Friday, November 13, 2009

I Don't Play the "Race Card"

For the record: I detest the "Race Card." I think, for the most part, the racism that is pervasive in the national media is kept alive by those it is said to offend.

Nevertheless, from time to time the dying, but not-yet-dead beast that is racism rears its ugly head in a way that cannot be denied. When it does, there is no "Race Card," only reality.
Although I cannot prove it, I defended a client last week for whom - I believe - that reality nearly destroyed her life. ...but not on my watch.

The Story
One morning, after a decidedly good outcome in court, I received a frantic call from a young woman who had been detained by store security at a famous Beverly Hills department store and subsequently arrested by Beverly Hills Police for allegedly shoplifting clothing.

November 1, 2009 was the final day to pay her department store credit card bill without incurring late fees or penalties. She also had an appointment with her hair stylist that day to continue with the long and arduous process of braiding her hair. "As a young black woman," she said, "braiding my hair takes a long, long time." As a middle-aged, half-Jew, I had no idea how long was long.

She described the process as being very time consuming. She explained that her entire head of hair would take several sessions, each as many as ten hours in length. The session on November 1, 2009 was scheduled to last approximately ten hours. For that reason, it was imperative that she pay the bill first. Moreover, because it was the last day, it was necessary to pay in person rather than by mail.

When her hair dresser arrived at my client's home to commence the process, she explained the situation and suggested that the hair dresser accompany her to the store in Beverly Hills; together they could take advantage of the carpool lane if traffic was an issue and they could stop for coffee. It could be a "girl's" morning before what would be a long day.

When they arrived at the department store, they browsed the clearance and sale tables and the hair dresser, my client's companion, selected items to try on. The pair were escorted to the changing room area by a store employee. Although both women entered a the dressing room area, only the companion tried on any garments.

My client waited outside the dressing room and within the confines of the dressing room area. The two engaged in conversation through the closed door. At one point, the companion asked my client to check one of the racks from which [the companion] had selected items to see if there was a larger size. My client exited the dressing room area, scanned the rack and returned to the dressing room area, though not the dressing room itself.

Moments later, the companion exited the room and the pair exited the dressing room area. My client was escorted to the cashier's counter to pay her bill while her companion left the store having said she would wait in the car.

My client paid her bill and left the store. However, she did not see her companion at or near the car. She assumed the companion was still in the store browsing or trying on clothing. She waited on the benches just outside the store and under the valet awning for some thirty minutes before going back into the store to look for the missing companion. She did not find the companion in the store and continued to wait both inside and outside of the store.

When nearly an hour had gone by, and having attempted to reach her by mobile phone multiple times, my client became genuinely concerned for her companion. She explained to me that it was not unusual for [the companion] to spend long periods of time shopping, but that it had become uncharacteristic.

She approached an employee to ask whether he had seen her companion at which time she was approached by a male who asked my client if she was searching for her friend - and he described the companion. She responded affirmatively and the male told her that he knew where the companion was and that he could take her there.

She followed him through a door that abutted the parking lot and down a flight of stairs. She was led into a small room with a table and chairs and told to be seated. The male, who had not yet identified himself, asked for identification as he began going through her purse.

When my client rightfully objected to the male's conduct and demanded that he identify himself, he identified himself as a "Loss Prevention" employee. He ultimately said that her companion was being detained on suspicion of shoplifting. He asked my client to describe her role in the alleged shoplifting scheme. She explained that she was not aware of any shoplifting, much less any shoplifting scheme. The male persisted and told her that he has video proof that she, in fact, was involved in a shoplifting scheme. He threatened her with criminal prosecution if she didn't "fess up." Nevertheless, she insisted, without waiver, that she was not part of or aware of any such scheme.

The employee dumped the contents of my client's purse on the table and examined it for evidence of a crime. No merchandise from the store, save for her bill payment receipt, was present among the contents.

The employee next attempted to have my client sign an admission of guilt, which she adamantly refused to do. He further attempted to entice her to sign by telling her that he had assigned the value of her theft as ZERO. She still refused to sign any such admission.

Uniformed officers from the Beverly Hills Police Department arrived, handcuffed my client, informed her that she was under arrest for the theft allegations - Felony Commercial Burglary - and was transported to the police station. She was fingerprinted, photographed, and fully booked on felony charges.

My client posted bail and was released from custody.

