Illegal search leads to unequal application of justice

About 10 years ago, when I was directing a program for prisoners being released, I accepted a man I'll call James into the program. He'd been in and out of prison for 20 years for theft to support a drug habit. Since then, as hard as he's tried, he has not found steady work beyond a car wash that won't give him enough hours to make him eligible for health insurance. But he rides a bicycle, rents a room, and asks me and the sister I live with, Roberta, for help when he needs it.

So two days ago he came by to borrow $30. He had just been robbed of $300 while he was on his way to pay his rent. A very heavy blow, but he had a paycheck coming the next day and the landlord would accept partial payment. He'd work it out.

The hard part was how he had been treated by the police when he reported the robbery. He told us it was a man and a woman and the woman held the gun. He said he'd never heard of that. They left and he got out of that neighborhood and called 911. To his surprise, the office who answered the call insisted on searching him and, in his backpack, found a pipe. He told James he could not file the robbery report unless he brought James into the police station and charged him with possessing drug paraphernalia and tested the pipe for marijuana and cocaine. Did James want to go ahead and file and robbery report or let it go?

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Of course James said no, he would not file the robbery report.

This is such a violation of James' civil and legal rights -- with no recourse. It was an illegal search but that wouldn't be the policeman's story. The circuit attorney isn't prosecuting drug paraphernalia these days, but a charge and attending warrant would stay open for a year or more. The robbery should be put on record. James' account should go into the statistics. But who wants to spend a night in lock-up with an uncertain outcome, charged by a cop who has nothing but disdain for you?

And James' experience is an ordinary one for black citizens.


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