Our Justice is Criminal 092111
I was talking with a friend the other day about a local boy who drank too much and developed a case of legal troubles. The local boy accepted a deal with the legal system even though he felt he was innocent of the charges. The friend is slowing down his elbow-bending in his dotage, but has been known to have a dram or two and drive his enormous car slowly and carefully down the middle of the street late at night to get home. My friend may have been drinking prior to our conversation, because he made this statement: If you’re innocent, you should fight it.
That’s bullshit on so many levels, I scarcely know where to start. Let’s start with the most obvious first.
1. Court is not an even playing field; people do not stop being human when they put on a long black dress. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not accusing Sierra County judges of being myopic, culture-bound elitists. I have every confidence that they try to adhere to the law and animate it with justice. No doubt they work hard to bring fairness to the courtroom. But, rarely are things black and white. Human interactions are subtle, we make truth claims and spin the reality subtly to match our claims; it’s how we make meaning, we can’t help it. At some point the judge either believes you or not, and to make that choice she or he must rely on the intuition and gut conviction we all use in life. The process of seeking that intuition relies on the life experiences and fundamental morality which shaped the judge’s character. Her honor can’t stop being human. Likewise the judge is faced not with facts but with people, accuser and defendant, and the judge will have had past experiences with some in the court to found confidence on, but perhaps no past with you.
2. Court is an arcane, counter-intuitive land, in which being innocent is simply not enough. Not everything is admissible as evidence. What seems like strong evidence to you may not hold the same weight to the court. People you thought were on your side behave differently on the witness stand. There is often not enough or not conclusive physical evidence, but what physical evidence there is will be weighed heavily. Eye witness testimony is not very reliable evidence. The court is law, which is bureaucratic hairsplitting, brought to life as justice, which is bureaucrats splitting previously split hairs. There is a process to law which is highly constrained, and those who are familiar with it are graceful on the field, and you are a stranger in a strange land, and in harm’s way.
3. You are a bit player in a tiny theater with great stars. When you land in the courtroom you are probably the only person there who doesn’t know everyone else. Court is a job, a dramaturgical set on which people play different parts. Day in and day out, they play these parts. They might like each other, or hate each other, but either way what they all really want is to do their job and go home. They want the day to go smoothly. You’ll come in, they’ll each play their part around you, and you’ll go out and someone else will come in. In the courtroom, only you are not an expert. If you hire an expert, you hire someone with more in common culturally, and perhaps in class as well, with the others in the room than with you. Your expert wants to do his or her job and go home. They do this job for money. If you have to rely on the public defender, who you might also have to pay for if you find money, you are then represented by the person who is typically among the lowest ranking of the stars in the theater, and one who wants to get along with the others.
4. Justice ain’t for the po’ boy. A favorite curse: May you be involved in a court case in which you know you are right. My ill-informed, court loving friend has no dependents but his liver, he owns nothing to take away except his enormous gross polluter car. He has friends with Visa cards who would work to keep him out of the jug. But, in real life, people with legal problems often have kids and money problems. A working man with house payments and car payments and doctor bills and all simply can’t afford an attorney, simply taking time off work to go to court could cost him his job. Court is designed the way it is for a reason: to put people in jail. It works like this: something happens, a cop comes, he arrests you on suspicion of this, when you get to jail it’s changed to suspicion of this and that, and when you go to court it’s this that and the other. Now, you can try to fight this that and the other, but then the charges might change. If you fight this that and the other and lose, you’ll go to jail. If you simply accept this lessor charge of this, you’ll probably get probation or drug court or whatever. If you really are innocent, and you really can afford a San Francisco attorney, you’ll probably go free. Most people can’t afford that kind of justice, so most cases never get judged by twelve citizens.
5. No one is innocent. I once knew a bad cop, and he told me, “everybody’s guilty of something, they just haven’t slipped up yet.” It’s really true, you break laws you don’t even know are laws all the time. Cops and judges can find you guilty of amazing shit! For example, if cops get a complaint and go to your door, and you’re drunk as a lord inside your own house, all the cops have to do is get your to come out on your front porch and you’re drunk in public, off to jail you go. If they can just get you to step off the curb, they’ve really got you. Did you know you can be found guilty of drunk driving even if your car is turned off in parking lot? If you have a license, keys to the car, and are drunk, you’re driving drunk, or at least you might drive drunk and that’s good enough for the law. I personally know someone who was found guilty of driving drunk because he was drunk in the back seat of a car. I know someone who was found guilty of driving with an open container because there was a case of empties in the back seat. This is America, you don’t have to be guilty of doing something, you can be guilty because you could do something. Further, California hates guns. Just having a gun while being accused of a crime, even if the gun wasn’t part of the situation, prejudices the court against you. Guns are scary. Good people aren’t scary. There are all kinds of ways guns can get you accused of serious crimes, even though you did nothing wrong. Someone cobbles together a restraining order, even if it’s fabricated, the cops come for your guns. Simply owning a gun is effectively a crime in California.
The biggest issue with fighting a charge instead of copping a deal is that, if you win, nothing happens to anyone. The cop and DA go about their business, the judge goes home to dinner and TV and you try to find a way to pay your legal bills and court fees. If you lose, everyone goes about their lives but you go to jail. Now, if you won and the DA went to jail, that might be a level playing field, but it ain’t. If you won and the DA paid your legal bills, that would help, but that isn’t justice in America.
There’s a reason most people plea bargain: the system is set up for that. The DA files charges assuming plea bargaining; like drug court, there is a carrot and stick. The carrot is, you cooperate with us, we don’t hurt you too bad. The stick is, you fight us, we’ll go for blood.
You believe anything else, and you spent too much time reading your 8th grade civics book, because the real world isn’t like that.