Speaking Up for the Voiceless

The wheels of justice are slow turning and often grind a person to pieces anymore. That of course is my cynical opinion of our legal system.

And today I had the opportunity to watch it in action, not as a spectator or defendant but as the guy asked to stand up and speak for a man who had no representation. It began for my friend John back on January 28th, when he went to a Raley’s Super Store.

He purchased a 270-dollar money order and several items and walked outside. During the time spent shopping he admittedly picked up a fifteen dollar package of razor blades and put them in a pocket, having no other way of holding them.

After making his purchases he walked outside and then realized he had failed to pay for the blades. He turned around and started back into the store and was promptly met by a plain-clothed security officer.

This officer took him by the wrist and escorted John into the backroom of the store, effectively isolating him from everyone. John was accused of stealing the blades and even though he told the officer he was coming back into the store to pay for them, it didn’t matter.

This security officer told John that he was going to call the Reno Police and have him arrested. But then he offered John a piece of paper that said he would let John walk out of the store a ‘free man’ if he promised to appear in court.

A scared and intimidated John, fearing being arrested and sent to jail signed the paper and was escorted from the store. He was also told he could not return to that store for one-year.

When John went to get a public defender the Municipal Court in Reno denied him one. They determined on April 8th that because he is ‘non-indigent’ and if convicted of the crime, the standard sentence carries no jail time.

This really says that a person has to be completely unemployed and living in the street in order to get a public defender. A very worried John called on Wednesday of last week and asked if I would go to court with him just to support him.

I told him I would and then he started explaining what had happened. I felt something was not right and I offered to have a go at speaking to the city attorney or the judge, which ever I could.

John jumped at the idea. And that is exactly what happened this morning.

The Reno City attorney called John into her office because he didn’t have an attorney of record. She quickly explained that John was being charged with Petty Larceny and what was going to happen and then asked if there were any questions.

She looked at John, who looked at me and I opened my mouth at that point. It was amazing to hear myself speak calmly and rationally to this extremely professional woman.

I explained that since there were no video cameras showing John taking the razors and only the testimony of the single witness, whom I described as an over-zealous security guard, we could go to court and show how this wouldn’t stand the test. She wanted to know how anyone could prove such a thing.

I told her that John had been bullied into signing a piece of paper that he didn’t want to sign. He was not arrested or read his Miranda rights.

I pointed out to her that I could easily take her into a room and intimidate her into signing a piece of paper if I wanted too. She agreed.

After weighing everything she offered John a simple case of ‘disturbing the peace’ for ‘excessive noise.’ The city attorney dismissed the witness and John and I waited for our turn to go into the courtroom.

John answered, “No contest,” when the Judge asked for his plea. He received a 240-dollar fine which was paid straight away and now John doesn’t have to carry the stigma of ‘petty thief’ with him anymore. Ultimately, that is all I wished for my friend John.

I know his character and he isn’t a thief. I was concerned that nobody was willing to step up and look out for his rights.

I am still concerned that somehow the City of Reno has turned over it’s authority to cite shoplifters to the security officers at stores. This is inviting abuse of the accused shoplifter.

What was funny was when the Judge asked, “Counsel, I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting you.”

I told him I wasn’t an attorney but rather an itinerant Preacher, he said, “Why thank you sir, your presents is duly noted. Please have a seat.”

He had this strange smile on his face, half amused and have puzzled. That was my Perry Mason moment.

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