Last night my wife and I came back from a party in downtown Seattle to see our car’s window smashed and a would-be thief inside the car, rummaging through its contents. We called 911 and he ran off. He was quickly arrested.
That’s an active case now, so I’m not going to talk much about it until things resolve. If I’m called as a witness for a trial, I’ll share that experience. Instead, today I wanted to write about the reactions from people when I told them we had been victims of a vehicle prowl.
A few jokesters asked if I would be representing the defendant. Well, no. Ethics rules prevent me from being both lawyer and witness in a case. And since I would want the defendant to be found guilty I would have a very fundamental conflict of interest (Comment 1) in also criminally defending him.
I have a police officer friend who I told about all this. I told him Seattle Police were perfectly professional with the whole experience. He seemed gratified to hear that and then half-jokingly asked how I, with my job, could have someone arrested. I, half-jokingly, asked with his job how he could allow the crime to happen in the first place.
But my friend, joking or not, did inspire me to reflect on what I do for a living and what I really hope to accomplish.
I have never considered my job to be keeping criminals free. Sometimes that happens, but my ultimate purpose is simply to be the foil against the government.
What does that mean? It means when a governmental agent accuses a citizen of some heinous action, I am there to test the government’s evidence and procedure every step of the way. My job is to make their job very difficult. I do this so we can all be sure that only people who have actually done what they’re accused of doing are punished.
Does this mean sometimes guilty people “get away with it?” Sure, because the system falls apart if only innocent people get a zealous defense. But if the police do everything right, and the prosecutors do everything right, and the person actually did commit the act they are accused of, you can expect consequences will follow.
Now I’ll be honest: on a personal level I really hate losing. My clients know I pour myself into their cases, guilty or innocent. And when you pour yourself into something and you still end up with a loss, it stings. If I suffer a tough loss in court I’ll usually take a little time to get re-centered.
That being said, what really can keep me up at night is when a truly innocent person is found guilty. That’s not just a failure of an attorney, that’s a catastrophic failure of the entire system. Police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges all bear culpability when an innocent person is locked away. Society is diminished.
Now back to this vehicle prowl case. As a witness/victim, I do want the person to be found guilty. But as an attorney and officer of the court, I still want that person to have every procedural and constitutional protection afforded to him. He deserves effective counsel and he deserves his day in court.
What if at the end of those proceedings the person is exonerated by a jury? I won’t consider that a failure, far from it. Something went awry in the process to be sure, but that means the government learns from their mistake and is more meticulous next time. Part of making sure that innocent people never get locked up is having guilty people get away with it from time to time. That’s a trade that anyone who values freedom should be happy to make.
One final point is about emotion. Emotions are where cases truly get derailed and justice gets lost. I have the education and experience to not get particularly invested in this defendant’s case, because again, I work with this system on a daily basis. Certainly we were angry and upset and full of adrenaline when we saw the guy. But that doesn’t mean the person deserves to be treated less justly than any other person.
From my talks with “civilians,” it seems a lot of people are all for principles of rights and constitutions, up until 1) it happens to them, or 2) the accused crime is really nasty.
This is completely understandable but it’s also the slipperiest slope I know. Our system needs to be strongest when we’re most tempted to cut corners. It’s completely ok to be upset and even enraged by the actions of another. But it’s those feelings, when we are most hotheaded, that require us to apply the law equally and fairly. If we can protect the rights of people accused of rapes and murders, we know that if we or loved ones are ever accused of something, those rights will also be preserved.
Ultimately this experience wasn’t so bad. No one got hurt; perhaps a colleague will get some business. Instead the experience re-affirmed my dedication to my work and my loyalty to the process that protects us all. That arrested fellow is going to have a tough time over the next few months, but I’m ready to move on and help my next client.