Full Moon Tonight – Likely time to Get in Trouble

If you take a close look around my office, you will see an atomic clock on the wall that not only indicates time, but also shows the phases of the moon. I have that clock for a reason. For years I have been noticing that the phases of the moon seem to influence my business and the behavior of my clients. For example, last night at about 7 pm, just as the full moon was rising (I checked the Naval Observatory and the time was almost exact), one of my bankruptcy clients sent me an email on the subject of how he needs to go further into debt for something. I will be going over the situation with him, but I expect my advice will be that it’s a really bad idea.

I have never read this anywhere. This is strictly my own observation. BUT here’s how it seems to me the moon phases seem to work: people get in various kinds of trouble during the full moon, and then call me asking to get the problem fixed during the new moon. So today I expect my phone to be fairly quiet. If you want to have a long talk with me, today is a good day to call. As October 11th the day of the new moon approaches, I know that my phone will get very busy – email too – and a lot of the communications will be rather breathless. It happens every time.

At the hospital where my wife works as a nurse, the busy time – especially in the emergency room – is the full moon. That’s when they get the most body part donors – lots of people out on their motorcycles without helmets after having a few too many. At my office it’s pretty much the opposite, with the busy time being the time of the new moon. There’s got to be some science behind this. If anyone who happens to read this knows what that is, I would appreciate some feedback on that subject.

Free Popcorn at the Courthouse – Constitution Day Honored in Shakopee

I had court in Scott County – that’s Shakopee, MN – on Monday September 17th. I headed straight for my courtroom, thinking it strange that someone had set up a theater-size popcorn machine by the entrance to the building and was obviously dishing out free popcorn. I was concentrating on how to get my client’s charge reduced. What was up with that would have to wait.

Later in the morning, after I was finished in the courtroom, I took a look at the table near the popcorn machine, and saw that it was covered with material about the Constitution and Constitution Day. I found out that the woman in charge of the table and the popcorn was one of the librarians from the Scott County Law Library. First she asked me if I wanted some popcorn. I declined. Next she asked if I wanted a free, pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution. I said yes, and could I have two extra for the other two lawyers I office with.

Before I left I had received not only three free pocket-sized Constitutions, but also a tour of the Scott County Law Library. They have two computers set up where the public can access Westlaw, Lexis and Fastcase – three of the leading law research services. They also subscribed to some of the lesser research services as well. I made a mental note: If I can’t find what need the law elsewhere, maybe I should drive down there and try their resources. Before I left I also got one of the librarians to agree to perhaps checking something for me if I asked by phone, provided I was polite and respectful when I called.

I still have not seen or heard of any mention of Constitution Day except that article in the Duluth paper that I mention in my previous posting. I checked Monday’s Star Tribune – there was no mention of it. I want to commend those librarians for their efforts, and suggest that Constitution Day would be something to which we should all give more attention

Constitution Day

I’m taking a couple of days off, and I’ve headed my favorite direction: north. With my wife, my dogs and my camper.

We have the camper set up at the Grand Marais Municipal Campground. This morning was cold and rainy, but now it has cleared and the sun is out. We would usually make coffee – lots of coffee – and sit by the camper first thing in the morning. But this morning, in honor of the misty weather, we headed into town and went to a coffee shop called the Java Moose. The fellowship and the quality coffee resulted in a very rewarding morning. Today’s Duluth News Tribune had already arrived, and I found an interesting article about Constitution Day. It’s this Monday, September 17, 2007.

It seems that on September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention finished their work on a draft of a Constitution for these United States. It’s not a holiday in the sense that there’s no mail or the courthouses are closed, but it does seem to be observed by several federal agencies – such as the National Archive that has the job of preserving the original document making up the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

It is often my job to explain to a client who has been arrested for DWI what his or her constitutional rights are. I can run through them pretty fast. In fact, I think I can summarize them sometimes without stopping to take a breath. There’s the right to remain silent – which is why the questioning possible terrorists is such a hot issue. There’s the right to be presumed innocent; and the right to a jury, where all the jurors have to agree or one is considered not guilty.

