THE TIME I WAS ACCUSED OF A CRIME

I often use this space to talk about odd or funny things in the news, to talk about criminal or civil justice issues, or to explain legal issues I find interesting. Today I’m going to talk about something more personal. I’m going to tell you about the time I was accused of a crime while in law school, what happened, and why.

I Go to a FSU Game

In the fall of 2008 I was interning in the Leon County State Attorney’s Office during my next-to-last semester of law school. As an intern I was essentially acting as an economy version of a state prosecutor, given a cubicle and a pared-down caseload of misdemeanor traffic crimes, and told to have at it. I was working about 40 hours every week instead of taking classes but still paying full tuition. This seems like a downright stupid thing to do on my part, but was completely worth it to be able to actually get in a court room and “practice law” before graduating.

On September 20th, 2008 Florida State played Wake Forest at home. My wife’s family had season tickets and so we went to the game with her father, mother, and grandparents. It was a pretty benign affair, with the mighty Seminoles losing 12-3 in a kick-fest. The entire game my wife and I sat with her father, mother, and grandparents in their designated seats, leaving only to use the facilities and buy the occasional overpriced concession. We left the game to either go home directly or go out to dinner with my wife’s family.

I went back to work at the State Attorney’s office on Monday. Sometime during the day I was approached by one of the special investigators and asked to step into a spare office with him. We were on a first-name basis, since I had previously talked to him about one of my cases and he was a generally friendly guy. So I went.

“We Have You on Video”

He sat down across from me and told me to close the door. While I can’t remember all of the conversation seven years later, here’s the gist:

The investigator told me in no uncertain terms that it would be better for me if I just told him what I had done at the football game. I remember him saying that “we have you on video” and that I wouldn’t be expelled from law school if I just went ahead and confessed to what I did. He’d just tell me to clean out my desk and maybe charges wouldn’t be filed.

I started laughing. I asked him whose idea this was, because it was obviously a practical joke.

He told me he was serious, and that I should start taking this seriously if I had any sense. He was, according to him, giving me an opportunity to get this over with as painlessly as possible. He told me that if I kept lying to him it would only make it worse. He was going to get that video tape, as well talk to all the witnesses, and at that point it would be too late. He asked me if I was sure that I wanted to play it this way.

I laughed again. He looked me in the eye with a look that said “don’t say I didn’t warn you” and, at that moment I realized he was perfectly serious. I was shocked. I told him that I had no idea what he was talking about and that I hadn’t done anything other than go to the football game with my wife’s family, even though it felt like my chest was caving in. I hadn’t even had anything to drink before or after the football game, since we were spending time with my wife’s grandparents who were non-drinkers.

The investigator sent me back to my desk. I sat in my cubicle and stared at the computer screen, my brain running a mile a minute. I’m a naturally paranoid person, and my brain clicked through possibility after possibility.

Had I forgotten to pay for something at the concession stand?

Did I bump someone while leaving the stadium in the mass of people and make them fall? Did I trip someone and not know? Did they break something?

Did I do something, anything, wrong and not even remember?

What was it?

Interrogation Tactics 101

Looking back now I realize the investigator wasn’t being my friend or trying to help me in that room. He was leveraging me with three classic interrogation techniques, designed to break me down and force me to confess to whatever it was he wanted.

First, he told me me he had irrefutable proof I had committed some crime – “we have you on video.” This was an outright lie, since there was never any video of anything as I would later learn. The police are legally allowed to lie to suspects. Even though I knew this at the time, I incorrectly believed that this investigator wouldn’t lie to me, since I worked in the same office.

Second, he told me that the consequences for whatever it was that I had done would be lighter if I confessed to him. This is a common tactic of negotiation the police use to get easy confessions- “just get it over with, and it’ll be much better for you than if we have to go to court.” Nearly all the time this is a lie – the police don’t make the decision of which crimes will be charged, or what a sentence will be.

Third, he never actually told me what it was I was accused of doing. This tactic is designed to give suspects enough rope to hang themselves. If a suspect thinks the cops know everything and that confessing if going to get them off easier, then they’ll go ahead and confess to everything, even things the cops didn’t suspect or know about.

But let’s get back to me sitting in a paranoid cold sweat at my desk.

The Waiting

I finally worked up the courage to talk to my supervising Assistant State Attorney, who was just out of law school, to ask what the hell was going on. I asked him, still hopeful, whether or not this was some elaborate practical joke. He said he knew nothing.

I called my wife. She said it was crazy, and she didn’t remember anything even remotely odd happening.

I got exactly zero work done for the rest of that day. I did find out that another intern, whose name I’m not going to use, had been accused of being my accomplice in whatever crime they thought I did.

The next day I finally learned through third-hand information that I (along with an accomplice) was accused of roughing up a kid at the FSU football game because the kid was a Wake Forest fan. Or that I was accused of simply screaming obscenities at the kid. Or that I was accused of ripping a poster out of this kid’s hands. I heard that the kid was with two women, who I have never met to this day, and that according to them I screamed “You can’t touch me, I work for the State Attorney!” while roughing up / cussing out / tearing the poster from the kid. That statement prompted the investigation.

