It’s kind of cliché to say that cops and the justice system don’t always jive really well. We’re kind of the stepchildren to the attorneys that really run the show. We confront the law breakers, interview the witnesses and victims, and complete the paperwork necessary to get the ball rolling; but aside from making sure every proverbial and literal box is checked and potentially providing a deposition or testimony in court, we really don’t get any control over what happens next.
On rare occasions, I have been approached by someone I have previously arrested that wanted to thank me for getting them on the right path. Other times, and unfortunately more frequently, I’ve arrested folks multiple times for similar crimes. Even more heartbreaking are the career criminals, the real dregs of society who decide that prison isn’t in their cards again and decide to take the life of some law enforcement officer who is simply doing what he or she is paid to do.
We’re told time and again that our legal system is the best in the world. I agree, there are some pretty jacked up systems out there, and ours is ok-ish. In my own personal experience, prosecuting attorneys seem to hate the idea of taking cases to trial. Plea deals for lesser crimes are cheaper, easier, and faster to prevent a court docket from swelling.
The truth of the matter is that our justice system is set up so that one attorney gets another attorney paid. If a criminal can afford a snake charming defense attorney with resources and fancy expert witnesses at their disposal, a criminal case brought before a bench trial or jury trial seems like a long shot while the prosecuting attorney has little budgetary monies set aside for such fanciness. The extra expense for a high dollar defense attorney is worth it to an offender, because a plea deal without time behind bars means a term of probation and a slap on the wrist.
My first experience with this kind of ordeal happened early on in my career. I was in the second phase of field training when one of our narcotics officers briefed my squad at roll call. He provided detailed information about the suspect, who was believed to be a drug dealer but would not play ball with any of the confidential informants. We received a full pedigree on this individual, including the vehicles he drove.
I was returning to the station to catch up on paperwork in the middle of my night shift with my FTO in the passenger seat when I saw the suspect’s vehicle heading my way. As he passed, I happened to see that the vehicle did not have a license plate light, which is a chicken-shit reason for a stop, but a valid equipment violation nonetheless.
After I flipped a quick U-turn and caught up with the vehicle, the drug dealing driver suddenly decided that he needed to make a quick turn and failed to use a turn signal. I lit up the car with my emergency lights and it slowed to a hesitant stop. I approached the stop like a typical stop, and made a driver’s side approach to speak with the driver. He provided me with his information, as did the sole passenger. I checked their information and found both were unlicensed due to suspensions, which meant that the vehicle would be impounded and an inventory of the vehicle had to be conducted prior to the impound.
As a rookie officer, I took great care to make sure I didn’t screw something up. I requested and received a backup officer at the scene and had him watch the two occupants of the vehicle as I began my inventory. It didn’t take long for me to notice a zip-lock bag protruding out of the void underneath the center console. I popped the center console up and found that bag, and many others containing a variety of drugs. Methamphetamine, crack cocaine, marijuana, miscellaneous prescription pills, scales, boxes of zip-locks, and about $3,000 in cash led me to believe that this guy wasn’t a user, and that our narcotics folks were on to something in thinking that he may be selling drugs. He was a one-stop street pharmacist for sure.
Feeling like king-ding-a-ling, I strode over to the curb where thing one and thing two were seated. After Miranda was read, the initial target of the narcotics detective’s investigation fessed up to being the sole possessor of the items that were concealed inside the vehicle. He was transported to the jail, the vehicle was impounded and held for seizure, and his buddy was sent on his merry way after a righteous pat down confirmed that he wasn’t holding anything of interest.
With everything in place, I returned to the police department and completed all of the necessary paperwork under the watchful eye of my FTO to ensure that every single loophole was closed. Before I finished my paperwork, the suspect was released from jail and came to the police department to see what he needed to do to recover his money and his vehicle. He wasn’t pleased when he was informed that both were being seized for asset forfeiture pending a court ruling.
