About Drew Willey

Drew is a new attorney part of the FACT (Future Appointed Counsel Training) program through the Harris County Public Defender's Office and Gideon's Promise. He strives for holistic criminal defense, and also practices IRS/tax controversy. Please visit his website at www.Law-DW.com.

“I Had To Call The Police”

 

I was at a birthday party last weekend in the Heights. As the party dwindled down, conversation grew more relaxed and an intimate group was left sharing life with each other. One guest said, “So, I had to call the police the other day…”

 

The story unfolded: as she was driving up to her house she saw a parked car she did not recognize in front. She noticed “two white suspicious looking men sitting in a Cadillac”, and one of them had a glove on. She pulled in, went in her house, and the men eventually drove away. But, she kept a look out. She saw the same car drive back and forth a couple of times about a block away on the cross street to hers. So, she called the police and reported these suspicious men. Officers came very quickly, and she told of how nice and helpful they were. They found the men, asked them what they were doing, and reported back to the caller. Everything ended well. She felt safe, and now had a cocktail party story to tell of her lovely experience with police.

 

What were the men doing? They had answered: playing Pokémon Go.

 

And this is the accepted and normalized system we live in today…one built around and justified by fear. A couple people are playing a harmless game, and cops are called. No disturbance occurred, no weapons were seen, no illegal activity of any kind was observed, but cops were called.

 

What if my friend had simply walked up to the car and asked what they were doing?

 

Why not? Fear.

 

She could have knocked on a neighbor’s door and asked them to approach these men with her.

 

Why not? Fear.

 

Her call to police was her immediate response to this fear, and most people at the party completely agreed. Not one person questioned the need for this call. So, what’s the problem? The problem is a lack of consideration of real, tangible consequences of this candid call to police. These two men having a fun day were subjected to questioning by people who, if they dislike anything, could and likely would put chains on them, lock them in a cage, and attach a label on their life forever. A light question in my friend’s mind could have easily led to an enormous amount of trauma and taxpayer dollars. She’s a good accountant, but the cost-benefit analysis when fear enters the equation is not considered.

 

The problem is what if these police officers were young and thirsty, and had a call about two suspicious white men? They could stop, search, question, and arrest almost anyone in a car in that neighborhood. They could then write an offense report giving their link to the call and whoever they arrested, and our system would begin turning its chains against that person. A conviction almost certain, and redemption almost impossible.

 

Now, what if my friend or the men in the car were less educated? What if her mind allowed a rampage of fear to call and demand justice against these men for scaring her in her front yard? What if these men did not know how to respectfully and calmly respond to the officers? What if they had seen police officers beat and abuse friends, colleagues, and neighbors? What if they didn’t have the resources to be playing a well-known game? What if they had made up a game? Would the police officers believe them? What if the officers didn’t believe they were playing Pokémon Go?

 

All of these questions never enter the minds of people like my friend. The consequences of slight alterations to the story never entered the mind of my friend. She just felt she had to call the police. And everyone and everything in the culture around her validates that mindset.

 

To me, it seems unconscionable to allow the potential for such harm to these two men, and to society, to honestly believe that calling the police was a justified response. But, I’m not allowed to speak against it in public. If someone were to say something completely irrational in any other context – like if she described how a dish came out of her washer dirty, so she threw the whole dishwasher away – people would immediately speak against outlandish ideas. But in the context of fear and police and criminal justice, we’re not allowed to question her rationale. Me? I murmured something to my wife, she shushed me, and the party went on. I wish I felt comfortable enough to question her actions. But the result would have likely been a more forceful shushing, hurt feelings, distance created, others’ encouragement of fear, and ultimately, love being lost.

 

How has society gotten to this point? How has this accusatory system of fear grown to be so monumentally accepted?

 

Fear is winning.

 

Our societal response to fear of any kind is to rely on police officers, who job description is to issue out fear to all accused. I imagine and hope and pray for a world that relies on love in response to fear, not police officers. I am thankful for police officers who recognize this and miraculously operate with love. We need more who can put a love response in front of their job descriptions, training, and guns. We need to demand that love as a society and from ourselves.

 

And I won’t finish without addressing the even more obvious question in the story. The question that leaves my stomach dropped… What if the two men in her story were black?

 

Is our system racist? People can get by with nodding to messages of fear and simultaneously rejecting racism. But the realities in the difference of this story if those men were black sings a different tune. The mentalities and reliance and justifications of fear from this story are how each person in a system can deny racism, but the system itself operates with widespread racial discrimination.

