Injustice Watch: If it’s Broke,
Who’s Responsible for Fixing it?

Written by FCJ Editor. Posted in Politics

Published on April 22, 2009 with 1 Comment


Public Defender Jeff Adachi
Photo by Luke Thomas

By Jeff Adachi

April 22, 2009

The fact that the criminal justice system is, at times, unjust in its outcomes is rarely questioned. Only in extreme cases, where a person is wrongfully imprisoned for a serious crime, will there be some coverage in the media. But day-to-day injustices are rarely exposed. Because of this, often the public is unaware of the criminal justice system’s own lack of accountability.

Take two cases from the Community Justice Center (CJC) this past week.

One man’s case was assigned to the CJC. He failed to appear for his court date, but then appeared the next day. The warrant that had been issued for his arrest was recalled, and his case was set for another day. Four hours later, he was arrested by police officers in front of the building where he lived. He told the officers that he had just been to court and that the judge had recalled his warrant. The officers refused to believe him, and would not allow him to go up to his room to retrieve his court papers. He was taken to jail where he remained for five days.

When I learned of what happened, I immediately brought it to the attention of the CJC judge, who said, “This happens at least once a week,” referring to the fact that people are mistakenly arrested for warrants that should have been removed from the system. The judge explained that the police aren’t informed that warrants no longer exist due to a computer glitch. In other words, the police aren’t notified in a timely manner that arrest warrants have been cancelled.

In response, I said it was outrageous that this man was arrested for a cancelled warrant. In an age where information can be conveyed via an instant “twitter,” or at least in an email, why can’t police be notified that a warrant has been recalled? When I asked what actions would be taken to prevent this from happening in the future, there was no response, no promises to contact the officers involved in the wrongful arrest or to make any attempt to resolve a problem that caused a man to spend five days in jail unnecessarily. Just silence.

The second case involves another marijuana possession case. In my last update, I wrote about the city’s law that directs police not to use resources to arrest people for mere possession of small quantities of marijuana.

Clarence Wilson, (who gave me permission to use his real name) also found himself on the CJC calendar. His crime: possession of marijuana. Wilson was crossing the street against a red-light (known as Jaywalking) when he was stopped by two police officers. He was asked if he had anything on him, and he told the police he had a small amount of marijuana. Wilson was then handcuffed, arrested, and taken to the police station. He was detained at the station, and then released.

Wilson, 67, has never been convicted or arrested for a crime in his life. Jaywalking is an infraction (like a traffic ticket) and a person cannot be arrested or taken into custody for a traffic ticket. That leaves the possession of marijuana charge, punishable by a $100 fine, as the sole basis for his arrest.

Had the officers followed the city’s policy directing them to not to make arrests for marijuana possession, Wilson wouldn’t have been arrested. (The city’s policy can be found here.)

When I showed the city’s law to the CJC judge, he merely shook his head and said, “You can’t tell the police what to do.” While it’s true that state law preempts city law, state law allows only a $100 fine for marijuana possession. When I suggested that someone contact the officers involved in the arrest to show them the city’s policy and question the police as to why they arrested Wilson and detained him, I was met with – you guessed it – more silence.

Public defenders have the responsibility to ensure that these types of abuses don’t happen. Once a case is in court, we can raise legal and moral objections to the charge, which we do. But often we can do little to change unjust policies, especially when they are implemented on the street and involve the police. Even when an injustice is identified and addressed in court, it doesn’t mean it won’t happen again.

In the cases of both of these men, they received no apologies for the criminal justice system’s misdeeds. The system goes on unpunished and, unfortunately for the next person who is wrongfully arrested for a warrant or for possession of marijuana, uncorrected.

While these two arrests were not caused by problems that originated with the CJC, they are representative of a discernible pattern in the criminal justice system, of which the CJC is part. If the CJC is going to truly fulfill its promise of being a “problem solving court,” it might want to start by cleaning up identifiable and easily remediable problems in the criminal justice system. Justice should be a two-way street.

Jeff Adachi is the elected public defender in San Francisco. He personally began staffing the Community Justice Center in March 2009 when Mayor Gavin Newsom decided not to fund the two positions originally promised to the Public Defender to staff the court, which was established by the Newsom administration. To read more writings by Adachi about his experiences at the Community Justice Center, please visit www.sfpublicdefender.org.

  • marc

    There is a word for it when a police department, a paramilitary operation, will not subject itself to civilian political authority: insubordination.

    What generally happens when an employee is insubordinate to their superiors, whether that employee is an officer or the Chief of Police?

    The Board of Supervisors needs to continue along the foot patrols path, staking out enforcement priorities so that scarce policing resources are directed at the needs identified as most critical by San Francisco neighbors.

    Whatever prioritization exists now is capricious and is often times hostile toward community sentiment.

    -marc