Upon hearing the story and agreeing to take her case, I drove to the Beverly Hills store. I located the security office and asked to speak with the person in charge. A male identified himself as the person in charge, but did not offer or tell me his name. Moreover, when I identified myself as being my client's attorney, he refused to say anything other than "contact our legal department."

From there, I drove to the Beverly Hills Police Department Headquarters. I located and spoke with the Detective in charge of the matter. Together we watched the surveillance video supplied by the store - the video the security officer said was conclusive in support of their allegations.

The Video
The video begins with a very close up view of my client and her companion browsing though and selecting items from a rack of clothing. The two are dressed comfortably for a Sunday morning in sweats and Ugg boots; both are black females. Neither looked dirty or out-of-place; neither was particularly menacing or suspicious, yet for some reason the camera was zoomed in and followed their every move.

For a few moments, the two appear to be assisted by a sales clerk who comes in and out of frame. Eventually, the companion selects several articles that appear to be jeans. Both appear natural; there does not appear to be any suspicious body language or other behavior demonstrative of a "consciousness of guilt."

After additional browsing, the pair walk toward and into the dressing room area.

Moments later, my client is seen exiting the dressing room area. She approaches the rack of clothing and appears to be searching through it. After looking through most of the rack, she turns and walks back into the dressing room area without selecting anything from the rack. Once again, she did not appear stressed or preoccupied; her movements and behavior were plain and natural.

Several moments later, the two exit the dressing room area. My client appears to be greeted by the sales clerk who escorts her toward the cash register and out of frame. The companion veers left and out of frame.

The scene changes to the perspective of a different camera and is following the companion through the store and out of the exit door. My client is not seen.

The scene changes again to the perspective of a different camera and is following the companion outside and through the parking lot where she appears to be confronted by two individuals. One of the individuals appears to be the male with whom I spoke earlier that day, though the image is not entirely clear.

The video ends. That's it. That's the compelling evidence against my client. Consistent with her story, the video depicted no evidence or even inference of any wrongdoing by my client.

The Detective and I discussed the images and agreed that there was nothing beyond the loss prevention employee's unsubstantiated assertion to support the notion that my client had engaged in any subversive or illegal activity.

The Detective did indicate that, because it was booked as a co-defendant case, he would have to submit it to the District Attorney (DA) as such, but that the DA would have discretion to sever the defendants if appropriate. He also indicated that he had additional information to gather.

I thanked him for the time and consideration.

The very next morning I arrived at the courthouse at approximately 8:30AM and met my client in the hall.

Together we proceeded to the branch office of the DA in the building. She and I met, face-to-face, with both the Charging Deputy DA and the Detective. The Detective indicated to me that he had done some additional investigation and had included those findings in the report he submitted to the DA.

Here's The Kicker
I explained the foregoing to the DA and further explained that my client is a sworn peace officer. That's right, my client is a sworn peace officer... and with no evidence whatsoever to support an accusation, much less a conviction, they flushed her through the process anyway. Not only was she completely innocent, she was the victim of an assumption of guilt by association because the companion was found to have left the store with merchandise she secreted away when my client - a SWORN PEACE OFFICER - obviously wasn't looking.

I pointed out that an arraignment, even with insufficient evidence, could and likely would be catastrophically detrimental to her career as a peace officer. I explained that, even if the charges are later dismissed, the shadow cast over her reputation and integrity would destroy any hope for career advancement.

Finally, I expressed to the Detective and DA that, if they believed and the evidence supports - however remotely - my client's involvement in the alleged incident, then they would be within their right to arraign her and we would deal with the charges accordingly. On the other hand, I submitted, if there is no evidence whatsoever to link her - in any way - to the allegations, then any complaint against her should be summarily dropped.

At approximately 11:20AM, my client and I returned to the office of the DA and were met by the Detective. He told both of us that he and the DA had concluded that there was no substantiated evidence against my client and that no charges would be brought against her absent new evidence.
Ugly situation. Great result. But...

Once again, I do not believe in playing the "Race Card." However, as an attorney I will NOT allow skin color or any other irrelevant factor to determine the future of a good person who has done nothing wrong. I am an advocate of the people I am entrusted to defend. Unless you have the evidence, then don't mess with my clients or me.

If you have been wrongly accused, let me fight for you!

No comments:

Post a Comment