 

Being a criminal defense attorney, my ears always perk to police comments for many reasons, but primarily because I think a lot about the role of police in our society and why and how they have affected our culture. I hope we all consider real consequences a bit more in stories that we think, “I had to call the police.”

What the “Creepy-Clown Hysteria” Reveals About our Criminal System

clown-1537543_960_720Fear.

Our criminal “justice” system is supposed to be based on the principle of “innocent until guilty.” The state is supposed to be required to prove their case “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the highest possible legal standard. These decisions were made with reason, understanding, and respect for individuals and liberty.

Then, there’s fear.

Fear is an understandable emotion. It’s even positive at times. Fear keeps us protected, safe, and healthy. But fear can encourage evil. Fear can paralyze. Fear encourages thoughts of disregarding reason, understanding, and respect. Unfortunately, when fear is allowed to run rampant, individual lives are disrespected, smashed, and even thrown away.

So, what about clowns?

I don’t like clowns. I don’t want clowns to stand in my yard and stare at me. I don’t want clowns to follow me in the park. I don’t want clowns to scare me with fake weapons. I don’t want clowns to try to scare children in their playgrounds. A growing group of individuals find some enjoyment in using clown costumes to intentionally illicit fear.

Another large group of individuals find enjoyment through clowns. They illicit laughter, thoughts of the circus, tasty hamburgers, and innocent children birthday parties. They crack jokes, juggle, and make us balloon animals. They are depicted on night lights and wall decorations.

Clowns come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some are happy, sad, scary, or excited. Some are loud and some are silent. Some want something from you and some want to give you something. In a sense, clowns are representative of our society. At the very least, they are a category of human beings.

When fear drives our criminal system…

Our criminal “justice” system has expanded dramatically and consistently over the decades. Legislatures gain political clout by promising to protect us from our fears. If stricter laws are passed and we are tough on crime, your fears will be relieved and they will continue to get elected. Police are encouraged to take all precautions and actions necessary to relieve this fear. Making noises, talking to certain people, certain advertising, and even dumping fish off your boat can all land you in a cage. Our society unfortunately looks to the criminal system for the answer to every fear it may experience.

In our current mindset about fear and our criminal system, when clowns start to illicit fear, we hear a call for police action. We see local police make taunting commercials about arresting all clowns they see. In idle conversations about the creepy clown epidemic, we hear validated and justified ideas about “any clowns creeping me out should be arrested.” Good clowns’ livelihoods are threatened; companies refrain using clowns to sell hamburgers. Any clown must now walk around in fear of being arrested.

Why must we use the criminal system?

Why do we immediately ask to throw people in cages because we are afraid? As humans, we should strive to treat each other, every one of us, with love and respect. Every time someone is wrongfully stripped from their life, job, and family, society hurts. If one single clown is misunderstood and wrongfully taken to a lion cage, our society hurts.

What if we reacted to our fear with love, instead of calling in the enforcers of that fear? If a creepy clown makes you afraid, walk up to them, engage them as a human, and see what happens. The vast majority of the haunting creepy clowns have not been reported to cause any real harm to anyone. The sole basis for our discomfort is a feeling of fear. Why does one person’s fear or discomfort justify throwing another person in a cage?

Our system has gone too far. It is time individuals, as a society, stand up and refuse the call for police and the criminal system to relieve our fears. If, instead, we reached out in love, lives can be enriched, rather than further tormented.

Our country has a gross history of embedding fear into lives of black Americans. Over two hundred years of embedded fear will not easily be overcome. Misapplied and wrongful fear has caused the current atrocity of mass incarceration. It’s time to stand up and refuse this response to our fears. It’s time individual lives are not are disrespected, smashed, and even thrown away because of fear.

We can do better.

Stomping on the Constitution: Gang Injunctions

So What’s the Problem?

Harris County is attempting to expand a practice of quietly and quickly putting in place gang injunctions, creating what they call “safety zones” where officers can arrest alleged gang members just for being present in the zone. They do this through civil lawsuits against the alleged gang members by classifying them as a public nuisance. They apply for a temporary injunction for 90 days where they present uncontested “evidence” of gang activity and affiliation. After the 90 days, they easily put in place a permanent injunction, banning people from a certain geographical area. One civil court, the 164th, has been named as the “gang injunction court” to expedite this process. One was set in place in 2010 in Haverstock, most recently resulting in arrests in late March of this year.

Then District Attorney Pat Lykos largely started this practice proclaiming, “The Haverstock Hills neighborhood is a low-income community that has been terrorized by gang members, dope dealers and pimps,” Lykos said. Houston’s Channel 2 News continues to cover more current arrests from Haverstock.

