Justice, as it is sometimes said, can be a revolving door.
This frustrating aspect of police work materialized for me many years ago when, as a young officer, I responded to a large fight inside a tavern. The brawl was in full tilt when we arrived. Fists, chairs and bottles were flying. Bloody people were limping out the door, but the battle inside raged on. We waded in and, over several difficult minutes, regained control.
The hardest to stop was, of course, the instigator. He was a mean drunk, and it took several of us to hold him down long enough to slap on the cuffs. During this scuffle one of the cops pulled or tore a muscle. The drunk continued to struggle as we extricated him from the bar and transported him to the jail. Despite the problems he had created, no one wanted to fill out a statement.
We arrested the instigator for fighting in public and for felony assault (due to the officer’s injury) and took him to jail. Once inside the booking room this idiot went through an amazing transformation. He was suddenly quiet and respectful with the jailers, obviously aware that bad behavior would greatly increase his time in the holding area. So he sailed through the booking procedure, posted bail and was out on the street before I finished writing my report.
If that were not enough, the felony assault charge related to the officer’s injury during the struggle was declined by the prosecutor’s office. The ordeal was, to put it politely, an unpleasant one.
For this and other reasons, the revolving door image initially fit my estimation of our justice system. The plea bargains, reduced sentences and dropped charges which mock our sense of right and wrong led many of us to conclude, “Arrest them all and let God sort ‘em out.”
I’ll admit that there is some basis for this cynical view, but experience has taught me there are other reasons why the entry door at the jail sometimes leads directly to the exit. If you’ll pardon the cop scenario, consider the following example:
An armed subject enters a suburban home, accosts the homeowner and steals property. News outlets soon blitz the public with speculations about motive, weapons and salacious details. In time, a dramatic arrest ramps up the story again. Finally, unbelievably, the charges are either reduced or dropped altogether. The media cycle is complete.
If that sounds familiar, that’s because it has happened – several times, in fact. Rather than scratch our heads and wonder at the injustice of it all, or the fact that society just “ain’t what it used to be,” we would do better to look for a reasonable explanation.
While we all may believe we understand what constitutes a crime, our common perceptions do not always match up to the actual criminal statutes. Home invasion robberies, like the above example, are typically charged as a Burglary 1st degree (if a firearm is present). Burglaries require, by definition, that the entry be unlawful, i.e. the subject entered the residence without permission. If a weapon were present, the law requires that it was unlawfully possessed and displayed. If items were taken, the ownership would not be in dispute.
Returning to the scenario, let’s plug in a few details. Let’s say the arrestee had received past permission to enter (common in “drug rip-offs”). The arrestee lawfully carried a firearm, which he did not display. Lastly, the item taken could either have been either narcotics (prompting the victim to silence), or an object the ownership of which was in dispute between the two parties.
This case would not get filed, regardless of the public outcry or the muttering of police investigators. The reality is that the public can afford to operate under misperceptions, but the prosecutor’s office can not. Nor can it afford to file cases that don’t meet our criminal statutes or current case law. Those are tough choices but the right ones.
We all have our responsibilities in this system. Cops need to make solid arrests and write decent reports. Citizens need to adequately fund courts and jails. Prosecutors need to charge and prosecute criminals. That is the only way to make sure the bad guys don’t walk away.
Until we all cover our own responsibilities the door of justice will, now and then, continue to revolve.