Category Archives: Legal Analysis

Adrian Peterson, Culture, and Why Wrong is Still Wrong

Corporal punishment is wrong. Brutal corporal punishment of the kind Adrian Peterson is suspected of wielding against a 4 year-old child is both wrong and thankfully illegal.

But what about cultural norms- like the one espoused by Charles Barkley recently- that claim acceptance for ‘whipping,’ and imply that an unfair standard could be wielded against a traditionally oppressed minority? The answer is that those concerns are understandable. But ultimately they are excuses. And cultural excuses do not legally or morally excuse child abuse.

I was spanked (and occasionally, although rarely, worse). It was the wrong thing to do. I hold no resentment against my parents for it; they were doing the best they could with the resources and insight they had at the time. They have been honorable, loving and supportive otherwise, and gave us the tools we needed to navigate life in a largely healthy and successful manner. But the fact remains: Hitting us was unnecessary, and ultimately did more harm than good.

I have friends who remain conflicted about the value of spanking (either in terms of how it influenced them or how it might be appropriate for their children). One concern I hear is that the choice to spank could lead them to be considered ‘criminals.’ Or, if they were spanked, that their parents- most of whom were loving and decent otherwise- could be considered ‘criminal’ in retrospect.

But the issue is not a legal one when it comes to spanking within limits. This remains lawful in all states and will likely continue as such. The ‘limits’ are usually that visible marks may not be left. Generally, you can cause pain or discomfort with a hand or an object such as a paddle, but you cannot significantly bruise or scar your child.

Many of us had parents who did bruise or scar us, though. Often, they were decent, loving parents in every other important respect. But if they exceeded the limits of what is criminal today, they were dreadfully wrong, period. Of course they’re not in danger of criminal liability in most cases, and in most cases they shouldn’t be. But we can still acknowledge their failings, albeit in the context of a very different life. For those of us who were spanked within legal limits, in a planned, non-angry context (the ‘gold standard’ for corporal punishment), we can be confident and thankful that we were, in all likelihood, not deeply or permanently harmed by the experience.

Regardless, that experience is not necessary. And the risks outweigh the benefits.

The bottom line seems to be that there is conflicting evidence on whether spanking is hurtful and leads to more aggression, anger, dysfunction, etc. But I know of no evidence suggesting that hitting children has measurably positive outcomes, particularly in light of the physical and psychological risks (my mentor Victor Vieth wrote a great law review article on the subject).

What lingers in distinct cultural and groups and minorities, of course, is this uncomfortable notion: A form of discipline that many among them have practiced for ages will now be criminalized by the majority population. Particularly since that majority lacks a pattern of respect and fair-dealing with the minority, this is understandable. To some in minority communities (many of which are disadvantaged and disenfranchised), the threat of a powerful and moneyed majority seeking to criminalize them further for what’s always been done strikes them as unseemly, to say the least. There are also members of strict religious communities who cite scripture in support of hitting children. They, too, will understandably be concerned about a secular majority imposing its views on them despite what they believe is God-ordained.

I don’t blame either group one bit.

But still, hitting children is wrong. Objectively and essentially so. In extreme forms, like the one doled out to a toddler by Peterson, it’s rightfully condemned and legally prohibited. In mild forms, it will likely not be criminalized in the U.S. for a long time, if ever. But either way, it should be condemned and phased out permanently, regardless of cultural identity or religious imperative. The reason is simple: There is one thing which must trump cultural or religious sentiment- the welfare of individual children.

 

 

The Rice Videotape: When An Unblinking Eye is Ugly But Necessary

HiResUnmanned, stationary video is a cold observer. It will not blink in disbelief. It will not turn away in horror. It will not cloud over with tears of pure, human empathy. But sometimes it’s the only accurate source for the truth about what individuals are capable of. Not monsters. Not demons. Just people.

In 2011, a Texas family court judge was forced to acknowledge the sadistic and brutal beating of his 16 year-old daughter who suffers from cerebral palsy because of a hidden webcam she set up in desperation. In 2013, a 14 year-old French girl compelled an admission of sexual abuse by her father through the same technology. These two children would likely never have been believed were it not for the passive, electronic observer that forced action, justice and- importantly- an acceptance of responsibility from the attackers.

Enter Ray and Janay Rice.