One of my favorites is the right to confront and cross examine witnesses. When I get to this one I might sometimes stop, because my client has heard it before and it doesn’t sound like that big of a deal. I may take a moment to mention that prior to our constitution, in places like England, is was a rather common practice to hang someone or lob off their head after a trial that was based on written statements. For just a moment, I invite you to think about what that experience would be like.

I found that article in the Duluth paper to be educational and inspiring. Frankly, I had never heard of the observance of Constitution Day before. How could that be I am asking myself, particularly considering the business that I am in. I admit to having no excuse. I did, however, just run a search on the subject at the web site of the paper I usually read, the Star Tribune. So far there’s nothing there. I hope they at least mention it this Monday.

DWI at Age 15 – Minnesota Not-A-Drop Law

I received an email from a concerned mom a few days ago. Her son had been arrested for “not-a-drop.” It seems that he was 15, had a learner’s permit, and was driving another teenage friend’s vehicle. The only other person in the car was the teenage friend. So for starters, this was a violation of the terms of the learning permit, which requires that a licensed driver over 21 years of age be present.

The officer observed him weaving and pulled him over. The breath test on the scene indicated .03 percent blood alcohol content. That’s way below the legal limit, so the 15 year old was not charged with a DWI. However, driving at that age with any detectable level of alcohol is a violation of the “not-a-drop law.”

I have a detailed discussion of the not-a-drop law on my underage drinking and driving web page. After receiving the email from the driver’s mother, I pulled up my own page to review the law before I responded. It seemed clear to me that under the circumstances described, this 15 year old was going to be denied a driver’s license until age 21, together with whatever criminal penalties the juvenile court decided to give him – since violation of not-a-drop is a misdemeanor.

To make sure I had it right, however, I called the Department of Public Safety. I got one of their Driver Evaluators on the phone and discussed the matter with him. His opinion was that the 15 year old would only receive a 30 day suspension of his privilege to drive. The Evaluator stated further that it would have taken a breath reading of over .08 or a conviction for DWI before they would require this young man to wait until age 21 before he could get a license.

I did a response email and let the mom know what I had learned. It surprised me, however, which is why I bring it up here. From the way the state statute is written, it is fairly clear to me that the legislature intended that young people who do things like this are not to be allowed to drive until they turn 21; but that is not how our Department of Public Safety interprets it.

The Minnesota statute which cuts off driving privileges until age 21 for juvenile drunk drivers is commonly referred to as “Vanessa’s Law.” This law is named after Vanessa Weiss, a Minnesota teenager who was killed when she was a passenger in a vehicle being driven by an intoxicated, unlicensed 15 year old in 2003. It was written quickly and I think poorly, passed quickly by the legislature, and is now obviously subject to various interpretations. It should be reviewed by the legislature to make sure that the way it is being interpreted matches their intent.

Preferences in Bankruptcy

I often advise my clients that if they are sure they are going to be filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, they should stop trying to make payments on the debts that they expect to have discharged. It is surprising how many people just don’t follow that advice, or think it doesn’t apply to them, or believe it shouldn’t apply to some particular bill that they really want to pay. Often they make such payments only to find that after the bankruptcy is filed, the Trustee is demanding that the creditor who they paid must now give the money back – back to the Trustee of course.

One of the principles of bankruptcy law is that all of the creditors are to take their losses equally. In the event that the debtor has paid an unsecured creditor $600 or more in a consumer case or $5,000 or more in a business case within the 90 day period before the case is filed, the Trustee can go to the creditor and demand that money. The trustee will recover the money and, after perhaps using some to pay administrative costs, distribute it equally on a prorata basis to all the unsecured creditors. The term for such a large payment to a creditor within the 90 days before filing is “preference.” It’s not OK for one creditor to be preferred over another.

