[Chapter 11] The Wrong Side of the Law: Criminal Justice

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Edward LawsonEdward Lawson

In 1975 Edward Lawson had just moved to San Diego. One balmy night he decided to walk home from a friend's house. But a police officer who thought the lanky, dreadlocked African American man looked suspicious in the predominantly white neighborhood stopped him and demanded his I.D. When Lawson refused to produce any, he was arrested and charged with violating the Penal Code section that required an individual to provide "credible and reliable" identification to a police officer who has reason to be suspicious. This law was used disproportionately against poor people and gave police wide discretion to arrest whomever they deemed "undesirable."

Stoped Fifteen Times

Over the next eighteen months, Lawson was stopped fifteen times. Each time, he documented the arrest, took the officer's badge number, and grew more irate. Since he was unsuccessful in fighting the individual charges against him, he decided to sue the police department to strike down the law, which he noted was "primarily used against black and brown people and youth—and that is a lot of people in California." Initially, Lawson had difficulty interesting local lawyers or media in his case, so he represented himself. The state courts ruled against him, but when the Ninth Circuit validated his complaint, the legal community and the press began to pay attention. One of those who believed in Lawson’s constitutional complaint was Mark Rosenbaum, a young ACLU of Southern California attorney who had cut his legal teeth while on the team rep-resenting Daniel Ellsberg when he was prosecuted for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times at the height of the Vietnam War.

Using Race as an Index for Suspicion

The ACLU was interested in Lawson's case because it highlighted racism in the criminal justice system. "Most officers used race as an index of suspicious conduct," recalled Rosenbaum.

In 1982 Lawson’s suit reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where Rosenbaum argued that California's vagrancy law violated the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures and the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination.

Lawson's argument was bolstered by two earlier decisions. In 1962 the high court had ruled that a California law criminalizing narcotics addiction violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Individuals could not be arrested merely for their status—as a drug addict—in the absence of criminal behavior.

Vague Vagrancy Statute

A decade later, the Supreme Court struck down a Jacksonville, Florida, ordinance targeting "rogues and vagabonds" because it was too vague. Writing for a unanimous court, Justice William O. Douglas stated that such laws allow for discriminatory law enforcement. (The plaintiffs in that case were interracial couples who believed racism motivated their arrests.)

Justice Douglas wrote, "Of course, vagrancy statutes are useful to the police. Of course, they are nets making easy the roundup of so-called undesirables. But the rule of law implies equality and justice in its application. Vagrancy laws of the Jacksonville type teach that the scales of justice are so tipped that even-handed administration of the law is not possible."

Standardless Law

In Lawson's case, the court did not reach the Fourth and Fifth Amendment claims, but in a 7-2 decision, it struck down the anti-loitering statute as too vague. Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor stated that the law "contains no standard for determining what a suspect has to do in order to satisfy the requirement to provide a 'credible and reliable' identification." Echoing Justice Douglas in the Jacksonville case, O'Connor said that this gave too much weight "to the moment-to-moment judgment of the policeman on his beat" and could lead to "harsh and discriminatory enforcement by local prosecuting officials."

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