I spent my career defending people accused of committing crimes in and around New York City. Coming out of law school, I believed in the U.S. Constitution. I had studied about concepts like the presumption of innocence, the right to remain silent, the right to a trial by a jury of your peers, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and other myths of the regime. I was an earnest, idealistic idiot, but my eyes were quickly opened.
My first job as a lawyer was working at a small firm located right on the edges of a crime filled African American community on Long Island, very close to the New York City borough of Queens. Locals say “on Long Island” to designate the eastern suburbs, but the city boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens are also on the island.
Learning The Ropes
For one of my first cases, I was sent to court to represent a 19 year old African American kid who was charged with promoting gambling as a felony. Keep in mind, this was back in the 1980s, when all gambling other than horse racing and the government numbers racket known as the lottery was illegal. In New York, you are not entitled to Youthful Offender treatment after your nineteenth birthday. So, my client could be saddled with a felony conviction that would follow him around for life. The facts of the case are as follows:
The kid had organized a craps game in the back alley behind a local bodega. The local cops got wind of the game, shut it down, and arrested my client. He was scared and told the cops everything.
I went to the giant courtroom where all of the overnight felony arrests were being processed. There were almost 150 cases on the calendar. The room was packed with lawyers and family members. I hoped that the courtroom prosecutor would offer to dismiss the case or reduce it to a non criminal offense, since it was my client’s first arrest, it was not a crime of violence, and he was so young. She said I had to conference the case with her supervisor.
My Meeting With The Capo
I walked into the supervisor’s office to make my argument. There, behind his desk, hanging on his wall was a giant whiteboard. On it was the familiar grid and boxes of a Super Bowl pool. The big game was the next weekend. I was so happy. Here was my defense. How was the kid’s crap game any different from the District Attorney’s football pool? I asked him about it before we started talking about the case. He asked me if I wanted to buy a box. I declined. He told me it was really just for the cops and prosecutors, but a lot of defense lawyers buy boxes too.
Then he opened the file containing my case. I anticipated a big, dramatic reaction. “Your client is accused of running a craps game.” That’s all I got. I pointed to the football pool and asked him how his conduct was any different from my client’s conduct. He was puzzled. “What?” I explained that football pools were illegal under New York law. He was promoting gambling. He laughed in my face and gave me a classic New York “gedthafuckouttaheah”. It was like a scene from Goodfellas. He liked that I brought it up! He wasn’t sheepish. He wasn’t nervous. He called his assistant in to tell him what I had just said. They both laughed. Then the prosecutor turned to me and said something like “Hey, you’re a good kid. I’m gonna like having you around.” As if something I said meant that I was now a member of this big club for whom the law doesn’t matter. I felt like a child getting approval from his parents.
He then offered to let my client plead guilty to a non criminal disorderly conduct. It was a good deal. He would have no record, but he would have to pay a fine. I briefly fantasized about refusing the offer and making a big thing about the hypocrisy, but I knew I would be going up against forces far bigger than myself. And, I had to make a living. My client and his family were very happy with the job their lawyer had done. They immediately accepted the offer.