Coincidence, Ethics Violation, Or A Playground Rhyme Come True: The Lawyer’s Burning Pants

I love this story!

 Miami defense lawyer’ Stephen Gutierrez shocked onlookers when his pants burst into flames mid-trial as he was addressing the  jury. Gutierrez was defending a client  accused of intentionally setting his car on fire in South Miami. Yes, it was an arson case. He had just begun his closing argument when smoke started billowing from his pants pocket.

By sheer coincidence I’m sure, the lawyer was arguing that the defendant’s car spontaneously combusted—just like the lawyer’s trousers!— and was not intentionally set on fire. Observers told police that Gutierrez had been fiddling in his pocket right before his pants ignited. He ran out of the courtroom, and the jurors were ushered out as well. After  Gutierrez returned unharmed, he told the judge that  it wasn’t a staged  demonstration gone horribly wrong, but just a coincidence. A faulty battery in his e-cigarette had caused the fire.

In an arson trial.

During closing argument.

Where the defense was “spontaneous combustion.”


Jurors convicted Gutierrez’s client of second-degree arson anyway. Miami-Dade police and prosecutors are now investigating the episode, and Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman is deciding whether to hold him in contempt of court.


1. There are four possible  Florida legal ethics violations here. The first is Rule 4-3.5, which prohibits lawyers from intentionally disrupting a tribunal. I think setting your pants on fire qualifies. Next would be Rule 4- 8.4’s prohibition against misrepresentation, fraud, deceit or dishonesty. Rigging a “spontaneous” fire would be dishonest by definition. Another section of the same rule prohibits “conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice…”. That rule is made for the periodic absurd trial tactic that nobody dreamed a lawyer would dare to try outside of a bad TV lawyer show. Finally, 8.4 (b) makes it professional misconduct for a lawyer to “commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.”

This covers setting off  a fire in a public building, even if it was intended as “zealous representation.”

2. Now, I suppose it’s always possible that Gutierrez really was just a victim of the most astounding coincidence in trial history, and that his pants, without any intentional intervention by him, just happened to spontaneously combust,  just like his client’s car. If that is not the case, then the lawyer is also guilty of lying to a judge and law enforcement, and could end up in jail.

3.  Reportedly the investigation will determine whether his tongue is longer than a telephone wire.


17 thoughts on “Coincidence, Ethics Violation, Or A Playground Rhyme Come True: The Lawyer’s Burning Pants

  1. In his defense, I have actually had a similar incident, where I put one of these gadgets in my pants pocket and accidentally triggered it. It hurt like hell!

  2. Sometimes amazing coincidences do happen so I’ll wait for the results of the investigation. If he is exonerated, should he sue the manufacturer of the device for damage to his professional reputation and a new pair of pants or just leave well enough alone?

  3. Considering the proximity of the fire to his nether regions, it would be a VERY high-risk play, regardless of how much he was being paid. If it was in fact caused by an e-cig in his pocket (still an open question), I’d tend to believe him but it’s doubtful that the device malfunctioned. More likely, the power button was inadvertently pressed for an extended time while in his pocket. User error, but the heat could conceivably cause combustion. Most devices have safety features to prevent this but not all. When you hear about “exploding e-cigs” in the news, nearly all the stories are actually “exploding batteries” caused by people carrying loose batteries which come into contact with coins or keys. Exploding batteries are very dangerous and I cannot imagine someone voluntarily doing such a thing outside of an episode of Jackass.

    That said, it’s still a great story.

  4. If I were the judge, I would have check if the lawyer had so advance preparation… like fire proof underwear. Would go to malice aforethought, so to speak.

    On the other hand, burns would not be evidence that he did not do this on purpose: some lawyers will do ANYTHING to win a case. 🙂

  5. I wouldn’t jump to the most negative conclusion like the judge did. Too much of a rush to judgement. (No pun intended.)

    E-cig fires are not unheard of. Lots of reports of burned pants, briefcases, purses, etc.. They’ve even taken down a fed-ex 747, killing two crew.

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