Another type of preference is a payment made on a debt owing to an “insider.” Insiders are either close relatives or close business associates. There’s no dollar limit on this type of preference, and under Minnesota law the Trustee may be able to go back as far as six years to recover these payments. This insider thing can get very nasty, and you should be sure to disclose any possible problems in this area to your lawyer. There are some defenses to these insider claims, and your lawyer should be able to tell you if one might apply to your situation.

A Home Equity Line of Credit is a Mortgage

When the same thing keeps happening over and over again, I feel I should say something. Yesterday I met with a well-dressed, obviously educated and intelligent man. We talked about filing bankruptcy. He brought in and deposited on my desk a stack of documents that I usually request for such meetings. As I looked them over I said something that referred to him as having two mortgages. He seemed surprised and stated that he had only one mortgage.

At this point I had to take a breath and explain that a home equity line of credit is a mortgage, usually a second mortgage – but a mortgage. When you use a line of credit like that, it is like withdrawing money from a bank account – only it’s not money in a bank account, it’s the equity in your home. It always disturbs me to see people doing this because:

  1. Most don’t seem to realize that a home equity line of credit creates a lien on their home and therefore eats away at their home equity.
  2. Under Minnesota law the equity in our homes is one of the few things that most creditors cannot take away, except of course for a creditor holding a mortgage.
  3. Unlike a credit card debt or a medical bill, amounts owing on home equity lines must be paid, even in the event of a bankruptcy filing, unless the debtor is willing to let the home be foreclosed upon.

It seems to me that the loan officers do their best to make sure that consumers don’t understand the true nature of these credit lines. Not only don’t they explain it, but they can be downright deceptive about it. They talk as if it is free money, and encourage that kind of unhealthy thinking. Then they give the consumer an incomprehensible stack of papers that nobody understands, and say “sign here.”

I strongly suggest that if you need to go into debt for any reason, be sure you are doing it in a way that does not diminish the equity in your home. Beware of paperwork that puts a mortgage on your home in exchange for a favorable interest rate. That deal is not as good as it looks.

Lifetime Dream Fulfilled – Helping a Friend

I attended a dinner last night which was hosted by my friend and former mentor, now retired attorney Alan Stiegler. He had invited me and several others to thank us for the part we had in getting his law review note, Redemption, finally published. Being on the law review is the highest honor that a law student can have. It is a student publication that reviews and comments on the legal issues of the day, but only about the top one percent or higher of the law students get to have anything to do with it. A “note” is an article, which these days can easily run over 100 pages. Mr. Stiegler’s note, Redemption, was supposed to have been published in the 1949 edition of the University of Minnesota Law review, but it never was. It was excellent work, and it is quite clear that the reason it was kept out of the publication was religious and ethnic discrimination.

I have known Mr. Stiegler for decades, but I heard this story for the first time during a visit I had with him in March, 2007. I asked him if he still had a copy of the transcript. He did. I suggested that these days with the Internet there must be dozens of places it could be published, perhaps even my web site. A few days later he dropped off a copy of the transcript at my office. After reading it, I felt even more strongly that it should be published somewhere. I began looking into possible sites where it could be posted; but Mr. Stielger felt so encouraged by the possibilities that he picked up the phone and called the office of the University of Minnesota Law review.

It was not long before a team of law review students was helping Mr. Stiegler check the citations, retype and edit the text, and prepare the “note” for publication in the current pages of the Law Review. The final form of the note can be found by clicking this link: http://www.law.umn.edu/lawreview/v91stiegler.htm. This brings you to a page with a link to a pdf document at the bottom. That pdf document is the “note.”

My part in this was quite small. Others attending the dinner included several of the students who had been staff of the Law Review, the professor who was their faculty advisor, and the librarian who will be adding Mr. Stiegler’s article to the University of Minnesota Law School’s permanent archives. My understanding is that the librarian also had a hand in helping the students find some of the publications, now in the rare book section of the law library, which had been originally cited by Mr. Stiegler.

An injustice which took place in 1949 has been corrected, and Mr. Stiegler – a well-deserving combat veteran or World War II – is happier and more at peace as a result. I want to thank those at the University Law Review, the law library and the faculty advisers, who choose to see that this was completed.