Over the next week and a half the state attorney’s office sent detectives to speak with witnesses to the other intern’s whereabouts during the game, who confirmed no such thing happened. My father-in-law called and volunteered to give a statement under oath that no such thing happened. Other people volunteered to vouch for my whereabouts during the game or my general character. But the investigation continued.

“I Own This Town”

About two days after the investigator first pulled me into an office, I and my alleged accomplice were sent to see the State Attorney himself. He had a big corner office in the Leon County court house building, with windows looking out over part of downtown. We sat in front of his desk, with armed detectives standing in the back like an audience. William N. Meggs, State Attorney for the Second Judicial Circuit of Florida, who goes by Willie, glared at us. He stood up from behind his desk and told us we had taken this whole thing too far. He was going to nail us. He would make it his personal mission to make sure we paid the price. He looked out the window and said the exact words “I own this town” (and now I’m paraphrasing) “I walked a beat here as a police officer before you were born.” He made sure we knew that he was going to ruin our lives and our careers. He said he knew we were lying about everything when we denied what we did. And then he sent us out.

I can’t tell you what was going through my head after that other than absolute fear. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, and yet one of the most powerful men in North Florida had made it his personal mission to destroy my life. I wondered at that point if it even mattered what the evidence was, that there was no videotape of anything, or that I could pretty much conclusively prove it wasn’t me who did whatever those two women were saying.

If the State Attorney was out to ruin me, he had an impressive array of tools to do it with. He could bring trumped up felony charges against me and fight it out in court, ensuring that in public records I would be forever marked with a felony charge even if I was never convicted. He could send a letter to the bar saying that, as an intern in his office he found my character and fitness for the profession suspect, and ensure I would never be admitted to any state bar. He could ensure that I never found a job as an attorney in Leon County or anywhere his influence reached.

I was completely powerless. I was saddled with the burden of proving myself innocent, and nothing I did seemed to matter. The only thing I could do was wait.

More Waiting, and More Suspects

About two days after the State Attorney’s lecture I learned, again through third-hand information, that the heat was off. The two women had come into Meggs’ office and identified two different men, also state attorneys, as the perpetrators. These two men were questioned, but eventually were off the hook too.

About two weeks after everything began I learned that I was no longer being investigated. There was no official statement from Meggs, no piece of paper, no email; just the investigator coming by and telling me that I didn’t need to worry about it any more.

How Did This Happen?

I later found out that, on the Monday I was first accused, the two women had come into the State Attorney’s office and reported what happened, presumably because the two assailants were either stupid or drunk enough to announce where they worked. They met with Meggs, who showed them pictures of every white male who worked in his office at that time. Two two women picked out my picture as well as the other intern as the ones who looked most like the men they saw. Presumably Meggs then sent his investigator out to turn the screws.

I was accused, lied to, sweated, intimidated, and pressured into confessing to something that I didn’t do. The mental pressures exerted on me were immense, and designed to break me and extract a confession. But unlike most people accused of a crime I wasn’t hauled down to a painted cinderblock interrogation room in handcuffs. Imagine what it must be like, then, for people in that situation.

This whole episode happened because two women made a bad identification, and because the State Attorney assumed the assailants’ statement about working for him wasn’t a lie or misremembering on the part of the two women. They came into the State Attorney’s office with a memory, a memory that was altered and then rewarded when they were shown a set of photos of white males currently working in that office. The women weren’t able to make a positive identification based on the photos, but Meggs decided to press me and the other intern anyway. I was presumed guilty at that moment, and made to work to prove my innocence. If this entire episode can start because of something like that, imagine what it must be like for people who aren’t white males, with other white people ready to vouch for their whereabouts and character.

Lessons Learned

As far as I know the real perpetrators remain at large. But this episode taught me some very important things.

If a police officer is asking you questions in a room at the police station, the only words out of your mouth should be “I want a lawyer.” End of story. In true-crime shows the people who exercise their constitutional right to counsel are always mobsters, career criminals, or people who have something to hide. This wrongly perpetuates the myth of the friendly and helpful policeman who’s just out to solve crimes and get justice. This is bullshit. If the cops are questioning you, it’s not because they like you or want to hear your opinion. They are trying to pin something on you, maybe even something you didn’t do. Shut up.

It is very very easy to get false confessions out of innocent people. Cops pressure them in many more ways than I was pressured. I wrote more about false confessions here and here, if you’re in the mood for further reading.

Even elected prosecutors can and will use their offices to further their own personal and political agendas. Some of them look out their office windows and think, without a trace of irony, “I own this town.” I repeat: if you are accused of a crime, lawyer up.

This whole episode happened because this is how the system works. Cops and prosecutors think they’re right, and that anyone suspected of a crime is lying. Fortunately I escaped this ordeal unscathed, but many people do not.