Life can be messy. This is the fundamental truth that being an Atlanta criminal defense lawyer has taught me. We all know what living in modern American society is like. Stressed-out, overworked, we all strive to pay the bills, raise our families, find love and happiness, maintain employment, stay away from abusing alcohol or drugs, and somehow keep juggling all the balls of day-to-day life. When a Good Decent Law-Abiding Citizen is arrested, it often means that one of these balls got dropped.
Working with my clients has taught me better than any philosophy class that as human beings we are all innately fallible. As a criminal defense lawyer I have no need to be reminded that “to err is human”– I see it every day. My clients are people like these:
· Sasha, on scholarship to an exclusive private college in Boston. Under pressure to conform to the lifestyles of her wealthy friends, she succumbed to the pressure to shoplift a party dress “just this once.” The store’s policy against selective prosecution landed Sasha in jail and sent her parents frantically seeking legal advice.
· Joe, a contractor, family man, and supporter of his local law-and-order politicians. When the police pulled him over one evening for failing to stop completely at a stop sign, he failed a breathalyzer test and found himself in jail on a Georgia DUI charge.
· Martha, a single woman in her twenties who worked as a bookkeeper. When she resorted to “borrowing” from the company accounts to pay some overdue bills, the company fired her and had her arrested.
· Jerry, a long-distance trucker with a wife and two kids. The pressure to provide “just on time delivery” for his big corporate clients led Jerry to boost his drive time with crystal meth. Stopped for a moving violation, Jerry couldn’t hide the signs of habitual drug use from the officer, who arrested him and took him to jail.
· Bill and Dana, a married couple who got into a fight one night. She got so angry that she threw a glass at him. When he shouted and threw her onto the couch, she called 911. When the police came to find the fight had blown over, but because of a Zero Tolerance arrest policy they still charged Bill with battery and Dana with aggravated assault.
The politicians and the “law and order” radio and television talk-show types boost their ratings by ranting and raving about our need to “lock everybody up who commits a crime and throw away the key.” They would be looking at things quite differently, I am sure, if it was themselves or their own son or daughter standing in a courtroom accused of a criminal act and facing jail or prison and a lifetime of being branded a “criminal.” It turns out the line between criminal and Good Decent Law-Abiding Citizen is hazy at best.
The reality is that it is much easier today for the average person to be arrested than it was twenty or thirty years ago. Many actions for which people are arrested nowadays would have been dealt with very differently a generation ago. Either they would not have involved the police at all, or they would have involved only a warning or some other conduct by an officer short of making an arrest. This situation is a result of numerous changes in the criminal justice system over the past few decades, including the expanded definition of crimes, the creation of new classes of crimes, and the rise of Zero Tolerance policies. These changes are affecting Good Decent Law-Abiding Citizens in the marketplace, on the Internet, on the road, at home, and in their children’s schools.