How a Squad of Ex-Cops Fights Police Abuses
September 23, 2014 3:21 AM   Subscribe

In 1997, Smith retired from the police force. He needed a job to help cover his two daughters' college expenses, so he signed up as an investigator in the Broward County Public Defender's Office. He had little idea that he'd end up a key player in a bold experiment in criminal justice, one that aims to give tens of thousands of people who can't afford lawyers a fighting chance in a system stacked against them. It's an effort that suggests new ways for court-appointed attorneys to get at the truth, despite their insane caseloads. And a big part of it is getting former cops to police the police.
posted by ellieBOA (25 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Wow - a collection of D-List celebrities, scuzzballs and brutes, retired and broken-down cops, and they're the only thing protecting the poor and innocent from the system. And they kick so much ass doing it, while going up against some very powerful enemies, some of them lifelong friends and colleagues, in the glorious lunacy that is South Florida. I would binge watch a season of this if it were a TV show.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:55 AM on September 23, 2014 [14 favorites]

I would binge watch a season of this if it were a TV show.

Someone get Whelk in here.
posted by aramaic at 6:05 AM on September 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm gonna post this to a friend's fb to see what he thinks, since he does this exact job for the San Francisco public defenders offices and he could not be more different - he's a skinny, nosey former journalist and the farthest thing from a tough guy you can imagine.
posted by rtha at 6:05 AM on September 23, 2014

WTF? You have to register your bicycle in Fort Lauderdale?
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 6:09 AM on September 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

great article, great story, great potential TV show
posted by rebent at 6:11 AM on September 23, 2014

Smith worked the case, tracking down witnesses, including a woman who was with Caravella on the day of the murder. Last year, he testified at a federal civil rights trial against the arresting officers; another officer on the case had admitted to Smith that he never believed Caravella had done it. In the end, a jury found that two retired cops had framed Caravella and ordered them (and the department) to pay him $7 million. "That's kind of a difficult thing, to testify against police officers," Smith says. "But it's a case where you care about doing the right thing."

In his two careers, he tells me, he has seen the extremes of both sides. He has seen people who had to be shot so cops could protect themselves, and he has seen people who had to be protected from the cops. "Everything is not black and white," he says. He is different now. "I think doing this job has made me a better person."

I wnder how things would change if they get gals and guys who have completed police academy training doing this for six months or so before they become police officers. And current officers as well in a six month rotation, out of their jurisdiction if necessary ...
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 6:19 AM on September 23, 2014 [23 favorites]

In law school, I worked as an intern in a local public defender's office. During our orientation, one of the more lively attorneys gave a stirring lecture about the importance of investigation which included repeatedly telling us that criminal defense attorneys who didn't visit the crime scene with their investigators were not providing adequate representation. I also worked in a law school clinic, where we actually did that. When the client said he had a friend named Batman because his hair looked like Batman's cowl, we went looking for Batman. It was exactly what that lawyer had taught me to do an intern.

A couple years later, I worked in that office where I interned, as a misdemeanor attorney, and I can tell you that 1) what I had been taught was almost certainly right and 2) it's simultaneously completely insane because right now that standard is impossible. I had an easy caseload in a well funded office by PD standards, and I had probably 200 clients a month. That meant two-three days a week only being in court and at least another day a week just meeting clients in the office or down at the jail. We had some investigators, but they were mostly college kids volunteering and they mostly worked the serious crimes (for good reason). That story about uncovering the source of the fake checks? Maybe a 1 in a 100 chance that happens in that office, and then probably only if we had some interns with time to kill. The system is rigged; the prosecutor's office gets more money and they have the police to do their investigations for them.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:30 AM on September 23, 2014 [22 favorites]

So did you find Batman?
posted by cjorgensen at 7:08 AM on September 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

The system is rigged...

But it's not about money in the end. The weirdest thing about this story is the "investigator" Smith going into the prosecutor's office and getting cases dropped. That's about Smith being a 30 year police veteran, and his organized crime work, not his job in the PD office. The point is that, you think that the system has these roles for people set by laws, with apportioned power, but it's designed so that the system never gets in the way of social authority, in this case Smith being a cop. You can imagine who else has authority in society and how they exercise that in the courts. And that's built into the the Anglo-American legal system from the start.
posted by at 7:19 AM on September 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

"If you're not cop, you're little people."
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:22 AM on September 23, 2014

Everything Bulgaroktonos said. We'll have a fair system when their is equal money and prestige on both sides.

One thing I've said for a quite a while is that we should not have a prosecutors office and defense office. We should just have attorneys who work criminal cases. They should have half prosecutions, half defense. That way there can't be an institutional bias built up because the DA's are always lobbying for "tough of crime judges" just because they want to win; we won't be able to have cops that hide how their job is done from one side because they want to put away 'perps'; we won't have politicians who are able to tip the scale by underfunding one side; and we won't have lawyers who get blinders on for "their side".

And if some DA complains that they just can't defend a child rapist or something; well, obviously they aren't fit for the job.
posted by bswinburn at 7:28 AM on September 23, 2014 [10 favorites]

In Montreal last weekend, a local resident alerted two police officers in a cruiser that they had made an illegal left turn. The police fined him $162 for doing so. He is now taking them to small claims court for damages and has filed a complaint with the police ethics board.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:45 AM on September 23, 2014 [10 favorites]

In Montreal last weekend...