Less than a week later, Mrs. Donut called me while I was at work saying that a strange man was standing on the sidewalk in front of our house. She described the same dope dealing degenerate I had arrested. I told my FTO what was going on and sped toward my house, expecting to have the opportunity to confront the jackass. He was gone before I arrived. This scenario repeated itself multiple times until I rotated to a day shift to finish my field training.
The day I was released from field training, I saw the mope driving another vehicle. I verified that his license was still suspended and conducted another traffic stop. I inventoried the hell out of his vehicle but found no dope. I released him with a citation and had the vehicle impounded. The next day, he filed a harassment complaint with my agency. When I explained the situation to my supervisor, the complaint went away, but my contempt for the idiot did not.
Later that week, I was flagged down by a neighbor who informed me that the dope dealer had made it known to him that I was in danger. I made sure the neighbor was aware that I appreciated the heads up, and provided him with a simple message to relay back to the mope: “You’re either headed to prison or the grave, your choice”.
I received a subpoena for a deposition soon afterward. His defense attorney questioned every angle of the traffic stop and was getting visibly frustrated when I provided legally justified answers to every question. As I walked away from the deposition, the prosecuting attorney that was in the room with me congratulated me on doing such a solid job in my first deposition.
I pulled him to the side and explained everything that this guy had been doing; showing up outside of my home and causing Mrs. Donut to be afraid, filing a harassment complaint with my agency against me for doing my job, and making threats to harm me to my neighbors. I told him on no uncertain terms that no plea deal would satisfy me in this case. The suspect was looking at about 40 years of prison. He needed all 40. I received a head nod and a handshake from the prosecuting attorney in acknowledgement.
About a month later, I received a subpoena for a jury trial for the traffic stop that resulted in the discovery of the drugs, dealing paraphernalia, and cash. I pulled the case file from the records files and began to study so I didn’t miss a beat when his attorney tried to grill me in front of the jury.
About a week before the jury trial was slated, I received a notice of plea agreement for the case. The suspect agreed to plead guilty to one dealing charge, and all other charges were dropped. The possible sentence of 40 years was reduced to 8. I made a telephone call to the prosecutor of the case and was told that he had been instructed to take the plea agreement in order to avoid the expense of a trial. Within my first year as a law enforcement officer, I lost faith in our system. It failed me. It failed my family. It failed my community.
With “good time”, the suspect was back on the street after serving 4 years of the 8 year sentence. He was arrested two more times for dealing in the first six months after his release. Rather than being remanded back to the prison for violating his parole, he was placed in work release. At about the same time, I rolled up on a young lady who was in her early 20’s as she was smoking a joint. She didn’t have time to hide it and had it in her fingers when I approached her. She was straightforward and readily admitted that she was smoking marijuana.
In appreciation of her demeanor, I issued her a simple summons to appear in court and sent her on her way after I collected her “doobage” for evidence. In less than a week, I was contacted by the prosecutor’s office and informed that the misdemeanor charge for possession that I filed was going to be elevated to a felony because she had been previously convicted for possession.
I pulled the court records and immediately noticed why-she was represented by pauper council during her initial trial and conviction. She didn’t have the money for a high-dollar attorney. She pled guilty to the felony at the initial hearing and was sentenced to over a year in prison for felony possession of marijuana. I felt like an asshole for not simply crushing the joint and driving away.
It may be the best legal system in the world, but it certainly has it’s limitations. This scenario has repeated itself several times in my ten year career in some fashion or another, as I’m sure it has for those of you who sell jail time for a living. It’s a source of frustration and makes us all feel as though we’re simply treading water from time to time.
I don’t fault the defense attorneys even though I don’t like what they do for a living. They’re doing a job. I couldn’t do it-but someone has to represent these folks. I don’t fault the prosecutors for it, they don’t have the funding any more than we do. It just is what it is, a big pile of shit that we step in from time to time.
I’ve arrived at a place in my career where I don’t get wrapped around the axle about it nearly as much as I used to. My one feeling is reserved for Mrs. Donut and the sugar donuts. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to waste my time issuing a summons for a single joint ever again.
Time to go patrol the Donut…