July 2009 Archives

July 23, 2009

Guns and Drive Thrus: Two Modern American Ills

A tragic story took place in Las Vegas, Nevada but could have happened anywhere in the U.S.  According to news reports, Alex Kopystenski was in his car in the drive-thru lane of a Walgreens drugstore with his 5 year-old son Giovanni in the back seat.  Giovanni found a gun, played with it, and accidentally shot himself.  Giovanni died and his father has been charged with child endangerment. Amazingly, the father was released from jail after posting bail of only $3,000

The sad story illustrates two ills plaguing our country. One is the proliferation of guns.  Their prevalence ensures that some guns will find their way into the hands of irresponsible people like Kopystenski, meaning that tragedies like this will continue to occur.

The second ill, which admittedly pales by comparison, is the spread of drive-thrus. Perhaps as a result of an increasingly overweight population, people don't have to bother to use their legs to pick up double cheeseburgers or a few items from a drugstore.  If this father had parked and taken his son into the store, this story might never have been told.

July 21, 2009

Lying About Lie Detectors

A recent California case demonstrates once again that police officers can engage in deception in an effort to elicit confessions.

In People v. Mays, 95 Cal. Rptr. 219 (2009), the defendant was suspected of participating in a murder.  Mays denied knowing anything about the murder and demanded a lie detector test.  Instead the cops conducted a phony lie detector test.  They connected Mays to a machine and asked him some questions, then showed him a phony written report indicating that he had failed the test.  At that point, the defendant admitted that he had been at the murder scene.

At trial, Mays claimed that his confession was inadmissible in evidence because it was the result of police trickery.  The court ruled that the confession was admissible, because the trickery did not constitute coercion. 

It's a good thing for the cops that Mays didn't ask them to take a lie detector test about the lie detector test.  They would have flunked.

July 21, 2009

Henry Louis Gates and "Contempt of Cop"

Henry Louis Gates is a respected professor of history at Harvard. When Gates, who is black, had trouble entering the front door of his Harvard-owned home, he and a companion spent some time forcing it open.  Called by a neighbor who thought that a burglary was in progress, police officers arrived and confronted Gates.  Gates proved that he was not a burglar, but the cops claimed that Gates was so confrontational that they arrested him for disorderly conduct. Gates was briefly detained in a jail cell, but the Cambridge police quickly apologized to Gates and dropped the charges. 

Gates' stature and his access to the media ensure that the event will become part of the continuing debate over the extent of racism in the criminal justice system.  Since there can be no claim that the cops did anything wrong by responding to the burglary-in-progress report, the debate will focus on what happened after Gates proved that he was in his own home.

Gates admits that he got angry because the arresting officer repeatedly refused to respond to Gates' demands for his name and badge number. The officer claims that he gave Gates this information but that Gates became hostile and confrontational anyway.  If Gates is to be believed, he was guilty only of "contempt of cop" for being a black man who was typecast by a white cop. If you believe the cop, Gates acted out because he saw racism in an officer's acting properly in the face of two possibly armed and dangerous burglars.  

Perhaps the key to understanding what happened lies in the reason that Gates wanted to know the officer's name and badge number.  Presumably Gates was not planning to write a letter of commendation to the Cambridge Police, praising the officer for arriving so quickly to the burglary report. I'm guessing that Gates got angry because the cop didn't treat him with the courtesy he thought he was due and that would have been accorded a white homeowner.  I'm also guessing that until he realized that his life was not in danger, the cop treated Gates more like a criminal than a professor of history.  The cop's reactions further angered Gates, and explains both why Gates demanded his name and badge number and why Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct.

If this is just another incident that enables police offiers and African Americans to view themselves as victims of each other, then its notoriety will accomplish little.  If it helps both communities understand the other's perspective, perhaps the incident will be a waystation on the path to greater social harmony.

July 16, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor, Perry Mason, and Fight Club

Sonia Sotomayor, Perry Mason and Fight Club. As they might ask on Sesame Street, which of these is not like the others? It turns out that they're all related. As a young girl in the 1950s, Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor was inspired by the Perry Mason TV show to become a lawyer and seek justice.  She's not alone.  Many students who came of age during the 1960s were inspired to go to law school by the heroic images of the law and lawyers provided by films such as To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, and Inherit the Wind, and the classic TV show The Defenders.  Similarly, law school applications soared during the late 1980's, partly in response to the glamorous portrayals of lawyers' lives in the TV show LA Law.

For at least one New York teenager, the film Fight Club is also inspirational. The film's main character (played by Brad Pitt) plans to sabotage corporate America by destroying property during a crime spree dubbed "Project Mayhem".  The film apparently inspired Kyle Shaw to bomb a Starbucks coffee shop on Manhattan's Upper East Side on May 25, 2009. 

Popular culture is the common thread that links all these examples.  We consume it daily and may not even be aware of its influence on our attitudes and actions.  Films and TV may be especially influential, since the production values are often high and the characters are often so memorable.  As for what might inspire future Supreme Court nominees, perhaps we should look at the entertainment pages and round up the usual suspects.  I heard that once upon a time in a movie.  

July 8, 2009

Assault Weapons and the Second Amendment

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In the Heller case (2008), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment protected an individual's right to carry weapons.  Thankfully, it appears that state and local governments still have the power to outlaw especially dangerous weapons.  We won't be seeing people carrying cannons or machine guns down our streets with impunity anytime soon!

In a 2009 California case, People v. James (PDF), Michael E. James was convicted of violating a law (Penal Code 12276) that makes it a crime to possess a variety of assault and military-type weapons. Among the prohibited weapons are the familiar Uzi and something called a "Streetsweeper," which I'd never heard of but sounds incredibly ominous.   

The court in James upheld the conviction.  The judges ruled that the Second Amendment protects only a person's right to own "guns in common use by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes" like hunting or self-defense.  As in other areas, individual rights must be balanced against society's rights.  Chalk up an important win for society.