Ms. Rice considers her husband’s breathtakingly vicious attack of her, and then his dragging her body, skirt hiked up on a cold, hotel floor moments after, to be a part of their private lives. She seems yet to acknowledge a single act of wrongdoing on his part, instead characterizing what he did as “a moment in our lives.” She appears to be willing to support and stand by him regardless of what he did to her, what he might have done before, and what he might do again- even while she is pregnant with his child.

What are the chances, then, that Janay would ever have been forthcoming about what was done to her in that now infamous elevator- assuming she could even remember it accurately? Forget about the courtroom. What about the kind of honest detail that might have led to forcing Ray Rice to take real responsibility for a possibly permanent brain injury? What about the kind of detail that might have compelled him to examine his character and his choices, especially now that he will be a father?

Given her public statements, it is not likely that Janay would have spoken at all to anyone who might have made a difference, whether an NFL official, a judge, a counselor or anyone else. She’s in love. She’s made her choice.

But where criminal acts concerned, not all of the choices are hers to make. There are at least two entities that have an interest when a crime of violence occurs and criminal charges are brought: The victim herself (or himself) and the community as a whole. The community in this case- at least Atlantic County, New Jersey, the prosecutorial jurisdiction where this crime took place- has a right to the truth, as much as it can be ascertained, in order to decide what Ray Rice did to violate their laws and what he deserves because of it (no comment, for now, on how the case was legally resolved).

Without the video, it is highly unlikely that Rice’s brutality would ever be fully known- both in terms of the lightning blow he was willing to unleash into a woman’s face and the callous way in which he then dragged her around. Even assuming an out of character, mental snap due to rage, Rice could have knelt beside her and comforted her. He could have called for help and admitted a terrible, momentary wrong. Instead he dragged her like an inconvenient bag of garbage. We know that now, because we’ve seen it.

What Janay Rice is 100% correct about is that the repeated, for-entertainment viewing of the video tape of her abuse is exploitive and abusive itself; her pain should not be minimized nor her feelings invalidated. She is unfortunate with regard to being married to a public figure and now being at the center of a tragically public case. But given her unwavering support of a man who attacked her, given the child who will soon become a part of their dynamic, and given a desperate need for society as a whole to wake up to the undiluted reality of intimate partner violence, there is value in the videotape’s existence if not gross proliferation.

It’s awful. But it’s the truth. And the truth matters, even when love would conceal it.

Contempt of Cop, And That Might Be It

iStock_000004808004_SmallI’ve worked closely with police officers my entire professional life, and I find most to be decent, honorable men and women who do a difficult job with a surprising amount of professionalism. I’m far from anti-cop. But sometimes it appears obvious that breaking the law isn’t what will get you arrested. Simply disobeying a police officer, even with the right to do so, might do it.

That’s anathema to the rule of law.

A disturbing video posted by the African-American political and cultural opinion magazine “The Root” shows a black man arguing with police officers, one male and one female and both white, in St. Paul, Minnesota in January and eventually being tasered and then arrested. It’s news again in light of recent events, and race is an assumed factor. At one point in his filming of the incident, the man interrupts the female officer and says “the problem is I’m black.” The two are then joined by a male officer who immediately demands that he put his hands behind his back. A struggle ensues, he’s tasered and then arrested.

I honestly don’t know if race was a factor for the officers involved. I’d like to think it wasn’t, but I completely understand those who most certainly do. Regardless, what bothered me most about the exchange I saw was simply the illegality of what seems to be happening. Apparently charges against the man for trespass, disorderly conduct and disrupting the legal process were dropped.

Understanding that cell phone video is hardly an infallible source of context in a tense situation, watching this one will not yield a single explanation by the officers as to why the man is being arrested that cites Minnesota law or local ordinance. I watched it repeatedly; I don’t hear it. Reports suggest a store clerk called with some concern about his presence as a possible loiterer although he was in a public place. The responding officer demands he identify himself. He refuses, as is apparently his right under Minnesota law. She appears to follow him as he walks away, at one point explaining her demand saying “this is what police officers do when they’re called.”

That may be, but that doesn’t make the demand legal. And if it’s not legal, and no other crime is occurring, she needs to shrug and walk away. Period. But police officers increasingly seem not to want to do that.

In February, a California Highway Patrolman arrested a firefighter who refused to move a fire truck at the patrolman’s insistence while working a car wreck. The firefighter was ordered released and later filed a complaint. Details are in dispute, but it seems as if he was handcuffed and placed in a cruiser simply because he disobeyed the command of the CHP, regardless of the letter of the law.

