One of the reasons I’m not a criminal defense lawyer despite my obvious interest in the subject, is that I’m pretty sure it would make me angry all the time.
Even now, when I think about the things I hate about our criminal laws and the way those laws are applied, I get all worked up with simmering rage at the hubris and callousness of those who claim to protect us. The war on drugs, civil forfeiture, border control, violent cops, control-freak legislators, heartless prosecutors — I hate it all, I hate the people responsible for it, and I want them to suffer for the evil that they’ve done.
Eventually, I calm down. And then I write a blog post about it. What you read here is often the product of anger and frustration. Thank you for enabling me.
That little bit of anger serves me well as a blogger, but I’m glad that dealing with the criminal justice system is not my full-time job. I can’t imagine the stress of having to work within the system and having to struggle with all that bullshit every day, with much more than rhetoric on the line. I would probably say something in anger that I’d later regret.
Which brings me to criminal defense blogger Rick Horowitz, who wrote a scathing and angry post about way the criminal justice system will take away people’s rights bit by bit unless you fight over everything.
Not only was it angry, it was apparently also anger-making, because the next day, the courthouse deputies decided it was time for some payback:
…I put my bag on the x-ray machine belt, as always, and pulled out my identification to show, as always. But I was stopped.
“You have to empty your pockets.”
“What?,” I asked.
“You have to empty your pockets.”
The officer said something about a new security issue or something along those lines. He stated that they were making all court personnel and attorneys empty their pockets now.
“A court person went through just ahead of me,” I said, motioning in the direction the prosecutor had gone. “You didn’t check her.”
And then one of them told me it was because of my blog post yesterday. He even specifically referenced the sentence that they found so offensive. “So now you’re a security risk,” I was told.
Rick has since removed some of the offending material from his post — because on re-reading he agreed it went too far. (He’s a former Nobody’s Business co-blogger and a friend, so I won’t quote the excised material, but can find it online if you look.) What he wrote was incendiary, but it doesn’t really justify the response.
The Fresno County Sheriff’s Department, however, has proven that I was on the right track. In addition to the above, I went through two more complete searches — basically, every time I left the court, when I returned, I was searched again. They opened my bag, and then opened everything inside my bag, on the pretense that they were looking for “something metal” that showed up in the x-ray machine. What they did today proved that they can be a lawless force which, when it does not get its way, is to be both feared and resisted.
…At least a few attorneys — including me — think that there was a plan in place this morning to set up a situation where I could be given a beatdown, which almost certainly would have been followed by criminal charges against me for “resisting arrest,” or “assaulting an officer,” or something similar to that. Because that happens to more people than you could possibly imagine, more often than you would believe. And, as I said, there is reason to believe they were trying to set it up — reason enough that another attorney decided to stick around “just in case.” (Which is probably why it didn’t happen.)
I have to admit, my first reaction was that maybe Rick’s being a little paranoid. (A beatdown in the courthouse? Really?) But then I realized that the reason I don’t think of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department as a bunch of feckless thugs is because I really don’t know anything about the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department. I mean, what if it’s run by some kind of psychopathic third-world-dictator-wannabe? You know, like Maricopa.
Today, as I said, I went through three complete searches. I suspect for a long time to come, I’m going to go through more. Until there are enough for me to go to court over it. Because there is no probable cause to search me. I have never done anything illegal, nor have I threatened to do anything illegal, nor would I do anything illegal. I’m carrying the same things in my bag today that I’ve carried every day for as long as I’ve been an attorney. My bag has been through their x-ray machine probably thousands of times over the years, and until today, I never had a problem.Why?
Because piss off a cop — even if it’s just by writing something they don’t like — and they will show you just how far from being public servants they have gone. They are our overlords.
I think that to put this in the right perspective we have to keep in mind Rick is a lawyer, meaning he writes and talks for a living. And that’s all he did in his blog post. He wrote some words. And when he showed up in court, he was just there to drop off some more words.
It was the Sheriff’s deputies who had shown up prepared to do violence. I’m not even talking about the purported plan for delivering a beatdown; I’m talking about their everyday job. If Rick or anyone else had tried to walk through the security checkpoint with going through the required rituals, the deputies were ready with their weapons — guns and batons and maybe tasers and pepper spray — prepared to do violence to anyone who defied them.