Despite Lykos’ assertions, those affected are generally neither gang members, dope dealers nor pimps.

So Who is Affected?

Currently, the County is attempting to expand this practice to an area the largest of its kind in the country, approximately a 2 square mile area in the box between Old Spanish Trail and 610, and 288 and Cullen. They are calling this section of the third ward the “Southlawn Safety Zone.” They have named over 90 individuals as being alleged gang members of the Bloods and Crips.

The usual practice for such safety zones involves the County filing the lawsuit quickly and obtaining default judgments against defendants before they can fight it. One such prior safety zone was under a bridge. The defendants were all homeless. The homeless defendants did not show, had no attorneys, and the county was awarded a default judgment. Police were then able to legally arrest all homeless people under the bridge and house them in jail for up to a year. Often, a policy is put in place by the District Attorney’s Office to seek a minimum of 300 days in jail for arrests brought for those accused of violating these injunctions.

Upon hearing this, the most common reaction is who are the defendants? Are they really gang members?

Well, bypassing the fact that true gang members actually do still have rights under the Constitution, I can offer a quick insight into the individuals they have pinpointed. From representing about half the named defendants, our team’s best guess as to how they pinpointed these individuals was to walk into the third ward and start pointing to every black male they saw. These men grew up in the community they are claimed to be nuisances to. Most have family, moms, grandmas, wives, and kids who live within the community.

What about their criminal backgrounds? You’d expect heinous crimes with multiple homicides and large quantities of drugs being smuggled the way the county treats them. (Think dope dealers and pimps.) The truth – a few minor trespassing charges (some even which were ultimately dismissed), unlawful carrying of a weapon, or other minor, sometimes even pending, cases. Sure, a few have more serious crimes, but a look at the whole “gang” would not incite fear even into the most sensitive and conservative River Oaks resident.

Are These Really Gangs?

Speaking of the alleged gangs… the police accuse these young men of being in “subsets” of the Bloods and Crips. Even though the large majority of these individuals have never had nor claim to have had any gang affiliation or gang tattoos. Most do not know the gang signs and do not wear the colors of Bloods or Crips. The names of the subsets are akin to juvenile groups for their street name or silly games. Pride for a street, or your junior high group of guys playing pranks, is not the type of gangs one might think when hearing the county’s message. But this is exactly who is being targeted.

And as we “target” these areas, are we making our community safer? Or are we just moving people from one low income area to perhaps another.

What is Being Done Now?

In this case, luckily, a few civil defendants called attorneys when they were served with the lawsuit. The brave attorneys, enraged, gathered support and found as many of the other defendants as possible and offered to represent them for free. From the start, the attorneys realized the county’s system was set up to deny the defendants a chance to defend themselves. The county tried to keep their thrashing of rights quiet by immediately requesting the suit to be sealed, which the court quickly granted. The attorneys were able to successfully get the lawsuit unsealed once the fight commenced.

I want to commend Monique Sparks, Jennifer Gaut, and Shanna Hennigan for recognizing an issue for their clients and putting together a team rounded out by myself, Gemayel Haynes, Brennan Dunn, and U Meka Lewis with support from the PDO through Damon Parrish and Nick Hughes to battle this injustice.

As a defense attorney, and concerned citizen, my foremost thought has been…why? I suppose the county attorney’s office believes they are promoting public safety. If that were true, personally, I’d rather see resources devoted to family restoration, moral character building, fighting addictions, raising education levels, reconciling relationships, and social and emotion learning. Instead of redeeming practices, the county seems to believe banishing individuals across 610 or throwing them in jail longer will somehow heighten public safety. This practice is even thwarting the county’s own attempts of rehabilitation. The probation office is named as a forbidden location. So, if a client is court-ordered to go to probation to help rehabilitate him, the county is now boldly stating they want him to be disallowed from successfully completing his programs.

With actual opposition, the county is facing serious pushback for the first time with these injunctions. Someone is finally there to stand up for Constitutional due process rights including freedom of speech, freedom of travel, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom from unlawful searches and seizures, freedom of religion, and freedom from excessive fines and unlawful takings. Currently, the temporary injunction seems to have at least been minimized, if not dismantled, allowing true preparation to begin for a full trial against the permanent injunction.

As all the attorneys are working pro bono, more help is needed. If you’d like to offer help fighting that the Constitution still means something, please join us. Needs include civil procedure knowledge, community outreach in spreading the message of what is happening, and research. Hopefully we can bring true justice sooner rather than later.

 

*Update: HCCLA files Amicus Brief in opposition of injunction