police-line-970702-mCrime, Violence

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In the “have” and “have not” world of criminal justice — most people arrested are poor, while those with money don’t get caught as easily — only a few crimes bridge the gap.

Let me give you an example. Poor people get arrested for selling small amounts of drugs on street corners, shoplifting (often for resale), and robbery. Most of their crimes happen in plain view, easy for cops to see and nab.

Wealthier people, on the other hand, get the privilege of selling drugs from the privacy of their swish apartments or cars. Their shoplifting is more subtle and their robberies are on paper or in the boardroom where no cop is present.

One of the most common crimes that bridges the income divide is domestic violence, or frankly any crime of a sexual nature, be it soliciting a prostitute, child pornography, or rape.

This is one crime, no matter what your stature or the amount of money in your bank account, that pulls everybody in, rich and poor. And no matter how high your earnings, if you get arrested for DV, you’ll find yourself sitting on a bench in the front of the courtroom right next to the lowly perps with rap sheets as developed as your stock portfolio.

Domestic violence has been booted into that category of crime that police and prosecutors “take seriously.” It used to be a woman would make a complaint about her husband, and police, if they came at all, would treat her like a crazy person (unless, of course, there were obvious, serious injuries).

No more. With the advent of the naming of all sorts of laws, “Megan’s law,” “Kendra’s law,” etc.,

all alleged violence against women and children has taken on new significance, as of course it should.

But this is a double-edged sword.

Call 911, and the police must come. (I’ve done this myself by pressing a red-cross button on my new phone, and inadvertently summoning the police when I was hoping just to press “pound.”)

Calling 911 kicks the case into another orbit independent of what even the caller hoped for or intended. It becomes a police and prosecution matter, and you (the caller), are relegated to a position of disempowerment.

Let me explain. Let’s say you’re having a spat with your partner. You’re sick and tired of him. He owes you money, or slept with your girlfriend, or won’t give you custody of the kids. Whatever. You call 911 and exaggerate the argument, throw in a slap or two, and a knife in his hand — and even though you lied, or decided to make up with him before the police arrive, he’s stuck and now, you are too.

No matter how many times you tell police, it didn’t really happen that way; you want to drop charges; you really love him — it’s too late. The case has taken on a life of its own. Police must formally arrest him, put him in cuffs, walk him through the whole booking process, and bring him to court to sit next to that bevy of central-casting perps also waiting there.

Then bail is set, an order of protection saying you can’t see or speak to each other — even to resolve your differences — is issued, and now everyone’s lost control except for the 20-something prosecutor who may have never been married or had a significant partner in her entire life.

I suppose the lesson to be learned is obvious. This stuff is dynamite. Only use with caution and when absolutely well-founded.

For the person who’s the target of this type of allegation, you’re really in the hot seat. No matter how much you try to reconcile with the 911 caller, you can’t. In fact, making any attempt on your own to reconcile would be viewed as a violation of the order of protection and these things are handed out by judges at arraignment like candy, no matter who opposes.

The obvious advice to the innocent and unwary: 1) beware who you’ve partnered up with; 2) try to find out if they’ve pulled this stunt before (I’m not sure how you’d do this except, perhaps, by asking him or his ex), and 3) if it looks like you’re heading for trouble (i.e., someone’s pissed or devious enough to make something up a la Gone Girl), get that cell phone out. Its tape and video recorders are your best friends.

Here’s another tip. If you’re the target of one of these 911 calls, don’t wait, get a lawyer right away. She might be able to negotiate with police to let you turn yourself in at your convenience and not immediately at the scene. However it’s generally best, whether guilty or innocent, to just leave the scene before police arrive.

So as soon as the argument ends and your partner is dialing 911, that’s your cue to split. Let the dust settle, then dial a lawyer pronto.


Toni Messina has been practicing criminal defense law since 1990, although during law school she spent one summer as an intern in a large Boston law firm and realized quickly it wasn’t for her. Prior to attending law school, she worked as a journalist from Rome, Italy, reporting stories of international interest for CBS News and NPR. She keeps sane by balancing her law practice with a family of three children, playing in a BossaNova band and dancing flamenco. She can be reached at [email protected] ortonimessinalaw.com.