Back from Vacation – 35W Bridge Concerns

I just got back tonight from a week up north – mostly camping at Grand Marais, right by Lake Superior. It is good for the soul, and I feel refreshed in body and mind.

My wife and I have a 1999 Coleman pop-up camper – the Sun Valley model. In my younger days I was a purist. Camping meant hanging a tiny light-weight tent from my back pack and hiking as far into the woods as I could go. I would spend days out on the trail, and the more isolated it was the better. Now, however, I have gotten used to certain amenities, such as a microwave oven, an air conditioner, a propane heater, cable TV, cell phone service and wireless Internet. I still like to hike, but I don’t think I will ever go back to camping out of a backpack.

Last night after we packed up most of our stuff so we’d be ready to buzz for home this morning, we headed for a restaurant in Grand Marais called “My Sister’s Place.” I highly recommend this place. On our way over there my cell phone rang and it was a good friend, who told me about the collapse of the 35W bridge. Shortly after we got to the restaurant, I noticed that a lot of the people there were receiving cell phone calls. I could overhear a word or two so I knew that most of the calls were about that bridge. A certain subdued mood settled over the place. I imagined that similar scenes might be taking place all over the state, or at least anywhere that people from the Twin Cities might be gathered. Several folks started making calls, obviously to check on family or friends. I made a few of those calls too, but not until after leaving the restaurant.

I have a son in law who works within a few blocks of that bridge, so my daughter – his wife – was the first person I called. He had not yet come home from work, she couldn’t get him one the phone, and she was a bit worried. Eventually he showed up and all was well. Apparently I and the customers of My Sister’s Place were not the only ones making such calls to check on friends and family, and the Twin Cities phone system got really jammed up for a while.

So tomorrow it’s back to the law. I feel that my thinking will be clearer for having taken this trip.

Valuing Assets – and Automobiles – in Bankruptcy

There seems to be a lot of confusion these days about how to put a value on the assets when we list them on a bankruptcy petition. Under the old law it was easier. The value was what you could get for an item if you put it out in the front yard and had to sell it within 24 hours – or at least that was my interpretation of what the law said.

Under the new bankruptcy law the value is what it would cost to replace an item with exactly the same thing, with the same wear and tear and in exactly the same condition. That’s pretty theoretical, since it seems to require that you establish a value by finding the price of an exact duplicate of what you have. When we don’t know what to say for a value, I tell my clients to start looking at Craig’s List or Ebay and see if they can find what they have and at least establish a price range.

One of the most contested areas is the value of cars. It seems that the bankruptcy trustees want to use NADA values, which tend to be aimed at what a dealer should be able to get for a car. If a trustee does use Kelly Blue Book, it’s usually the dealership value. There is nothing in the law, however, that says you have to buy a car from a dealer or use dealership prices. Recently, in the Ramirez case (359 B.R. 794), a bankruptcy judge in Colorado decided that the proper standard for valuing an automobile is the Kelly Blue Book private party value, a number which is always a lot lower than the price that a dealer could get for the same vehicle. I applaud that decision. It seems right to me.

As far as I know, no bankruptcy judge in Minnesota has issued a written decision on the issue. I recently received an email from another attorney, however, stating that two of our judges have stated verbally from the bench that Kelly Blue Book private party value is the one to use.

Read my Answers to Questions at Law Guru

For about a decade now I have been answering legal questions which I receive from LawGuru.com. I just posted a link to those answers at the right here on the blog. Over the years I have answered hundreds of questions on a great variety of topics. You can view the questions at http://www.lawguru.com/cgi/bbs/mesg.cgi?a=kellydav. From there I’m sure you can find a link for posting your own question should you choose to do so.

I usually put a little disclaimer at the end of each answer. A lot of the questions leave out essential information which if I only knew would change my response substantially. I am quite fond of saying that there is no substitute for a face to face meeting with a competent lawyer.