Equal Protection Under the Law

My experience as a Legal Aid intern has changed my understanding of the importance of “equal protection under the law” and fairness in general. I used to take in to account where I stood on societal issues when evaluating the fairness of a legal issue. For example, last spring when I was living in New Orleans I was outraged to find out an N.O.P.D. officer was able to plea out of a child rape case and receive a small sentence that included time served. I knew none of the facts of the case and was very biased against both police officers and those accused of sex crimes against children. This summer at Legal Aid I did not face only the types of clients who I am biased in favor of, such as drug offenders and people who may have been illegally searched. I worked for people who were accused of driving drunk, I worked for people accused of doing terrible things to children, and I worked for people accused of stealing from others. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one with these types of biases. People working within the system such as judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and police officers actually feel the same way. It was when I saw it in them that I realized I could not allow myself to think like that.
For example, a client told me this summer about his interaction with a police officer before the cameras started rolling in the DWI testing room. The client told me the officer said, “you are a danger to my daughter and I’m going to make sure I protect her.” Despite how unprofessional that is, what really bothered me was that the officer said it before, not after, the client blew above .08 or failed other parts of the physical sobriety test. As a result, the client was intimidated and refused to take the test. Now, what could have been obvious guilt or obvious innocence depending on the result, is a potential trial based on almost no conclusive evidence. What a waste of time and money. Not to take away from the importance of going to trial from a defense standpoint, but trials should exist so that the peers can evaluate evidence, not because the system was unable to produce any real evidence to evaluate. Without bias, the officer would have been respectful and non-threatening and the chances of the client participating in the test would have increased greatly. The fact that “I didn’t take the test because I didn’t trust the officer” is actually a legitimate defense is a testament to how harmful biases are to a criminal justice system that strives to be efficient, fair, and productive.
Through meeting these clients face to face, talking about their cases with my attorneys, and doing investigations for them, I came to the conclusion that equal protection under the law is a timeless asset that the United States and the whole world should cherish. It’s not about choosing specific issues and fighting for them, it’s about protecting a system of justice because while it may seem righteous to ignore the laws to create what seems fair in an individual case, the sum of fairness to all is greater than its parts. What I mean is, you can’t bend the rules to make an example out of people because the negative results of that are not felt on a case by case basis as much as they are felt in terms of society’s belief that the judicial system is fair. This is supported by looking at the most and the least functional cities, states, and countries and noticing how lack of trust in the legal system’s integrity is correlated to higher crime rates and less economic stability. If an officer finds a mound of illegal things in someone’s house but the house was illegally searched, I believe we must think about how the court’s treatment of that person affects not just how effectively the individual is disciplined, but also the state of justice in society as a whole.

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