'Book her, man! She's going to jail, right?

Saul Jay Singer

May 30, 1991|By Saul Jay Singer

BEYOND a reasonable doubt," as they often say in the vernacular of criminal litigation, the morning's highlight came when I placed their teacher under arrest for possession of drugs.

Before beginning my presentation, I had asked Geraldine Richardson, a teacher at Baltimore's Fallstaff Middle School, to hold on to a baggie filled with about an ounce of oregano. Some of the children had stared at me dumbfounded then, but now 60 spellbound students inhaled and gasped simultaneously. I knew I had them.

"What happens next?" I asked. "Ya gotta read her rights, man," suggested one student. Many nodding heads indicated agreement.

Ah, Miranda. They all know Miranda. There were many things that these children did not know about drugs and the law, some of which I still find incredible, given the degree of "street smarts" most of these kids so obviously manifested. Yet, thanks to television and the movies, they all know about the reading of the rights.

"Good," I answered. Turning to Richardson, I took a deep breath and in my best, most rapid staccato, I exhaled, "You have the right to remain silent anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law you have the right to an attorney if you cannot afford an attorney one will be provided for you." I turned to the class, "What now?"

"Book her, man," said one serious student. "She's going to jail, right?"

Together, we went through the entire procedure, from arrest, through arraignment, to trial. We discussed, among other things, their teacher's constitutional rights and the state's burden of proof. One young lady was outraged. "Hey, that's not fair! She never even used the stuff! And besides, you gave it to her!"

I turned to the class. "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you have heard the arguments. The officer has testified that he found the defendant holding the drugs. The officer has admitted that he never saw Mrs. Richardson do anything other than hold the bag. The young lady, attorney for the defendant, argues that a Mr. Singer came to the class and asked the teacher to hold the bag for him. Mr. Singer could not be found, but we have the corroborative testimony of many of the students." I looked at them for a few moments, letting it all sink in. "Ladies and gentlemen, what is your verdict?"

Richardson was acquitted.

Most of these students did not know that simple possession is a crime. Most were astounded to learn a person doesn't have to have touched illegal drugs to be subject to arrest. Most believed they could legally drink two beers. Many didn't know about conspiracy, or the criminal liability of a "lookout," or the differences in sentencing under Maryland law between possession and distribution.

LTC Almost nobody knew that if a juvenile court judge decides that the juvenile can no longer benefit from the juvenile system, he or she will be treated as an adult. None knew that a juvenile charged with violating a motor vehicle law, including driving while intoxicated or impaired, is treaty exactly the same as an adult. And few understood the far-reaching repercussions of a felony conviction.

On the other hand, they all knew someone who uses drugs. They all knew something about probation, about plea bargaining, about juvenile proceedings and about where dealers could be found. They all knew people who had "gotten away with it." And their estimates of the average age of a drug dealer ranged from 7 to 15 years old!

In response to a question from Robert E. May, a Maryland physician for over 40 years and my partner at Fallstaff, these 12- and 13-year-old children were able to name more drugs and more ways of taking these drugs than I could have believed possible. The irony is both sad and compelling: There is so much that they know, but so much that they do not know.

May told the students briefly, simply, and eloquently about the effects of various drugs on the human body and, in particular, upon the brain of a developing young adult. I tried my best to explain to the children the serious legal consequences of illegal drug use. It was absolutely clear to this doctor-lawyer team that any solution to America's drug plague must begin with education and must involve individuals at every level committing themselves to providing clear, direct, concise answers to our children's questions and concerns.

The Doctor/Lawyer Education Partnership Project is administered jointly by the American Bar Association and American Medical Association. Together, two-person teams of doctors and lawyers volunteer their time to bring a new perspective to the battle against drugs. I am proud to report, on behalf of my much-beleaguered profession, that the Bar Association of Baltimore City registered many more volunteers for the project here than it could reasonably place.

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