'Rodney King' factor pops up

Dan Rodricks

May 29, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

The defense of Antoine Hopkins consisted of two main points:

1. He didn't know the cops were cops.

2. The cops abused him during his arrest.

Here in the post-Rodney King Age, ears perk at any suggestion that cops mistreated a suspect -- especially when, as in this case, the suspect is black and the officers are white. The case I'm presenting here is not a major one. You won't be seeing it on "Hard Copy" any time soon; I came across it during a recent visit to Baltimore District Court. Still, it managed to make me curious about subtle influences the King case could have on criminal proceedings throughout the country. I came away wondering whether judges will be hearing more defendants assert they were mistreated by cops -- if only to cloud the evidence against them. It's something that might be poured into the mix, anyway, legitimate or not.

Antoine Hopkins, a 19-year-old supermarket clerk, opted for trial last week before Judge C. Yvonne Holt-Stone. He hired an attorney, Bob Shultz, to defend him against charges of resisting arrest and assault. Hopkins' arrest stemmed from an incident one evening in mid-March in the Claremont public housing development.

The first witness to testify against Hopkins was a Northeastern ,, District officer. This was his testimony:

On the night of March 19, he and his partner were in an unmarked car, both of them working in plainclothes. They spotted Hopkins standing on a sidewalk under a street lamp. The officer observed what he believed to be a packet of drugs pass into Hopkins' hand. The officers got out of their car. One of them said, "Police officers." Both wore their department identification cards on chains around their necks. Hopkins threw down the packet in his hand and bolted.

The first officer chased him on foot down a hill, through a muddy wooded area and across a recreational yard. Several yards away, a Northeastern District lieutenant just happened to be coming out of a community meeting -- ironically, the topic was the drug problem in Claremont -- when Hopkins came running by.

The lieutenant, who was in uniform, picked up the chase and caught Hopkins at a chain-link fence. That's where the alleged assault occurred. Hopkins spun around, pushed against the uniformed lieutenant's right shoulder, broke away and climbed over the fence. He was apprehended moments later when a female officer and a police dog emerged from a marked patrol car and confronted him in the 4300 block of Clareway.

Hopkins was handcuffed and escorted back to the place where he was first spotted. The drug packet he allegedly threw to the ground was gone. "I knew the home boys were gonna pick it up," the first officer testified. "Obviously, they picked it up."

It was at this point that Hopkins' attorney, Shultz, raised the issue of his client's treatment after his arrest, asking the first officer a series of questions that suggested abuse: "Did you see anyone strike [Hopkins]?" Shultz asked. "You didn't see anyone strike him? . . . No one struck him after he was handcuffed? . . . Were you angry that he'd gotten away with throwing away the [suspected drugs]? . . . Did you push him or drag him? . . . Did you call him abusive names?"

These charges were denied by both the first officer who had chased him and the lieutenant who caught Hopkins at the fence.

I can't think of another time in District Court -- and my visits there have been many -- when I heard a defense include the suggestion of abusive treatment during arrest. As I sat there, listening to this, I wondered whether the Rodney King case has given defendants who would never consider raising the issue either the courage or the cunning, whichever applies, to pour it into the mix.

When he testified, Hopkins denied having drugs. He claimed the two men who got out of the car never identified themselves as police officers. He said he ran away because he was in fear of his life. He said he did not realize, in the darkness, that the man who grabbed him near the chain-link fence was a uniformed lieutenant. He denied striking the lieutenant, saying he was merely pulling his arm away from a menacing stranger who was trying to subdue him for some unknown reason. Hopkins claimed he was tackled, held to the ground, struck and cut on the face. It was only then, he said, that he realized he had been chased by police officers.

Judge Holt-Stone didn't buy any of this. She found Hopkins guilty and gave him a nine-month suspended sentence. The court never addressed the suggestions of abusive treatment by police officers. But, as I said, it was poured into the mix. And that won't be the last time it happens.

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