This morning/afternoon I took part in an “exchange of dialogue” on Twitter (conversation? Who knows what to call these things) about some of the stigma attached to being a criminal defense attorney. It was a good exchange, mostly involving fellow practitioners and especially a handful of defenders–so it wasn’t particularly adversarial to say the least. The dialogue, however, reminds me of a question that is always always asked of me and people who do or want to do what I plan to do: “How can you defend those people??” or other such statements, which call to question one’s ability and/or desire to represent the accused.
First of all, I’ve been involved in the legal profession for nearly a decade. There are not too many opportunities to defend someone in criminal court who has not been accused. Being accused is more often than not the first step in the process.
Next, I think that many people miss the point on what defenders do. Granted, I am drawing this conclusion based on why I am involved with and desire to practice criminal defense. Yes, desire to practice criminal defense. I made a point in the conversation that I think will become a very real, but soon to be very repeated statement regarding my choices and desires:
When you defend one (accused) you defend all (people).
To defenders, this is probably something that immediately makes sense. To the outsider, the non-believer, the one who believes in the presumption of guilt, not so much. Think about it. Many of these cases boil down to the violation of someone’s constitutional rights. At least, that’s the cases you read about, typically with a headline that states “Charges dropped based on technicality”
Here’s the raw truth, that may help some shift the paradigm and begin to understand why I want to defend. You’ve got to start thinking of these charges from the perspective of accusing the absolutely innocent. Do not mistake this for some naive thought that everyone is innocent, I am not saying that. Assume the innocent person, you or your grandmother, driving down the street. Some pissed off-road raged ape aggressively passes your hero, but that’s not enough. His adrenaline-fueled rage is not satisfied with just passing–he decides for whatever reason to call the police, and report your hero’s vehicle for erratic driving. He states the location of the vehicle and enough of a description of the vehicle and the erratic driving that the police decide to intervene. Our road raged miscreant gives enough of a description that the police decide to intervene.
Your hero is arrested.
Your hero is charged with suspicion of Driving Under the Influence.
There was a recent Supreme Court Decision that allowed the police reasonable suspicion to stop/arrest for DUI based on the above set of “facts.”
I can’t make this up, The case is called Navarette v. California and it was ruled on in January 2014.
So what, you’re saying. The guy was probably guilty? My response to you is “so what” right back at you. If you care at all individually about whether or not Navarette was or was not guilty then you’ve missed the entire point. Because of this case, and how the Supreme Court ruled on it, the scenario I described above CAN and probably WILL happen to someone completely and one hundred percent innocent. If you’re looking at something to get upset about, now you should be upset.
Every single case influences and becomes persuasive toward other cases, at least within that local court system, or state jurisdiction. It all matters, no matter how big, no matter how small.
Defense attorneys are out there, in that moment, defending their client. You need to take a moment to realize how much bigger the picture really is. The moment a court rules that it’s ok for a bail bondsman to come barging into the door, hold suspects(not their bailees) at gunpoint, and call the police to come and arrest, the moment that anyone can barge into your house for any reason, then justify it by calling the police and claiming that there was contraband present. Don’t worry though, a colleague of mine and I did what we could to give the local newspaper another headline about that grand “technicality.”
This isn’t a public service announcement. I’m not asking you to hug a defense attorney, or even call one and thank them–just think twice before spitting on our shoes.
Maryland Attorney Jobeth Bowers is the founder of Bowers Law and a graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law