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

By Jeff Adachi

The fact that the criminal justice system is, at times, unjust in its outcomes is rarely questioned. Only in the 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 in front of the building where he lived. He told police that he had just been to court and that the judge had recalled his warrant. The police refused to believe him, and did not allow him to go up to this 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 taken out of the system. The judge explained that the police don’t learn 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 are no longer any good.

In response, I said it was outrageous that this man was arrested for a warrant that no longer existed. In an age where information is conveyed in a “twitter” or a second, 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.

The next gentleman, 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 J-walking) 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 of or arrested for a crime in his life. J-walking 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 the state law preempts city law, even the 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 case 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.