Drunk & Disorderly

On the Docket of a Colorado Criminal Defense Attorney

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Gee, Officer Krupke


[courtesy of The Alan Blueford Center For Justice]

I’m just a plainspoken Colorado criminal defense lawyer, but the way I see it…

A colleague reminded me that today is the 19th National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation. They’re talking about my kids’ generation.

Every day since the first protest in 1996, all six thousand five hundred and seventy-five of them, should have been a day of protest against an entrenched brutality that deserves no place in a civilized nation.

My kids have seen police draw weapons on high school students suspected of having a drink at a party. My kids themselves have had weapons, including assault rifles, pointed at them by police. In my generation the toughest situation I faced with a police officer was when the guy was frisking me and I couldn’t stop jumping around I was so ticklish, and his rookie partner couldn’t stop laughing.

It’s been a long and ugly road to Ferguson.

Probably every criminal defense lawyer has had clients who were brutalized or humiliated by police, clients attacked in their own homes and then charged with assault on a police officer when they resisted the brutality.

Just a week ago, a federal jury awarded $4.6 million to the family of a street preacher who was killed in the booking room of the Denver jail in 2010. An old man, he was piled on by four deputies, handcuffed, choked out, tasered, and left for dead in a cell. I’m not saying they knew he was dead, I’m saying he was dead. The reason for the vigilante death penalty? He yanked his arm away when a fifth deputy had grabbed him unawares, from behind, the kind of thing anyone would do when grabbed from behind. They could have saved everybody the trouble and just shot him in the back.

None of the deputies was disciplined, not even docked in pay for the two minutes it took them to kill him. Par for the course for the Denver sheriff’s department, which had another three-point-something million dollar police brutality award against them this summer. Google “Denver police brutality,” and the Huffington Post, which covers news of national significance, ran twenty-six stories just from summer 2011 to summer 2013.

That’s a whole lot of beatin’ going on.

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Child Killer

I’m just a plainspoken Colorado criminal defense lawyer, but the way I see it…

“John Doe” sits alone in a Pennsylvania jail cell day after day. He is accused of murdering a 90-year-old woman with his bare hands. The other day his jailers brought him something to kill the tedium of waiting for trial: a coloring book. He’s ten years old.

He’s being tried as if he were thirty.

That is, unless and until that state’s prosecutor comes to his or her senses, and moves the case into juvenile court where crayons and such are more the order of the day.

Yes, it’s a very serious crime (or at least, event — first they’ve got to prove it was a crime), and yes, it’s a very serious breach of civilized standards to haul a fifth grader into adult court, and jail him in a place where some inmates are dreaming of a prepubescent Christmas.

Speaking of Christmas, does anybody seriously think competent to stand trial, a person who believes in a couple of months Santa Claus will be sliding down his chimney?

The kid could get life in prison, where presumably someone would break it to him that they don’t have accessible chimneys in prison.

It’s embarrassing but true: this kind of thing can only happen in America — oh, and Somalia, the other member of the United Nations that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. For some reason all the other countries think locking up a child for life is just no fair.

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Not So Black and White

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[Guest Blogger Lauren Witte is associate director of client services for the drug crime defense firm Jackson White in Mesa, Arizona. She writes with a particular courage from the battleground of Maricopa County, whose notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio likes to dress his inmates in pink panties, just so long as they're men. I heard somewhere Joe favors the underdrawers because Mrs. Arpaio forbids that kind of thing around home.]

What is the Status of The War on Drugs?

In 1971, U.S. President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, and law enforcement and prosecutors across the country began aggressively enforcing and punishing low-level drug crimes, particularly in neighborhoods of poor minorities. Since Nixon’s declaration, the prison population in the United States has risen by 700%.

According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, there were more African-American men in prison or “under the watch” of the justice system in 2011 than were enslaved in the U.S. in 1850. That is a shocking statistic, to say the least.

System of Racial and Social Control

Alexander explains, “…our criminal justice system now functions more like a system of racial and social control, than a system of crime prevention or control.” Though African-Americans reportedly make up only 12% of drug users in the U.S., 34% of those arrested for drug offenses in this country are black.

Who uses drugs more?

A study given by the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that white students are using cocaine and heroin at a rate seven times higher than their African-American counterparts, and crack at a rate eight times higher.

Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki reminds us of the common preconception that crack is a ‘black’ drug while cocaine is a ‘white’ one. This is not the case, says Jarecki. “The majority of crack users in the United States of America are and always have been white.”

Nonetheless, 80% of those sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws were African-Americans. According to the Sentencing Project, black Americans currently have a 20% higher chance of going to prison for a drug offense than whites, with Hispanics having a 40% higher chance.

Obama and the War on Drugs

Though Obama has been a vocal critic of our nation’s incarceration discrepancies between blacks and white for drug crimes, his administration continues to vilify even the most minor drug offenses.

In a report released in July of this year, officials from the Obama administration promised “to use evidence-based practices to combat drug abuse” in the United States. The report encouraged public education and health programs, better reentry programs, and more compassionate messaging, rather than increased prosecution.

If government officials really want to come off as more compassionate towards drug users, they have a long way to go. Who can forget the national ad campaign featuring erratic and horrific behavior with the tagline, “This is your brain on drugs”?

