With his Western suits, boots and hat, Twin Cities defense attorney Sam McCloud is hard to miss, in court or out.
"It's like he's walking into a bar, it's like an old movie set," said Dakota County District Judge Richard Spicer.
For fun, McCloud, 65, rides a Harley motorcycle with his flat-fee slogan on the side: "Gunfighters don't charge by the bullet." Judges are sometimes miffed when he is around the Hastings courthouse: He tends to park his burnt-orange Hummer in their reserved spots, for which he's been ticketed and once towed.
"That doesn't seem to bother Sam," noted Judge Bill Thuet, adding: "There is the right way, the wrong way and Sam's way. ... He thinks he's the boss in the courtroom."
When he's not representing others, McCloud is known to defend himself. The last time was in February, when he got drug charges against himself dropped. He argued that he had been framed by an ex-wife (he is married to his fifth).
Nevertheless, he has built a solid reputation as an attorney who fights hard and often wins for his clients.
"He doesn't go down easy," said Thuet. Added Spicer: "If you take away the cowboy facade, he is a really good lawyer."
McCloud, who specializes in DWI cases, first caught the public eye in 1982 after a Waseca County judge granted his lawsuit class-action status and ordered a statewide ban on Breathalyzers until they were proven reliable for testing sobriety.
The next day, he appeared at the Minnesota Supreme Court -- in his first case before the high court -- which deliberated about 10 minutes before overturning the ban. About 18 months later Breathalyzers were replaced with the faster, more accurate Intoxilyzers.
More recently, McCloud persuaded the state Supreme Court in 2002 to require Department of Natural Resources conservation officers to obtain search warrants before walking into fish houses.
"The fish house case is a real big thing," said Chuck Samuelson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Minnesota chapter. "When you look at how people's privacy has been eroded. ... He's been a big force to protect individual rights."
McCloud also has won state Supreme Court rulings that changed bail rules. Now judges can't hold suspects without setting a cash bail amount and must offer options of bail with or without conditions, several attorneys said.
McCloud lives on a rolling 10-acre hobby farm in rural Shakopee, where he married his fifth wife, Nancy, in September. A motorcycle-riding pastor from Sturgis, S.D., officiated, and fireworks celebrated the new couple. With one of Nancy's kids and six of his, the barnyard compound now houses nine people. It also accommodates several Cadillacs, RVs and boats, as well as a menagerie that includes three peacocks, two horses, geese, donkeys and Freeway, a 900-pound pig.
His own legal troubles
A month after the wedding, McCloud was arrested at his Shakopee law office. Minutes before, police had watched him pick up a package of 90 hydrocodone pills at the local post office. He was charged with third-degree felony drug possession and lesser charges.
Defending himself, McCloud argued that a former wife, Kerri Petterson -- the sole source for the police tip -- had set him up because she was upset over domestic issues.
Scott County Chief Judge William Macklin found Petterson's unsupported tip was not sufficient grounds. He threw out the search warrant and related drug evidence, including marijuana, a pipe and a scale found in McCloud's bedroom safe. McCloud said he didn't know what was in the package and had taken hydrocodone only for pain relief after surgery last year. He said a son uses marijuana to ease pain.
"He is really good at manipulating the truth," said Petterson, 35, in her Columbia Heights apartment. "Did I break in and put drugs in his safe?"
Petterson; another ex-wife, Kelly McCloud, and a neighbor have initiated assault cases against McCloud in Scott County District Court since 2002. McCloud pleaded guilty in all three to misdemeanor fifth-degree assaults under what is called an Alford plea. That means he professed innocence but agreed the evidence might convince a jury otherwise.
"Sometimes a deal is so good even an innocent person has got to take it," McCloud said, borrowing a line from fellow defense attorney Ron Meshbesher. He paid more than $1,600 in fines, agreed to attend anger management classes and is still on probation for one of the cases.
Petterson alleged in 2002 that McCloud kicked her during an argument at their home and clubbed her in the back with a croquet mallet. He contends that she attacked him, he wrestled away the mallet and she bruised her back falling on the driveway.
'The Darth Vader of lawyers'
The dispute with his neighbor began when farmer Mitch Theis alleged that McCloud drove a Cadillac Escalade into an ATV, with Theis on it. McCloud was ordered to pay $963 in restitution.
Theis describes his neighbor as "the Darth Vader of lawyers." He said he is tired of telling McCloud's kids and friends to quit riding their ATVs, motorcycles and snowmobiles over Theis' corn, soybeans and alfalfa. "His response is he'll write me a check," Theis said. "I say, 'I don't want your money. All I want is to keep your people off my stuff.'"
Petterson said McCloud used to boast that he was judgment-proof. "I call him the Silicone Man. He thinks nothing is going to stick," she said.
McCloud had no comment on her claim. A check of Scott County Court records found 12 judgment actions filed against him in the past decade by creditors, four of which he had satisfied. McCloud said most of the claims stemmed from credit card bills charged by an ex-wife. County records also show he has transferred ownership of some of his possessions. In a 2005 family court hearing, McCloud, defending himself, asked the judge to keep Kelly McCloud from taking his home, since it's owned by his daughter; his 2003 Hummer, because a client owned it, and a motorcycle he said belonged to the McCloud family trust.
Why does he represent himself, which attorneys have long called foolish?
"If this ship is going to sink, it is going to be with me at the helm," McCloud said. "But it isn't going to go down. It is just a glitch in the highway of life."
Jim Adams • 612-673-7658