On Roses, Scam Artists, and Criminal Defense

by Jamison Koehler on November 29, 2011
U.S. Capitol building


A number of years ago, while on vacation in Miami, my family and I were sitting in a restaurant when a man approached the table and handed my then 15-year-old daughter a paper rose.  Angered by the intrusion, I took the rose from my daughter and tried to hand it back to him.  The man refused to take it.  It was a gift to your daughter, he said.  But, he told us, we were welcome to help him out financially with a small donation if we felt that was appropriate.

My family could not understand the anger I felt toward the man.  Neither could I, at least not until I had thought it through. It was not just that he had interrupted our family dinner and invaded our space.  It was that, in order to score a few dollars, he took advantage of my daughter’s inherent openness and good nature.  You expect the best of people.  If a man approaches you, smiles at you and offers to hand you something, your initial reaction is to accept the offering.  Next time you might be more wary.

I have had more than my share of contact with the earth’s great unwashed people.  During my first career, I traveled to some of the poorest parts of the world in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America. I visited the shanty towns in Philippines and stood on a smoldering garbage pile in Kenya. During my stint at the Philadelphia public defender’s office, I also represented hundreds of angry, drug addicted, mentally ill and impoverished defendants.  You quickly lose the rose-colored glasses you may have been wearing when you started the job.  I still think of my office mate in Philadelphia – a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who had spent his entire lifetime working with the poor – turning to me after a difficult phone conversation with a client and telling me he couldn’t take it anymore.  Two months later, he was gone, having accepted a job with a private law firm.

But you try to keep a separation between the two worlds.

Working in criminal defense necessarily involves a certain degree of tawdriness and, having visited a different part of town to investigate a crime scene or having become immersed in the details of a foreign life style as part of a trial, I am sometimes struck by the transition between the two worlds as I drive out from the city to the D.C. suburb where we live, the broken, sticky, littered pavement of the city giving way to the greenness of Virginia heading north on the George Washington Parkway. You do not want to inflict on your children the choices you have made for yourself.

Also many years ago, I was approached on the streets of D.C. by a well-dressed young man with a terrible tale of woe – how he had lost his wallet and just needed enough money to take the metro home.  I know, I know.  Second only to my mother, I am probably the most gullible person in the world.  So I believed his story and gave him a couple of dollars.

A week or two later, in a different part of town, the same man approached me with the same story.  Angry to see him again, I initially brushed past him and continued on my way.  But I got madder and madder as I walked and eventually went back and confronted him.

You may not remember me, I told him, but a week or so ago you gave me the same story and I gave you a couple of dollars.  You took advantage of my good nature and my willingness to help out.  I see now that the story was a lie and I want my money back.

I may have been a little bit more forceful than that; one clue to this was the look of fear in his eyes. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of bills and tried to give them all to me.  No, I told him.  I gave you a couple of dollars.   And I want those dollars back.

What I would have said had I been able to articulate my thoughts at the time:  Some day, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, another person is going to approach me – this time a person truly in need — and I am going to brush past that person.  The world is a worse place today because of what you do, preying on the gullibility and good nature of every person you meet.

And this is certainly what was going through my mind in Miami – albeit in still undefined form – as I saw my daughter reach for that rose.

2 Comments on “On Roses, Scam Artists, and Criminal Defense

  1. I know exactly how you feel.

    When I first graduated from college, I took a job that paid very, very little. With my $300-a-month basement “apartment” and my student loans to pay back – there was basically no money left over after each paycheck.

    During those times, when actual hunger was something I dealt with, I bemoaned the lack of charity of people who had more than me to those who had less than me. I certainly couldn’t spare anything.

    After a few years I scored a job that doubled my salary overnight. I literally had more money than I knew what to do with. This new job had me working downtown, and grabbing lunch at a local deli on main street was a somewhat regular occasion.

    One day shortly after starting the job, a man wearing dirty clothes approached me and said he was hungry – I told him that I didn’t have any cash on me (which was true.) I picked up an extra sandwich at the deli and found him on the way back to the office. I handed him the sandwich (the largest they offered) and said “I hope you’re still hungry, here you go, friend.” He looked up at me with tears welling up in his eyes. He thanked me profusely and issued me “God bless you!” even as I walked away. I felt great.

    A few months later another man approached me. I had cash on me this time, but told him “I’m sorry, I don’t take my wallet out on the street. But I will happily buy you lunch. Come with me.”

    He stopped walking with me. “Can’t you just give me the money?”

    The muscles in my back and shoulders tensed. My head suddenly felt hot. “Really? Really!? Is that what you’re about? There are starving people in the world, and you want to take my charity and abuse it?”

    He began to walk away. My impotent rage boiled over. “You, sir, are exactly what is wrong with the world!”

    I imagine it looked quite bad to see a young man in a suit yelling at a old man in rags. In hindsight I realize I wasn’t mad. I was mourning death of the fantasy world I had constructed for myself. I still miss it.

  2. My wife often comes to me with a story of how someone in some walk of life has committed a wrong towards her and vows to never be treated the same again. I often tell her “Don’t allow one person to change who you are.” I believe that when we allow a negative person/situation to change how we might treat someone else, we are robbing oursleves of our own identity.

    Secondly, I come from the place of the great unwashed. I have seen and experienced the desparation, anger and poverty and wonder how I feel more comfortable being amongst those elements than I do driving home to my suburban home. How networking with other attorneys who many of whom I cannot relate to pains me and how helping the unfortunate truly lifts my spirit.

    I say this to say we have all been duped. I have fallen for the same scam. My guy had a car part in his hand and oil all over him, so when I saw him the following week, I sighed, made a mental note to next time ask him what part he needed and could I give him a lift to Autozone…but I’d rather do that then to start turning my back on everyone, because I still remember the guy who gave me a dollar when I lost my wallet and couldn’t get on the train to get to Freshman Orientation.


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