PSA to Attorneys: Don’t insult law enforcement officers gratuitously in court

I was in court today before the Honorable Sally Chester, Judge of the District Court in Towson.  The docket was a medium-sized traffic docket with a number of well-known attorneys in attendance including former Baltimore City State’s Attorney William Swisher.  Another attorney – very well known by name, face and connections though not to be named here – was in the same courtroom with us.  I was there representing a client who did not appear personally (which the Maryland Rules and Maryland Code permit under most conditions in NON-jailable traffic court.)

My case was near the end of the docket and the very well-known attorney represented his client earlier than mine on a contested stop sign violation.  The attorney cross-examined the officer regarding his activities while conducting surveillance on a specific neighborhood intersection.  He then asked whether the officer was specifically watching the intersection only, or was he also drinking a cup of coffee or eating a donut while doing so.

I gasped and the three State Troopers behind expressed disbelief that the attorney reached for the “donut” crack.  The attorney did not apologize for his gratuitous remark at any point.  It’s absolutely appropriate to ask a law enforcement officer to what extent he or she was engaging in other activities while conducting surveillance, whether he or she was handling other objects while handling sensitive equipment or whether he or she was fully capable of devoting both full physical and visual attention to the task unencumbered.  But he decided to go for the donut crack, and didn’t have the decency to apologize.

Where does the association come from between law enforcement and donuts?  I don’t know but I suspect that it has to do with donut and coffee shops being among the few late-night and 24-hour stores when many officers conduct their duties; since those shops are open, they are sitting cash targets for robbers, and they are usually near main roads for convenient exit.  It may have to do with the low price of a donut and coffee being tolerable on a law enforcement officer’s often modest salary.  When an upper middle-class person has a scone and a 5-dollar latte at Starbucks, we don’t often make “tax lawyer” or “neurologist” jokes.

The other reason might be that law enforcement officers cannot linger long over a meal but may need to eat a little something and run.  Officers get paid to patrol and to visit scenes, and may easily get their predictable schedules turned upside down by various events including the paperwork to book an arrestee, dealing with getting spit on or vomited on by a strung-out or injured citizen or other unpleasantnesses that attorneys rarely deal with.  This may make a proper 4-food-groups lunch a bit inconvenient, though still to be recommended.

Law enforcement officers are not saints and neither are attorneys.  They have Internal Affairs and we have Bar Counsel for the same reason: upholding standards of ethics.  Some officers and some attorneys are crooked, incompetent or unethical and deserve discipline up to and including getting their badge/law license taken away.  But I have never heard a law enforcement officer take a personal shot either at attorneys generally or at defense counsel specifically; I am sure it happens but it hasn’t happened in 16 years of practicing law in over a dozen counties and Baltimore City in my presence.

If an officer is engaged in civil rights violations, constitutional violations, brutality, violence, neglect of detainees (a meaningful problem for some detainees with medical isues) or corruption, they deserve to face accountability in court.  I almost never plead a client guilty and I do respect the attorney in question for trying the case.  But there is no justification for gratuitous cracks at law enforcement by the members of the Bar.  Sue law enforcement, get an injunction, file criminal charges against an officer if there is factual and legal justification, fine.  But please, my fellow members of the Bar, no donut jokes at law enforcement; it just makes us look like immature hacks.  You’d think the butts of 10,000 lawyers jokes would know better.