Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Bieber, don't argue with the lawyers

By Danny Cevallos, CNN Legal Analyst
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2102 GMT (0502 HKT)
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
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT