Every Prosecutor Should Experience the Humiliation and Discomfort of an Arrest

Jamison KoehlerD.C. Superior Court

Your client is charged with Leaving After Colliding – Property Damage.  This is the technical way of saying that he is charged with “hit-and-run” or “leaving the scene of an accident” as the offense is known in other jurisdictions.

Your client is a professional with a pristine driving record. He has never been arrested before. He rear-ends another vehicle while approaching a stop light at a very low speed, causing only minor damage to his own car. Both drivers get out and an argument ensues. Your client returns home and immediately reports the collision to his insurance company, accepting full responsibility for the accident. The other driver files a police report.*

You have spent a long time cultivating your relationship with the police officer who is investigating this case.  Leaving-after-colliding is one of the few charges in which you can do this.  Normally you don’t know about the case until after your client has already been charged – at which point most officers will immediately clam up.

In this type of case, however, police notify the owner of the car that his vehicle was involved in a hit-and-run and ask him/her to come down to the district building for questioning.  If the owner is smart, he will call a lawyer.  And at this point in the investigation there is no prosecutor assigned to the case – in other words, there is no one to interpose him- or herself between you and the officer.  Moreover, with you and the officer each trying to tease out information from the other, the officer is only too willing to talk.

In this particular case, the officer promised to alert you the moment the arrest warrant is issued so that your client can turn himself in.  You need to get your client to the district building early in the morning on a day that is not normally busy. This way you can be sure he will make the cut-off time for arraignments that afternoon.  Otherwise, he might end up spending the night in custody.  If he misses the cut-off time on a Saturday, he could spend two nights in jail.

You have also talked with the prosecutor who has been assigned to this case.  He won’t dismiss the case.  But he does agree to be flexible on the turn-in arrangements. Why should your client spend an entire day in lockup when everyone knows he will come to court for the arraignment?  I will call you this afternoon, the prosecutor says, so that we can work out the details.

There is no phone call from the prosecutor.  Nor is there an alert from the police officer.  Instead, police officers arrive at your client’s home the next morning while he is still sleeping.  He is led out of his house in handcuffs, in full view of his neighbors, to where a squadron of police cars awaits him.  He is taken to the Third District where he is searched.  He spends a couple of hours lying on a cold metal bench in an unheated cell.  He is then taken to the central cellblock at 300 Indiana Avenue where he is searched again, photographed, fingerprinted and placed in another cell.

Your client is shackled to four other prisoners and loaded into a cramped van to be transported the 300 feet from the Daly building to D.C. Superior Court.  He is searched yet again – this time forced to remove his pants in an open hallway for a gloved officer to inspect his private areas.  He sits in a holding cell in the basement there for an hour or so, submitting a urine sample. He is then released to the “bullpen” where he hangs out for a couple of hours with 70 to 80 other cranky, smelly people, many of whom are there for serious offenses. Finally, your client spends the next four hours, hands and feet tightly shackled, in a crowded cell behind the courtroom waiting for his case to be called for arraignment.

I have always envied clients the experience of having gone through this process. How can you tell your clients what they should expect when you have never experienced it for yourself?  More importantly than defense lawyers doing it would be to incorporate the experience as part of training for new prosecutors.  They should know what it feels like.

Prosecutors should appreciate the economic inefficiency of it all from a societal standpoint – from the unplanned day off from work for the person who was arrested to the time of every police officer who had to supervise him over the 10 hours he was in custody – when police could have simply set a court date for him to appear voluntarily. Prosecutors should also be forced to experience the humiliation and discomfort.  Maybe then they would not be so careless, so cavalier, in performing their jobs.

*The facts of this hypothetical are fictional.