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Although ‘all men are created equal,’ some are more equal than others

November 16, 2011

1. History, 2. Law

Although ‘all men are created equal,’ some are more equal than others

I’ll always remember two cases that came up within several days of each other.  It was winter.  One was with a guy I knew my entire life.  His driver’s license was suspended.  Lived in a trailer.  Ran out of oil.  He drove about three miles into town to get five gallons of kerosene.  The option was leaving the trailer with his two boys – it was a very cold night.  On the drive back, a local cop pulled him over.  He explained his plight.  The cop wrote him up anyway.

In the other case, a doctor blew through a stop sign to enter US Route 6.  He wasn’t late or rushing to save a life.  He was just arrogant.  A state trooper gave him a ticket.

I sat with the DA.  My life-long friend was facing 90 days in jail.  Not only would it ruin him financially, the custody of his kids would be in jeopardy.  The doctor’s ticket would push him over six points resulting in a suspension (for personal use only – he could still drive for work purposes).

“He should have known better,” the DA said about my friend.  “I’m pushing forward.”

“We’ll put this ticket on the shelf,” he said about the doctor.  “If he’s clean for six months, I’ll throw it away.”

The difference in treatment, to me, seemed to be rooted in economics.  My friend was poor; the doctor was not.  The DA could expect – dare I say – a campaign contribution from one but not the other.  I have no idea if that entered the DA’s mind.  Neither client had a criminal history.  The impact on their lives of playing hardball with my friend would be devastating and with the doctor minimal.  So why the difference?  Just as a note, the judge was compassionate with my friend.  He did get the mandatory 90-day sentence, but the judge suspended it and instructed him to stay clean for the 90 days.  The DA was not happy.

I’ve always done public-defender work.  It’s a moral duty – although some courts make it a requirement, too.  But a larger part of my practice has been representing those people that don’t qualify for a PD but likewise cannot cough $3,000 for a defense.  I’ve had clients pay me something out of every paycheck – little here, little there … it all adds up.  It has nothing to do with “low fees and payment plans” – which I’ve seen in lawyer ads and it just makes me want to vomit.  We’re not used cars.  I don’t have low fees or payment plans.  I just have compassion.  I know what it’s like to be financially comfortable, and I know what it’s like to go to bed hungry.  I’ve lived the entire cycle – up, down, down further, up a little, down again, and so on.

I don’t want you reading this and thinking I’m a soft touch.  I don’t take every case that walks through the door.  I’ve sued clients that ignored my reasonable expectations of payment.  I also had a client show up at my office with a live chicken as payment, which I politely declined.  And I have three loaves of zucchini bread in the freezer that I took as payment in full for a rather complex case 15 years ago.

We’re all in this together.  You got into a problem, and I can be part of the solution.  We treat each other fairly and with dignity, and we make our financial relationship work.  The only product I have to sell, remember, is my time.  Not paying me for time devoted to you is the same as me taking the product you have without giving something in return.  That dog don’t hunt.  We’re all adults and equals here.

But I get it, too.  I know the system is fully aware of who’s poor and who’s not.  I know that “justice is blind” is a goal but too often not the reality.  The issue is rarely seen in public – trials and judges are very clean.  Instead, it happens out of view – the actions of a cop or a prosecutor.  But don’t think for a moment that I’m nailing them or accusing them of wrong behavior.  I have unqualified respect for cops, and most DAs are unerringly straight shooters.  But on balance, sometimes, kinda sorta, and however else you want to qualify it, the overall picture seems to result in different treatment.

Don’t worry about it.  My job is to level the playing field.  Your job is to remember that I didn’t cause the problem – and that I’m dedicated to being a part of the solution.

Don’t whine about being picked on.  Just work with me to solve the problem.

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About Clyde

Clyde is the lead attorney in the firm. Licensed to practice in 1993, he's also taught Constitutional and Criminal Law for several years at a private university, primarily at the Master's level.

View all posts by Clyde

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