Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Bieber, don't argue with the lawyers

By Danny Cevallos, CNN Legal Analyst
updated 5:02 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Danny Cevallos: Justin Bieber is petulant and sarcastic in a videotaped deposition
  • Cevallos: Bieber should know this is not an interview: Interruptions just hurt his side
  • Cevallos: Depositions are not soapboxes; you aren't there to match wits and bicker
  • Cevallos says all you say in a deposition is fodder for lawyers, so the less you say the better

Editor's note: Danny Cevallos is a CNN legal analyst, criminal defense attorney and partner at Cevallos & Wong, practicing in Pennsylvania and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

(CNN) -- When video of Justin Bieber's deposition surfaced this week and went viral, most of us were amused—especially lawyers. (You can watch some of it here). As he answers questions for a battery case involving his bodyguard and a photographer, Bieber is glib and tries to parry the deposing attorney's questions. If we could see off camera, we might see Bieber's attorney subtly shaking his head in frustration. Counsel would know what Justin may not want to "beliebe": You only hurt yourself at a deposition when you bicker with the questioning attorney.

To those luckily unfamiliar with depositions, it may have looked simply like Bieber was being a defiant celebrity in an interview. But a deposition is no interview, and treating it that way is to invite catastrophe. Bieber made a number of missteps typical for beginners. Here's what he should have known:

Danny Cevallos
Danny Cevallos

What is a deposition? Testifying at a deposition looks a little like testifying at a trial. There are lawyers, a stenographer, questions and answers. But a deposition is not a trial. At trial, you can tell your story and convince a jury of your position. A deposition, on the other hand, is the other side's only opportunity to find out what's in your mind, lock your story in writing, and have it ready to bash you over the head with if you testify inconsistently at trial. Generally, the more your opponent gets you to talk at a deposition, the more information he or she has to use against you at trial. An argumentative witness like Bieber is a dream come true for his opponent.

Smile, you're on camera: Most depositions are not videotaped. It's expensive and the costs don't always justify the benefits. But Justin Bieber's opponents want him on camera, preferably preening and pugnacious. Watch, for example, when he answers: "Guess what? Guess what? I don't recall." Had the deposition only been recorded in a transcript, on paper that looks pretty innocent. But watch the oozing hostility on the video, and his dramatic "I don't recall" might play to a jury as "I am conveniently forgetting negative evidence." His opponent scored points deposing him on camera.

You can't answer if you don't know the question: Bieber can be seen interrupting questions to answer. A witness should always wait until the question has been completely asked. First, someone is typing the questions and answers into a transcript, and interruptions end up looking like someone spilled Scrabble letters onto a piece of paper: Unintelligible. A witness should only answer the question asked, lest he volunteer information to help the other side. And, if a question hasn't even been finished yet, a witness can't possibly limit the answer to the question asked -- he doesn't know what the question is yet! Best practice? Wait until the question is complete; pause and ask yourself if you understand the question; if you do, ask yourself if you know the answer to the question; if you do, only answer the question asked.

Justin Bieber's lawyer blames YOU
Watch Justin Bieber get arrested
Surviving a flight with Justin Bieber

Depositions are not soapboxes: At a deposition, you will never "show up" the other side's lawyers. You are not there to show them the error of their ways and win them over. They will not turn to colleagues and announce: "You know what? After hearing this story, I think we're on the wrong side of justice here. We should pack up and go home. Thanks for your time, Mr. Bieber."

Objection to the objection: Bieber can be heard warning the lawyer not to ask about sensitive subjects, like his possible relationship with other celebrities. Elsewhere, he actually (and hilariously) interposes his own "objection." At a deposition, the lawyer asks the questions, not the witness.

The witness doesn't decide what's relevant. At a deposition, "relevant" subject matter is any question "reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence." It doesn't have to be admissible evidence, just calculated to possibly lead to admissible evidence.

Therefore, virtually any question is arguably proper. That's why grizzled veterans of "deps" routinely acknowledge that, practically, they can feel like a fishing expedition. Bieber may not like the questions, but he takes his chances with the judge if he refuses to answer.

Arguing requires additional words: Don't argue with the lawyer, Justin. The rules of evidence are always skewed in favor of the attorney, and against the witness. Witnesses are often smarter than the lawyer, but the rules simply give the lawyer an overwhelming advantage. Moreover, arguing takes more words than simply answering yes or no.

Bieber's opponent benefits from each additional word Bieber says, because that's part of another sentence the singer needs to testify consistently with at trial. We all know it's nearly impossible to tell the same story twice, but a good cross-examiner will make minor inconsistencies from an earlier deposition look like a flawed memory, or worse, paint the witness as a liar.

In text form, sarcasm doesn't read like sarcasm: Sarcasm is using words to indicate (sarcastically) the opposite of what you really want to say. Sarcasm really comes out in the way you say something.

Q: Did you shoot the sheriff?

A: Oh yeah, sure. I shot the sheriff.

See? Without the benefit of the voice and visual elements of sarcasm, on paper someone just admitted to shooting the sheriff, when maybe they wanted to be sarcastic. Devastating.

For the most part, you're on your own: Bieber's lawyer actively objected to protect his client, but deponents often feel like their lawyers aren't getting involved enough. For the most part, lawyers cannot. The rules of discovery seriously limit how much Bieber's attorney can object. He can object "for the record," which means the judge can later decide if the answer is ultimately admissible at trial. Of course, some questions are so outside the realm of relevance or civility that the attorney has to intervene. The questions about Bieber's personal relationships could potentially fall into this category, because they appear to stretch the boundaries.

It wasn't all terrible: In fairness to Bieber, he did some things right. He made it clear when he did not understand a question. That's critical, because if he answers a question without fully understanding it, the court will later on assume he understood it when he answered it. Bieber appears on the video to really think about the meaning of the questions and his answers. If he could carve out his other behavior, in some respects, he's not half-bad as a deponent.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Danny Cevallos.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT