was not going to convince Al that there was a viable lawsuit by using anything he learned in law school. Al was a big intimidating Scandinavian farmer, and Leonard was slightly fearful of what could happen if he didn’t address the situation in a format Al could understand.

“What you need to do,” Leonard began to explain, “is to go down to the train depot and send a telegram to the sheriff, telling him that a crime has been committed. This is a criminal case, and the sheriff is the one to set it in motion.”

Al looked sheepish as he asked: “Will that get my hammer back?”

“Well, not right away,” Leonard responded. “The sheriff will have to investigate and inform the county attorney that a crime was committed, and the county attorney will file charges against McCarthy if there is probable cause that McCarthy did indeed steal your hammer.”

“After that, I’ll get my hammer back?” Al thought he was beginning to understand.

“No, Al. The hammer will have to be kept by the sheriff until a trial can be held to determine the guilt or innocence of McCarthy.”

“What!” Al showed his angry demeanor again. “He’s not innocent; he’s guilty. I saw the hammer at his farm. It has my name engraved in the wooden handle.”

Leonard did his best to walk Al through the procedures and constitutional guarantees that must be followed in order to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that McCarthy did actually steal the hammer and that it wasn’t just lent to him by Al. Or “McLarty could have added a “D” before the “a” and an “e” after “l” making the hammer appear to be owned by Dale,” Leonard explained with his most sincere ability to cover all angles.

Al was getting red in the face. His top was about to blow. “He better not change one thing about that hammer! If he’s found guilty, I’ll get my hammer back, right?” Al’s ears were beet red, and his long blonde hair was about to stand straight up on his head. Although they were sitting in adjoining seats, Al was leaning over Leonard and Leonard could feel the hot breath that made his neck hairs tickle his spine.

“Well, that depends.” Leonard cautioned him, leaning back in his chair. “He could appeal, and the evidence would have to remain with the sheriff until all appeals are exhausted.”

“What do you mean by ‘all appeals’?” Al asked.

Leonard had to be truthful, but cautious. “If he should lose his first appeal, he may want to take it to a higher court, a court we call the Supreme Court.”

“Do I get my hammer returned to me after appeals?” Al was almost in tears.

“You should get your hammer back from the sheriff, unless he lost it, someone stole if from his office, he pawned it, or it was damaged while in his possession. Then, we get to sue the sheriff.” Leonard smiled as he finished the explanation. “That’s a civil suit. And if we don’t win in district court, we can appeal.”

“But that would mean that I wouldn’t get my hammer.”

“Al, if you need that hammer you might be better off if you just go down to the general store and buy a new hammer. It would be less expensive, and it would provide you with a new hammer, immediately. And leave McCarthy alone. If you try to harm him in any way seeking revenge, you will be the one the sheriff visits. That could lead to a criminal case.”

Al smiled, “but I’ll get lots of appeals, right?”

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