Lawyer Whose Pants Caught Fire Is Still a Hot Mess

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Is “hot mess” still something people say? My first draft headline was “Lawyer Whose Pants Caught Fire Still Feeling the Heat,” which I really liked but then I realized that I used it the last time I wrote about this guy. See Lawyer Whose Pants Caught Fire Still Feeling the Heat” (Nov. 24, 2019). Did I come up with that headline on two separate occasions, or just the one time and it’s been rattling around in my subconscious ever since then? And more importantly, who cares?

Not Steven Gutierrez, that’s for sure. He’s got enough on his mind. As you surely recall, Gutierrez is the Miami defense lawyer whose pants caught fire as he began his closing argument to the jury in a criminal case a while back. See Lawyer’s Pants on Fire During Closing Argument” (Mar. 9, 2017). What was his client charged with? Arson (setting a car on fire). What was his client’s defense? Spontaneous combustion. Was it a coincidence that his pants spontaneously combusted during closing argument to the jury in that very case? Well, of course no— what’s that? He says it was a coincidence? I see.

He said it was a coincidence.

But the judge, and the prosecutors to whom the judge referred the matter, did not seem to believe this explanation. In fact, the prosecutors opined that “it seem[ed] obvious” to them that the pants fire had been “a stunt or demonstration … meant to illustrate the feasibility of his spontaneous combustion theory of defense.” Yes, although why he thought an obviously not-at-all-spontaneous combustion might have done that is something I’m still trying to figure out. Prosecutors decided not to charge Gutierrez with pants arson, however, saying they weren’t sure they could prove he acted with criminal intent. (They probably also weren’t 100% sure the statute applied to pants arson).

But the state bar didn’t need to prove intent, and in any event Gutierrez pleaded guilty to the professional-misconduct charges it later brought. Those don’t seem to have been related to the pants fire, though, but rather to a complaint he filed against GEICO alleging that the damage to the same client’s car had been caused by a collision, and not the arson of which the client had just been convicted. “Despite knowing that a jury had found [the client] guilty of setting fire to his vehicle,” the bar’s report says, the complaint “still represented that the damage was the result of a ‘vehicle collision.'” A footnote then comments that at his deposition in the bar proceedings, Gutierrez “offered that in his mind ‘vehicle collision’ referred to the slamming of the car door,” which his client could be seen doing on a surveillance video just before the car burst into flames. Okay then.

The bar recommended a 91-day suspension and two years of probation. The Supreme Court of Florida seemed uncertain, but agreed. But a few months later, in October 2020, it issued another order finding him in contempt of the first one (which probably means he continued to practice despite the suspension), and revoked his license.

But now, just when things seemed to be going so well, Gutierrez is in trouble again. Not for practicing law, but for cocaine possession. According to the Miami Herald, Gutierrez was arrested after a traffic stop last week, having been pulled over for a broken headlight. The report doesn’t offer many details, but it does say this: “An officer saw a bulge in his pocket and believed it was a knife; it turned out to be a metal cylinder with a white powder inside.” Was it cocaine? Well, according to the arrest report, “Gutierrez spontaneously blurted out ‘That’s cocaine,'” so probably yes?

This incident sounds a little fishy to me, to be honest, though maybe not as fishy as his coincidental-pants-fire story did. A traffic stop for a broken headlight doesn’t justify a search of the vehicle. If the “bulge” was in plain sight, I suppose the officer was free to ask about it, but why he supposedly “believed it was a knife” isn’t clear. I can see how a statement like that by an armed and twitchy officer might cause one to want to reassure said officer that the bulge is not, in fact, a knife. But I think one should do that by simply and calmly denying that it is a knife, with one’s hands plainly in view at all times, and not (for example) by spontaneously blurting out “That’s cocaine.” As any criminal-defense attorney will tell you, volunteering information to police is usually a bad idea—especially information like that—so it seems unlikely Gutierrez would have done so.

On the other hand, it also seemed unlikely that someone’s pants would burst into flame during a closing argument in an arson case. But that happened.