What not to wear for your day in court

Even in the Twin Cities, defendants are showing up in some eyebrow-raising outfits.

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Actress Lindsay Lohan, above, was criticized for wearing a form-fitting white dress to her hearing on felony grand-theft charges last month in California.

Photo: LIZ O. BAYLEN, Los Angeles Times/MCT

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Much ado has been made about the sexy white getup Lindsay Lohan sported to her arraignment on shoplifting charges. But wearing inadvisable costumes to court is hardly restricted to celebs.

A woman in Virginia recently arrived for a hearing with a tiny dressed-up monkey tucked into her bra. In the New York borough of Queens, gangbangers are getting turned away at the courthouse door until they pull up their low-rider pants enough that most of their boxer shorts aren't on display. When those same guys have to remove their belts for the metal detectors, embarrassing dropsies ensue.

Queries to several Twin Cities defense attorneys about inappropriate courtroom attire revealed that T-shirts have committed more fashion felonies than any other article of clothing. The number of people facing drug charges who arrive with images of cannabis leaves emblazoned across their chests is, uh, very high. One public defender had a client show up for a jury trial in a tee reading "Sing Sing Prison Recreation Department."

The worst example that high-profile defense lawyer Joe Friedberg ever saw was a suspected arsonist who walked into his arraignment with a book of matches clipped to his belt. Then there was the client, charged with child molestation, who met him outside a rural county courthouse in a long raincoat with the collar turned up and dark sunglasses, a cigarette dangling from his lip.

"At that time I determined I would waive a jury and have him tried just before the judge," Friedberg said.

Mary Moriarty, lead attorney for Hennepin County's public defenders' office, has seen it all when it comes to dressing for the opposite of success in the courtroom -- from pajama pants and slippers to short shorts and extremely low-cut tops on women. She has advised many a client to turn a T-shirt inside out.

"You don't want something offensive to women written on your shirt when you're going to domestic assault court," she said. "Or I'll have clients show up like they're going clubbing, in flashy oversized shirts and pants, and think they look really good."

A woman appearing on theft charges "might not want to carry that Coach purse into the courtroom, then say she can't afford to pay the fine," said Moriarty.

Friedberg offered another option: "She could always say it was a knockoff."

Advice to the well-heeled is rarely needed, but can be dicier when it is. Wealthy men charged with, say, massive financial fraud often have egos to match, and dress for court "like fat gangsters," said private defense attorney Tom Bauer. "When you're dealing with people whose opinion of themselves is so high, it's hard to tell them what to wear. If he's your client, you have to be careful what you say."

In Bauer's opinion, Denny Hecker should have toned it down a bit, but Tom Petters dressed right -- like a rich guy, but a Minnesota rich guy, with no monogrammed shirts, emblems or cufflinks.

"Those are bad," Bauer said. "They look arrogant. Your average Minnesotan would never dress like that."

So what rules should someone who wants to look as innocent as possible follow?

Showing crack, whether it be of the cocaine, cleavage or buttock variety, should be avoided at all times. Seems obvious, but plenty of defendants break this one.

"I used to tell them, dress like you would for a job interview or church," Moriarty said. "But there are fewer cultural references everyone has in common now, so not everyone gets it. Now I'm very specific: khaki pants, button-down collar."

Whether men should wear a suit "depends on what they do for a living," said private defender Carolyn Agin Schmidt. "You don't want a construction worker tugging on a collar or fidgeting in a suit coat they're not used to wearing, because that looks guilty." Schmidt also advises "muted colors -- no reds or brights, just grays, browns, blues. Women should not have on a lot of makeup or jewelry."

A defendant's appearance is made even more important because many times he or she never speaks, and how they look is all the jury has to go on.

"Your appearance is creating a comment for the judge and jury, and that comment should never be arrogant or frivolous," Bauer said. The overall effect needs to be one of modesty."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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