Marijuana vs. Other Drugs

Perhaps the most alarming hypocrisy by the Obama administration is the refusal by the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration to label marijuana as a less harmful drug than heroin, cocaine, or meth.

As opposed to meth, cocaine, and heroin, which contribute to thousands of deaths in this country every year, not a single person has ever fatally overdosed from marijuana.

Prohibition vs. Legalization

While Obama claims he is working to decriminalize drug addiction and label it instead as a disease, it’s pretty tough to decriminalize something that is, by definition, a crime. Violence related to drug prohibition causes thousands of deaths every year in the United States, not to mention those murdered in supplier nations like Afghanistan, Colombia, and Mexico.

Instead of moving towards more lenient penalties for low-level drug offenses, prosecutors in the U.S. continue to arrest and imprison, taking more workers from the economy and breaking up more families. Additionally, those arrested find it much harder to find employment with a criminal record.

Widespread legalization of every drug probably isn’t the answer, but working to decrease penalties and prison or jail sentences for minor drug offenses will point us in the right direction.

The First Step

So, before we can truly mend our nation’s trend of arresting and incarcerating countless men and women of color for minor drug offenses, we must first work to de-stigmatize minor drug use in this country.

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Black Is the New Orange

I’m just a plainspoken Colorado criminal defense lawyer, but the way I see it…

We’ve always been a little backward in this country concerning women behind bars, and the violent things done to many of them, mostly by men, that sometimes help put them there.

October 2014, by presidential proclamation, is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. For many criminal defense lawyers, that’s every month. I’ve defended men who have beaten women, women who have beaten men, and men and women who have beaten no one. In many cases, prosecutors don’t know the difference, and don’t want to. They like to say, we treat everyone the same. But everyone is not the same. Everyone has his or her own story. Prosecutors, many of them, don’t want to hear these stories. They don’t have time for them. Their job isn’t to take the time, it’s to give the time. Jail time.

How did we get here?

This year, it’s because it’s the twentieth anniversary of a stunning act of the United States Congress — stunning in that it needed to be enacted at all — the Violence Against Women Act.

Before VAWA:

  • A man could say, she slept with half the football team; I almost made the squad, so why not me.
  • A woman would have to pay for her own rape exam, or forfeit the evidence.
  • She’d have to pay for service of a protection order against her rapist, or be forced to chat politely should he visit again.
  • Protection orders could be ignored.
  • Police might not even respond to crisis calls involving spouses, much less make an arrest.
  • It was considered less serious to rape your wife or date than to rape a stranger.
  • Stalking was a male pastime, especially at work, where the pickings were plentiful. Mad Men, anyone?

After VAWA:

  • More than 200,000 women are wearing the orange.
  • More than one million are on probation and parole.
  • Of these two groups of women, more than one million have been domestically and/or sexually abused.

Let’s get out there and celebrate.

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Judge Not, Lest Ye Be…a Judge

Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett (Self-Portrait)

Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett (Self-Portrait)

 

I’m just a plainspoken Colorado criminal defense lawyer, but the way I see it…

The other day the American Bar Association Journal asked a very important judicial question: Is it unseemly that a Texas justice is a big Tweeter? I don’t think they were using a euphemism for something else, and I don’t think they were implying a Texas justice is any less qualified to be a big Tweeter. I hope not, anyway: my mother was from Texas.

What the Journal means is that Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett is approaching his thirteen thousandth Tweet on Twitter. Now I haven’t figured Twitter out, but I always thought it was for famous folk and their fans, for the kind of people who used to sell Ginsu knives on TV, for people who like to report just how many minutes they flossed their teeth today, for people who are just too damn sick of staring at the floor. For people who take a more, shall I say, casual approach to life.

But then Justice Willett is a casual kind of justice: he used to play a little backstick on the drums and ride the rodeo bulls — but, as it turns out, never at the same time. What kind of Supreme Court Justice calls himself “Don” instead of “Donald,” anyway? (Though, there is also a “Phil” and a “Jeff” on that court.)

Can you imagine anyone telling Antonin Scalia, “Hey Tony, would ya shut up a minute and let me talk?” Or “Clare, ya knucklehead, would you ask a question already?”

I can’t agree with that New York City law professor who thinks judges ought to be demure, that it’s the price they pay for being a judge.

I like a comfortable judge, a judge who lives it large.

Here are some of Justice Willett’s (I already can’t stop thinking of him as “Donny”) latest Tweets:

 

God. Got. Game.

God. Got. Game.

 

YESTERDAY—I’m featured in @nytimes Opinion page.

TODAY—NYT says it’s shutting down its Opinion mobile app.

My work here is done.

 

RT if you share my dream of hiring Matthew @mcconaughey as #SCOTX bailiff just so he’ll open court with, “All rise! All rise! All rise!”

 

Small victories.

Small victories.

 

Happy b'day to Thomas Jefferson — who at age 33 wrote the greatest break-up letter of all time.

Happy b’day to Thomas Jefferson — who at age 33 wrote the greatest break-up letter of all time.

 

And my personal favorite:

I like big bundts & I cannot lie.

I like big bundts & I cannot lie.

 

As for the ABA Journal’s question about whether all this is unseemly for a judge?

Donny’s own answer:

I’m going with “No.”

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