Op-Alt: Why exercising your rights is still a dangerous act a year after the death of Freddie Gray

Tionne Jones resides in the Greenmount West neighborhood on the east side of Baltimore. Last month, he took a simple yet dangerous step for a young African-American man. He told a police officer that he could not search his home without a warrant signed by a judge. Absent some emergency, what Jones told the officers is exactly correct under the United States Constitution and Maryland Declaration of Rights. Yet, in practice, when poor African-American residents invoke these protections in encounters with the police, the words of remote legal documents are no match for police authority on the street. For Jones, his choice to assert his rights meant his body was grabbed, dragged down his front steps, thrown on the cement sidewalk, and his arms were handcuffed behind his back.

We know the story of Tionne Jones because of the relatively recent practice of recording police conduct with cell phones and uploading them to the Internet. Video captures Jones standing in the archway of his front door when a police officer approaches and demands to talk to the property owner. Jones tells the police officer that that the police need a warrant for entry into the home. Another officer then arrives, walks directly up the front steps toward Jones says, "This is my house." The officer responds, "It doesn't matter," at which point the officer grabs Jones, drags him to the sidewalk, throws him violently to the ground, and handcuffs him. The police then tell the other individuals present to go inside the house and a voice over the recording states, "this is why I don't like the police at all."

Jones was initially charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor criminal offense. All charges were later dropped by the Office of the States Attorney. Unfortunately, these incidents are not new or infrequent. The Maryland Office of the Public Defender regularly holds community workshops to teach members of the public about their constitutional rights and how to exercise them. When Jones answered the front door, he followed the advice we regularly give the public, to ask the police to display a warrant before allowing them into a home. Yet as the video of the incident between Mr. Jones and the police aptly captures, Baltimore residents are forced to choose between their constitutional rights and the risk of being falsely arrested and charged. For Tionne Jones, and too many others, this predicament is a way of life in poor neighborhoods: comply with requests by the police even when unsupported by the law, or risk a pat down, an illegal arrest, or far worse.

It has been a little over a year since Freddie Gray's death. International attention was focused on Baltimore during Gray's funeral, and the aftermath of protests, curfews, looting, and criminal charges that defined our city in the spring of 2015. The Maryland Office of the Public Defender represented many people who were arrested, held, and never charged with a crime during this turbulent time. This Baltimore experience has shaped the complex identity of our city and its role in a national movement that has shed light on unfair police practices, as well as the broader impact of criminal justice on the urban poor. Despite attention drawn by this moment in the spotlight, little has changed for those who are most vulnerable to violence by the police—the urban poor.

This issue involves policing practices and their relationship to the communities they seek to protect. The police, though, are just one aspect of a broader criminal justice system that disparately treats people from poor neighborhoods. When police act inappropriately in criminal cases, courts are tasked with reviewing police conduct for constitutional violations and suppressing evidence when appropriate. Too often, judges are not willing to make such rulings, afraid to be seen as "soft on crime," which inevitably empowers the police to continue the unlawful behavior as it is implicitly sanctioned by the courts. Civil suits against the police can be cumbersome and costly, making it difficult to find attorneys to take such cases, and may provide only limited redress for those who are victims of false arrests.

Where are we a year or so after Freddie Gray's death here in Baltimore? Tionne Jones' experience seems to speak for itself. When African-American men are still being falsely arrested for exercising their constitutional rights, it is hard to say we have made much progress. United States Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo wrote "law never is but is always about to be." Law is a process that can be something else, and should be something else, but it has to have meaning for the Freddie Grays and the Tionne Jones of the world. Until all people can exercise their constitutional rights without retribution, the law acts as an unfair tool to keep some communities down. It is time we progress toward something better, a simple goal that our constitution demands.

David Walsh-Little is the Chief Attorney of the Felony Trial Division of the Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore.

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