In the grand scheme of civilization, that’s a good thing. Sometimes violence is the only way to stop violence, and we need to defend ourselves and the important institutions of our society, which is why we have armies and police forces.
But shouldn’t the people who deal in violence be subject to much more scrutiny than those who deal in words? And shouldn’t they be just a little less sensitive?
I remember when Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot, and all these politicians were getting on television and making pronouncements about inflammatory rhetoric and telling us to “tone it down”. For example:
But in Pima County, Ariz., Sheriff Clarence Dupnik suggested “all this vitriol” in recent political discourse might be connected to Saturday’s shootings. “This may be free speech,” he told reporters, “but it’s not without consequences.”
As I pointed out at the time, Sheriff Dupnik has his own SWAT team. Rick Horowitz and I and a hundred more bloggers like us couldn’t do as much damage in ten years as Dupnik’s SWAT team could do in one bad day. And within four months of my writing that, they had their bad day, when the Pima Sheriff’s office killed U.S. Marine Jose Guerena during an apparently pointless raid on his home.
One of the recurring themes of this blog has been that violence does not magically become non-violent just because it is approved by the criminal justice system. Capital punishment is still the taking of a human life, prison is still caging a human being like an animal, and SWAT raids are still a form of home invasion. They’re not exactly the same — because the police are presumably restrained somewhat — but the damage does not go away. We may permit this violence because we believe it is necessary to prevent greater harm, but it’s still harmful in itself.
Much police violence is not abusive but rather normal police activity. We probably don’t even think of it as violence, but it still takes a toll, as described so well by Nicholas K. Peart, a 23-year old black man living in New York city:
We were talking, watching the night go by, enjoying the evening when suddenly, and out of nowhere, squad cars surrounded us. A policeman yelled from the window, “Get on the ground!”
I was stunned. And I was scared. Then I was on the ground — with a gun pointed at me. I couldn’t see what was happening but I could feel a policeman’s hand reach into my pocket and remove my wallet. Apparently he looked through and found the ID I kept there. “Happy Birthday,” he said sarcastically. The officers questioned my cousin and friend, asked what they were doing in town, and then said goodnight and left us on the sidewalk.
Less than two years later, in the spring of 2008, N.Y.P.D. officers stopped and frisked me, again. And for no apparent reason. This time I was leaving my grandmother’s home in Flatbush, Brooklyn; a squad car passed me as I walked down East 49th Street to the bus stop. The car backed up. Three officers jumped out. Not again. The officers ordered me to stand, hands against a garage door, fished my wallet out of my pocket and looked at my ID. Then they let me go.
I was stopped again in September of 2010. This time I was just walking home from the gym. It was the same routine: I was stopped, frisked, searched, ID’d and let go.
These experiences changed the way I felt about the police. After the third incident I worried when police cars drove by; I was afraid I would be stopped and searched or that something worse would happen. I dress better if I go downtown. I don’t hang out with friends outside my neighborhood in Harlem as much as I used to. Essentially, I incorporated into my daily life the sense that I might find myself up against a wall or on the ground with an officer’s gun at my head.
That isn’t police brutality from a few bad cops, it’s the everyday behavior of New York’s finest. And it’s exactly what the police department wants them to do. Low-level violence of this sort is part of the job description.
If you think it’s no big deal, if you think “Oh, it’s just a stop-and-frisk,” or “Oh, it’s just an arrest,” then you’re missing the reality of what’s happening. As Molly Crabapple says,
Arrest is always violent. The NYPD may or may not break your ribs, but the process of arrest in America is still a man tying your hands behind your back at gunpoint and locking you in a cage. Holding cells are shit-encrusted boxes, often too crowded to sit down. Police can leave you there for three days; long enough to lose your job. If this seems obvious, I say it because the polite middle classes trivialize arrest. They talk about “keeping people off the streets.” They don’t realize that the constant threat of arrest is traumatic, unless it happens to them or their kids.
Getting back to Rick Horowitz’s confrontation, the Fresno County Sheriff’s police bring that threat of arrest to work every day. I wish they’d pay more attention to how they conduct themselves, and less attention to a guy who’s only bringing words.