By: JACQUELYN CARPENTER
It was so surreal.
This could not be happening to her.
Several police cars had lit up all at once at least three, if not more. A bright light had come on as well. Officers were behind her vehicle, a rental as it were, giving instructions that she was supposed to raise her hands. She knew without looking that a gun was aimed in her direction, if not at her very head. An officer came to her driver’s side door and attempted, quite rudely in her opinion as he had no reason, to open it. It was locked. With her hands still raised, afraid she may be shot for moving, she moved her eyes to meet his. He tapped on the window and told her to unlock the door. Keeping her right hand in the air and moving the left one (closest to the door), she closed her hand so that only one finger, her index finger, remained raised. With no sudden movements, she slowly lowered her hand to hit the button that would unlock the doors. Once pushed, she put her hand back in the air. The officer opened the door.
He demanded her driver’s license. She had been stopped at a traffic light so there was no way this was a traffic stop; the fact that he did not ask for her insurance confirmed this was no traffic stop. Besides, who uses guns in a regular traffic stop anyway? Nevertheless, her driver’s license was in a wallet in her purse. She was confused about how to retrieve it without getting shot in the back by an antsy officer. Her purse was by her left foot on the floor. She looked at the purse and back at the officer, hands still in the air, shrugging to show her confusion. He told her to get it, so she finally moved . . . slowly, still scared, still confused.
What was happening? Was this really happening?
After handing her license to the officer, he told her to get out of the vehicle. Once again, she followed his instructions. She accompanied him to his squad car per his request, which she obviously had no choice but to follow. He then asks her, “Where are you coming from?” She knew the answer; it was simple. She had no real reason not to tell him, but innocent people go to prison all the time because they cooperate thinking they are innocent and the judicial system will work. No, she refused to be part of that group. Besides, she knew better. She had to take her own advice on this one. She told the officer, “I don’t want to answer your questions.” The officer seemed surprised, but came back quickly, “Why not? If you don’t have anything to hide, you can tell me where you were.” The officer was insinuating she had something to hide, but she did not. She was a criminal defense attorney. Should she tell him? Would it make a difference? Probably not. She responded to his inquiry, “I want my lawyer.” Another surprised look, a narrowing of the eyes, so she answered his unasked question, “Arrest me. If that is what you are going to do, then arrest me. But understand, I still want my lawyer.”
The officer put the handcuffs on her! Was she being arrested?! She was locked in the back of his squad car. She began to look around.
Meanwhile, she had a passenger in the vehicle with her. He was a friend, a black male (Let’s call him “Black” to protect the innocent and misidentified). By this point, Black was at another squad car, being handcuffed and placed inside. The officers stood behind the two cars and talked with one another. She thought she heard something about her asking for a lawyer. She couldn’t be sure. Did he click the handcuffs an extra notch because she “lawyered up”? The handcuffs are uncomfortable. How do they expect you to sit in the seat when your hands are forced behind you and the seats are so small?
Three officers moved. They went to Black and she heard them say, “Your partner is demanding a lawyer.” Partner? They then asked if he was willing to speak with them. She couldn’t make out everything, but she knew Black did not get her memo (“You have the right to remain silent, so shut the hell up!”). Black told them everything – where they had been and where they were going (had been to Wal-Mart to buy swimwear to go swimming at his brother’s apartment). He didn’t know how to shut up. She could only hear bits and pieces. She heard her Black say, “Hell yeah she is hot (meaning angry). She’s never been in trouble a day in her life.” They were asking Black why she would ask for a lawyer. Black responded, “Because she is one.” After seeing the surprise register on their face, one even did a double take, her friend added, “She’s a lawyer herself. She practices criminal defense.” Why? Why would he tell them that? For sure she would go to jail based on that information alone. They hate lawyers, especially criminal defense lawyers. It’s not as though she is an assistant district attorney helping them to prosecute alleged criminals.