The US version of that story would naturally end with him being summarily shot while "resisting arrest". OK, OK, maybe he would have had an unfortunate heart attack after having been tased a few dozen times.
posted by aramaic at 8:02 AM on September 23, 2014

Smith isn't so popular with law enforcement these days. The Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge #32, has revoked his membership, and a picture of his face, he recently heard, was tacked to a bulletin board at police headquarters with a target printed on it.
police culture: Extremely Good
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:35 AM on September 23, 2014 [10 favorites]

Meanwhile, one county over:
A Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office lieutenant has been placed on administrative leave after he warned deputies working under him not to give evidence against other deputies being investigated for improper behavior, sources in PBSO have told The Palm Beach Post.
The article is locked down behind a paywall, sorry. No access. :|
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 9:01 AM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

bswinburn, I'm a criminal defense attorney, and I wouldn't work in that system because I believe that our system is so fundamentally wrong, and that prison as we currently know it is torture, and that it's wrong to degrade people in the way we do at every stage of the process starting with arrest, and so I would refuse to prosecute. I would dismiss all my cases, because I believe that the job of a prosecutor in our society is a fundamentally immoral job, and I would refuse to do it. Does that mean I'm unfit for my job?

The reason the system you propose wouldn't work isn't because the prosecutors would refuse to defend. Many prosecutors become private criminal defense attorneys after leaving the prosecutor's office, and most of them are truly terrible at it, but a few actually have their eyes opened and get good at it. I assume you're hoping for the latter rather than the former. Prosecutors assigned to defend wouldn't refuse; they'd do a really shitty job at it, but they wouldn't refuse to do it. No, the system wouldn't work because most of the defenders--at least the ones who are die-hard defenders of the rights of the indigent and believers in helping one person at a time escape the massive and overwhelming powers of the state to take away people's liberty--would refuse to prosecute. And the people who would refuse to put other people into cages: those are the people you want as defense attorneys.

If you really want to know more about the system you're proposing, talk to lawyers in the military. They're all required to act as both prosecutors and defenders at various points. And according to a defense attorney I know who is a Navy JAG, it means that the quality of criminal defense for military members is shamefully bad, because there is almost no one doing anything other than trying to plead cases out so that they can get promoted. People don't get fair trials, and they certainly don't get the zealous defense envisioned by the Sixth Amendment. Because people who are willing to lock people up and take away their freedom are fundamentally different from people who believe that no one should spend the rest of their life defined by the worst thing they've ever done.

We can debate all day whether I'm right about my views of morality, but I think there's really no debate that prosecutors and defenders are fundamentally different. And as a defender, I certainly wouldn't want anyone representing me or someone I care about unless they felt that way.
posted by decathecting at 11:16 AM on September 23, 2014 [10 favorites]

I wnder how things would change if they get gals and guys who have completed police academy training doing this for six months or so before they become police officers. And current officers as well in a six month rotation, out of their jurisdiction if necessary ...

The answer is that this would be terrible, because you're basically asking people who have the rest of their career ahead of them to sabotage their careers. It would do nothing other than efficiently weed out people who put rectitude and the law ahead of the blue wall.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:04 PM on September 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Pope Guilty probably so.

I'd like to believe the world isn't full of really ... well, what we've seen on the news in Dayton (John Crawford III) and Ferguson (Mike Brown) and Saratoga Springs (Darrien Hunt) and Los Angeles (Ezell Ford) and Dayton Beach (Edward Miller) and and and ...

There's got to be some way of fundamental change without burning down the country.

Maybe there isn't.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 1:50 PM on September 23, 2014

The reason the system you propose wouldn't work isn't because the prosecutors would refuse to defend.

Even if people who are so inclined can decide to stick to one side, I still like the idea that it's all the same department, meaning the same funding for both specialities, same resources for investigation etc. We shouldn't need such a cobbled-together contrivance to ensure justice funding isn't so lop-sided, but apparently we do.
posted by anonymisc at 2:19 PM on September 23, 2014

I would just be happy if there was a District Defender Office that has the resources, prestige, pay, and investigative power as the Prosecutor. Prosecutors have a wide amount of discretion on what battles to fight. At least allow the Defenders to be a unified power so that they can more effectively meet them in the field.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 6:25 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Imho, we need an 15-30% court/lawyer tax used to pay opposing counsel in civil court, although retainers obviously complicate this. In this way, even pro-bono lawyers receive a fragment of whatever the opposing council gets.

Along with this should come funding for both private and public defenders in criminal cases, maybe a requirement that a public defenders office receive at least 2/3rd the funding of the DAs office, and that private defenders get at least 1/3rd the DAs salary from the court.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:48 AM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

In a Mississippi Jail, Convictions and Counsel Appear Optional
On Tuesday, civil liberties groups filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Burks and others in jail in Scott County, a rural area about a 45-minute drive east from Jackson, the state capital. The suit charges that inmates at the jail have been “indefinitely detained” and “indefinitely denied counsel,” in violation of their constitutional rights.
If a defendant applies for indigent defense, as Mr. Burks did on the day of his arrest in November, the senior circuit judge, Marcus D. Gordon, generally approves the request. But it is the judge’s policy not to appoint a public defense lawyer until a person is indicted. And there is no state law setting a time limit on detention before an indictment.

posted by rtha at 8:18 AM on September 25, 2014

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