Carl Poplar is still tougher than anyone else
Published in 2011 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine
on March 16, 2011
Updated on June 9, 2011
It was a late August night in 1971, and Carl Poplar was meeting with a handful of fellow lawyers and colleagues inside his Camden office. Their discussion, focused and hopeful, was about the possibility of Poplar’s good friend, Jim Florio, running for Congress. Outside, however, something disquieting was brewing in the streets.
Poplar, 27 at the time, had started his own law practice just two years earlier, after a six-month stint at Camden Regional Legal Services. He was already well known as a champion of the city’s poorest and most disenfranchised.
Specializing in criminal and civil defense, Poplar had a list of clients ranging from blue-collar men and women accused of petty street crimes to high-profile community activists like Charles “Poppy” Sharp, head of the Black People’s Unity Movement. Poplar, who received many cases needing public defenders, was, in his own words, “one of the city’s designated liberal lawyers,” and he was working in a rough part of town.
And he was respected.
“When I was working for Legal Services out of law school, I had an office in a very blighted area of the city,” says Poplar from the conference room of his present-day office on Kings Highway in Cherry Hill. A soft-spoken, bespectacled man of 67, Poplar sinks deeply into his chair, his hands folded neatly on the reflective table, telling his stories with a measured cadence and humility. It’s difficult to imagine his younger self, surrounded as he was by chaos.
“Within weeks of working at Legal Services, someone broke into our office and stole all of our equipment. The next day, I mentioned it to some people in the neighborhood that this had happened, and a few days later I got to my office to find everything had been returned.” He pauses, smiling only a little. “I could walk the streets of Camden as a kid in my 20s without any problem. Because everyone knew me.”
That reputation would prove influential on that fateful night in 1971.
As the meeting for Florio’s fledgling campaign came to a close, Poplar and his friends left the office to find a troubling scene unfolding. Windows were being broken up and down the street. The glow of small fires could be seen in the distance.
It was the start of the infamous Camden riots of 1971, a three-day spree of looting, arson and violence that plunged the already troubled city into decades of ruination from which it still has yet to fully recover.
The riots began after word spread that a Puerto Rican motorist named Horacio Jimenez had been pulled over and beaten to near death by city police. The looting and destruction started that Thursday night, and the next morning Jimenez’s family reached out to Poplar. He agreed to represent them if they decided to sue.
By Friday night the city was in full tumult, cordoned off from the outside world; a veritable war zone of tear gas, burning homes and bullets whizzing through the streets. “[Jimenez] was essentially brain-dead at Cooper Hospital,” recalls Poplar. Braving the violence, flames and tear gas of the streets, Poplar made his way to the hospital and instructed the doctors watching over Jimenez to keep him on the respirator, fearing the violence would escalate were Jimenez declared dead. And though Jimenez died a few days later—and his family’s lawsuit never materialized—the moment was transformative for the young lawyer.
But there is little boasting in the remembrances of Poplar, now one of the state’s most celebrated criminal and civil defense lawyers. “It was all step by step, piece by piece,” says Poplar. “I was just a pedestrian, blue-collar worker handling cases. I still am.”
Poplar’s sympathies for the working class can be traced to his youth, which he spent in the East Oak Lane section of North Philadelphia. It was a close-knit, blue-collar neighborhood of row homes, where everyone knew everybody else.
He had no intentions of becoming a lawyer. While earning his bachelor’s degree at Syracuse University, gymnastics was his main interest. But as graduation loomed in 1964, he began thinking about a career.
“My life, at the time, was sports. The thought was that there was a lot of flexibility in the practice of law, but I wasn’t committed to being a lawyer,” he says. “I sort of evolved into the practice of law. It wasn’t until I was enrolled in law school that I actually committed to becoming a lawyer.”
Justin Walder has been a friend and colleague of Poplar’s for more than 30 years. A celebrated attorney in his own right, practicing white-collar criminal defense and complex corporate litigation, Walder believes Poplar’s athletic competitiveness helped shape him into the tenacious lawyer he became.
“I think people who have grown up in reasonably modest circumstances and who have the athletic ability Carl does,” says Walder, “have that competitive spirit, and I’ve always believed that helps one in practicing our profession. You learn not to give up. If some things are going against you, you learn to be persistent. You also learn to take an occasional defeat and not let it deflate your ability to keep moving forward in a positive direction.”
Poplar enrolled at Rutgers School of Law, graduating in 1967. It was the year he had his first brush with civil disobedience, and the year he took his bar exam in Newark, which was undergoing its own transformative riots. Between July 12 and 17 of that year, the looting, arson and violence left 26 dead and hundreds injured. After seeing it up close, he decided to stay in Camden and work for the poor.
