People always ask me why I became a criminal defense lawyer. The answer is complex, but let me tell you a story that will help you understand why.
In 1979, I was living and working in the movie business and raising horses near Los Angeles whe, out of the blue, I was arrested for buying stolen horses. Now, keep in mind I didn’t know they were stolen. I had gone to Arizona and bought some horses from a ranch and the manager had given me a bill of sale. I did not know that the manager did not have authority to sell them.
The LAPD didn’t call or come by my house and say, “Hey, we’ve got a report of some stolen horses and we’d like to see your bills of sale.” They did what cops love to do – they made a big, violent, raid-style arrest out of a simple question.
My first wife and I were peacefully asleep in our cozy Van Nuys home when the phone rang early one morning. I answered it, vaguely aware that helicopter was buzzing loudly overhead. The voice on the phone told me, “This is Los Angeles Police Department. Come out with your hands up.” As I worked in the film business, and as I had done nothing criminal in my life, I was sure it was a big prank. I told the person on the phone that I knew it was a joke and told the person to let us sleep.
The voice on the phone said it was not a joke. It wasn’t. When I looked outside the window our house was ringed by police cars with cops hiding behind them with shotguns. Who did these idiots think we were? John Dillinger? Bonnie and Clyde?
We walked outside with our hands in the air in front of all of our neighbors and were thrown on the ground, handcuffed roughly and dragged to squad cars. I’ll never forget the dismay, the fear, the anguish on my first wife’s face. No one would tell us what was going on. The cops talked to us with complete disrespect. They were dismissive, rude, cold and rough. I got so combative that I was put in a cell with a observation window and on it the cops taped a piece of paper that said, “Danger. Wild Animal.” I had every right to be.
I kept demanding to know what was going on. I kept demanding to talk to someone. I kept demanding a lawyer. I called a lawyer I knew as a personal friend and the bastard didn’t even come down to the police station. This piece of jelly was afraid to come to the precinct and be a lawyer. Since I’ve been a lawyer, I’ve always encouraged people to call me at this stage. I’ll show up at the precinct or jail without even being paid in advance to counsel clients in this situation.
The LAPD officers were less than professional. They were horrible to my wife, a Peruvian-American with long, flowing black hair. She was chained to a bench and not allowed to even pull her hair back so it wasn’t hanging in her face.
We were treated with such rudeness, such lack of dignity that it was appalling. Nearly 12 hours later, the cops took us into a room and said, “Whoops. Sorry. Big mistake. We found your bills of sale. You didn’t steal the horses. You can go, but sign this form promising not to sue us.”
We stupidly signed the form and left. Today I would sign nothing of the kind. When we got home, we found our house had been completely trashed. The cops had executed a search warrant while we were gone. They had torn open the couch cushions. They had dumped out every single drawer. They had ruined our home. During their search, they found the bills of sale for the horses I’d bought, unaware they were stolen.
Keep in mind had they knocked on the door and told us what they wanted, I’d have shown them the bills of sale in less than five minutes. I’d have been happy to show them the cancelled check. I’d have been happy to explain who said what to who.
But, no. That wasn’t fun. Cops love the fun of busting down doors, handcuffing people, treating people like vermin. It gives them a hard-on.
Consider that our neighbors never again looked at us and smiled as we drove by. Consider that the consensus among our co-workers was that we were criminals. It was so disgusting.
So, imagine how strange it must have felt to decide that I wanted to be a cop. I wanted to be a good cop.
It took several years of working as metro-Atlanta cop to realize that it was impossible to be a good cop in a profession where bending the rules was commonplace. There was, and is, a belief in law enforcement that even if you’re a good cop you never rat out the bad cop, because cops have to stand together.
I realized that criminal defense lawyers were the only people standing between people who were wrongfully arrested and thrown into prison cells.
Because I had been wrongfully arrested in California, I was the only cop in my precinct and probably my department who knew first hand that being thrown into a jail cell strips you of a hunk of your humanity that you never quite get back. You never quite recover.
There is nothing more dehumanizing than being tossed into a cell like an animal. When you are caged like a beast, you are often caged with other beasts, and the result is a completely revolting loss of your personal dignity.
It makes you helpless.
It makes you a pawn in the game of the penal system.
It gnawed at my gut. It made me sick to my stomach, seeing people jailed and unable to advocate for themselves. Most defendants are poor and minorities. This is not by chance. Blacks and other minorities are targeted by police. I have seen that daily since 1983.
I realized that my experience on the inside of law enforcement made one thing certain – I didn’t want to put people in jail.
I wanted to prevent people from being jailed who did not deserve it.
I wanted to stand between criminal defendants and a jail cell.
When potential clients ask me what it is that I perceive my job as, I always tell them, “My job is to stand between you and a jail cell, and to make sure however your case is resolved that you aren’t haunted by this for the rest of your life. And my job is see to it that you get due process and the fairest trial you can possibly receive.”
That’s what I do.
I’m a criminal defense lawyer.
(Required by Alabama law: No representation is made that the quality of legal services performed is greater than other lawyers.)