A light-skinned African-American man comes between the vehicles and looks at Black. She has seen him before. In fact, about five minutes ago when they had passed a Cricket store just before. They were stopped at a traffic light. She also remembered there was a Hispanic lady outside the Cricket store with police officers and had begun to point in their direction. The African-American man shakes his head after seeing Black and tells police, “that’s not him”. Does that mean we can go?
More time passes before the officer returns to his squad car. He gets in and starts the car. Is she headed downtown? What about her purse? “My purse is in the car.” With no fanfare the officer dryly tells her to calm down, the vehicle is being towed and they are only going back to the scene. Scene? “Back to the scene?” She was never at “the scene” in the first place. The officer turns on his lights briefly to make a u-turn.
The officer questions her again, “Are you just coming back from Denton (30 miles north past Dallas)? Is that why you are in a rental?” What does he know about Denton? Black had definitely talked too much. She had been in a car wreck two weeks before as she was returning to Houston from Denton, where she had had a case. The only way the officer could know anything about it, however, was that the passenger had said something. She supposed the officers wanted to know why she was driving a rental car. That was none of their business either. She never bothered answering. Instead she asked him for the time, he responded in military time, but she repeated it in regular time. Then she asked him his name. He told her his last name. Then she asked, “Is your first name John?” He was surprised and hesitated when he responded that it was; she could sense his trepidation. The officer asked her if she was a criminal defense lawyer. “As a matter of fact, I am,” she said.
They arrived shortly thereafter at a Cricket store. No one came out to look at either her or her friend – no African-American man and no Hispanic lady. A few minutes later, the police went to her friend, spoke with him, and released him from the handcuffs, but he remained inside the vehicle. Afterwards, the same police officer came to her. He said, “Ma’am I’m going to explain to you what’s going on. This store was robbed and your friend was identified as the person who did it. We had to detain him to make sure it was not him by looking at the video surveillance tape.” She asks, still handcuffed, “Was there a woman involved in the robbery?” in an attempt to make sense of her detention. The officer answers, “No, Ma’am, but you were in the car.”
The officer asks her if she is ready for him to take the cuffs off of her. Seriously? Need you even ask? She stands up and turns around. After they are removed she asked if she was arrested. He makes a point of telling her that she was never arrested. She then asks if she is still “detained” to which he responds she is not. She informs him that she would not be getting back in the back of his car. He stated that was fine. Though she had to wait for her vehicle to be towed to “the scene”, she was at least free to make a decision for herself. Frankly, she would have preferred to have walked to her vehicle, anything to get away from the chaos.
Slowly, she began to come to herself. I am Jacquelyn R. Carpenter, a criminal defense attorney, who now realizes firsthand how easy it is to be accused of something you did not do, especially being in the area where you are unknowingly driving past a “scene” where something reportedly just happened, particularly if you are with a black male. I know so many black males, friends and family. So how do I prevent being stopped by police at gunpoint for riding with a black male in the future? It was so easy for this lady to randomly select a black male from the general public and have him and me scrutinized and interrogated, which is a scary thought in and of itself.
This experience was humiliating, insulting, demeaning, hurtful, scary . . . everything our clients’ tell us it is. What’s worse, we were actually innocent, and, in many ways, it didn’t matter. We were never even at the Cricket store.
At the end of this episode, I realized that I attempted to invoke my Fifth Amendment constitutional rights, but that is not what the officer understood, apparently, since he continued to ask questions. I thought later that it would have been unequivocal if I had said, “I invoke my Fifth Amendment rights.” When that did not come out, in my state of confusion and with so much chaos, I slipped quite simply into plain English. It is not easy to be clearheaded in the face of this type of authority, especially considering the display of authority while a gun is aimed in your direction. It is hard to understand the split-second decisions our clients have to make faced with the same show of authority (i.e., guns aimed at them, being surrounded by officers, flashing lights, handcuffed, “detained” or arrested). I had the benefit of experience in the system, which still had its moments. I pray that we all do better at putting ourselves in our clients’ shoes and attempting to understand. I do believe I will be more cognizant from this point forward.