After helping found Camden Regional Legal Services, Poplar opened his own practice in 1969.
“The day I opened, I had wall-to-wall people in my office. Not people with money, mind you. But it looked like a doctor’s office every time I came back from court,” he says. “I had hundreds of cases. And my clients had tens of dollars, not thousands of dollars. But I was doing cases all day long, trials one day after another. It was a lot of street crimes and small personal injury cases. Then they got to be bigger crimes and bigger personal injury cases.”
When asked if this was a lot of weight on young shoulders, he shrugs it off.
“It was just an interesting time,” he says. “I was doing a lot of cases.”
Many of those cases left Poplar with troubling memories. He recalls representing a client charged with fraud 20 years ago. Poplar says he told the judge his client was suicidal and needed treatment before he could stand trial, but the judge refused to take him seriously, even though Poplar had testimony from several psychiatrists.
“One afternoon at the start of the sentencing hearing, we came into the courtroom and my client had a gun on him. This was just one week before they installed metal detectors in the courtroom,” recalls Poplar. “And he’s standing before the judge, who had [heard] the most qualified psychiatrists in the region all saying he was suicidal. Well, the judge spoke a bit more forcefully than he should have. He was being a bit provocative. So my client took out his gun and shot himself right there in front of the judge.”
The emotional impact of this event, like many Poplar has witnessed over the course of his career, didn’t sink in right away.
“The first day, you’re numb,” he says. “I was a little angry, but I didn’t get emotionally beat up until a day or two later, when I had a chance to reflect. You have a lot of events like that.”
His long list of accomplishments and plaudits includes fellowships in the American College of Trial Lawyers, the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, and the American Board of Criminal Lawyers; and serving on the editorial board of the New Jersey Law Journal for the past 15 years. Poplar is particularly proud of his role in co-founding the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey (ACDL-NJ) in 1984. There’s a story here, too.
One night in the fall of 1984, Poplar received a call from his good friend and fellow defense lawyer Eddie Jacobs, who told Poplar to drop what he was doing and drive down to Atlantic City, where the U.S. attorney’s office was investigating organized crime in the city.
“You don’t ask questions,” says Poplar of the trust among his community of trial lawyers. “You simply cancel your plans and go.”
Jacobs told Poplar that the U.S. attorney’s office wanted Mayor Michael Matthews to cooperate in its investigation and become a covert operative by scheduling meetings with crime suspects and wearing a wire. But the mayor, concerned for his safety, balked. Poplar and Jacobs advised him that he didn’t have to cooperate if he didn’t want to.
The mayor’s decision greatly upset the federal investigators, and the following day both Poplar and Jacobs were targeted for obstruction of justice charges and served with a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury early the following week.
“In the meantime, I went out to lunch a few days later with a half-dozen defense lawyers from New Jersey, including Eddie,” recalls Poplar. “We went to a small Jewish delicatessen in a blighted section of Camden, and Joe [Hayden Jr.] finally says, ‘This is terrible what they’re doing! Targeting lawyers? This just isn’t right.’”
So this small group of New Jersey trial lawyers went on to form the ACDL-NJ, a selective and tightly knit organization, to give security, education and a “sense of mission” to lawyers who specialize in criminal defense in the Garden State.
Hayden, who served as the ACDL-NJ’s first president, says Poplar has been a valuable asset to the organization.
“Carl is really a lawyer’s lawyer,” says Hayden. “Not only is he a true scholar who gets very involved in ethical and legal concepts at the highest level, but he can scrap with anybody in court. He is truly relentless in his efforts on behalf of his clients. This guy can fight anybody, and his keen mind can analyze any issue. He has tremendous stamina and fearlessness.”
Poplar says he gets a lot of strength and support from his fellow trial lawyers.
“It’s a limited number of people who do criminal defense work, and it’s a true brotherhood and sisterhood,” says Poplar. “We’re different than people who do big firm work. It’s a whole different concept, a whole different world.
“You really can’t explain it, because it sounds too trite, but you’re really fighting against tyranny. A democracy is always on the edge of a tyrannical government, and you’ve got to keep that intact because there’s so much freedom—and freedom begets power, power begets abuses.”
Which gets to the heart of Poplar’s lifelong motivation as a criminal defense lawyer.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” says Poplar, whose practice also includes class action, health care fraud, personal injury, antitrust and business litigation cases. “There’ve been some good times and some bad times. It’s been hard work. And I don’t have any retirement plans right now. I’m still in reasonably good shape. Obviously, I was physically tougher years ago. But I’m still tougher than anybody else.”
And has that toughness made a difference in the world?
Poplar pauses to think. “I would have liked to have made a difference, and I don’t know that I have. Because I’m still fighting the wars.”