Like any institution that provides for trappings of authority, deadly weapons and combat training, police agencies sometimes attract bullies and others with big egos and little patience. I believe this is not the norm in American policing but generally an exception. I’ve not only worked closely with cops all of my life, I’ve befriended many. I’ve heard countless head-shaking stories (that never reach the media) of cops who have not used deadly force despite the actions of belligerent and aggressive people who threaten their lives and refuse to obey reasonable commands.

Still, there is justifiable criticism being leveled against the militarization of American police forces and the rise of the “warrior cop.” Engaging the community from behind barricades with automatic weapons is largely counterproductive and stupid. But what’s worse is ignoring the law and putting people in chains and cages- regardless for how long or to what eventual end- simply because they’ve made a cop angry. It doesn’t work that way. It can’t work that way.

As a young prosecutor I practiced before an old and quirky but wonderful judge named Dan O’Flaherty. He showed me once how he kept a copy of Virginia’s contempt of court statute (the one that allows judges to jail people on the spot for in-court behavior) actually taped to the bench where he sat. His reason? When he was insulted or otherwise disrespected by someone before him, he took time to read the statute and think very carefully before even threatening the person with contempt. Because sometimes what they were doing was infuriating, but not illegal.

Anyone with the honor of wielding a badge and a gun needs to understand that as well.

Worth Knowing in the Dylan Farrow Case: The Actual Risk of Suggestibility With Children

Tom Lyon, A law professor at the University of Southern California, has a remarkably valuable dual background when it comes to legal child protection: He’s both an attorney and a psychologist. Among the most influential contributions he’s made is this article, plainly titled “Let’s Not Exaggerate the Suggestibility of Children.”

In a child sexual abuse case, suggesting the complainant was either coached to adopt fantasy as reality, or simply did so out of confusion between the two, is a popular defense tactic. It’s particularly attractive because it doesn’t involve judging the victim or accusing her of lying.  She can be viewed as, in a sense, as much a victim as the state is claiming, but in an entirely different way.

This has, not surprisingly, been suggested over and over again regarding the allegations made by Dylan Farrow, adopted daughter of Woody Allen. Countless observers, and indeed Allen himself, have suggested that Dylan is not a devious liar, but instead a sad pawn, indoctrinated to believe a false memory in the context of a vicious divorce and custody battle.

For this reason, it’s important to understand what respected research has to say on the subject of- in fact- how suggestible children are. I’d encourage you to read the article itself if you’re interested; it’s written for a general audience and not dense or jargon-filled. But in a nutshell, here’s what the research reveals:

1. Very young children (3 and 4, which is about as young as a child can be forensically interviewed except in exceptional circumstances) can be led to adopt false memories or incorrect versions of events. But this only occurs after extreme efforts such as a very long passage of time between the actual event and the interviews, and repeated interviews over time with constant introduction of false memories. And even with these efforts, a majority of these same, very young children will maintain the actual version of events and resist efforts to conflate fantasy and reality.

2. The danger of children conflating fantasy and reality drops off sharply at around 5 or 6 years of age.

3. By the age of 10, children meeting normal developmental milestones are no more susceptible to adopting false memories than adults.

Even more interesting: The first research done on children and susceptibility (often called the “first wave”) was done by respected psychologists, but also child protection advocates and researchers who believed children were not nearly as susceptible as popular culture largely accepted. The so-called “second wave” research was conducted by equally respected psychologists who thought the first-wave researchers were being too rosy in their assessments and set out to demonstrate that children can be made to adopt incorrect or even wholly false versions of events if efforts are strong enough. They succeeded, but generally with extremely young children and through efforts that are virtually unheard of in child abuse cases. 

The bottom line is that yes, mostly toddler-aged children can be led to adopt false memories with repeated, methodical, and highly suggestive attempts to confuse them after a considerable amount of time has passed between the event and the repeated interviews. But even with these tactics, a majority of children will still maintain a a correct version of events.

Dylan Farrow was seven when she allegedly endured what she clearly describes now, at 28, as sexual abuse at the hands of Woody Allen. Describing her as a liar and a willful tool of her embittered mother even after 21 years is arguable, as it always will be. Anyone can lie, and some can lie very convincingly.

But claiming that she was simply, easily and permanently led to create a false memory- at the level of detail she now relates- is a claim utterly unsupported by the very best research on the subject, about half of it conducted by skeptical researchers suspicious of children’s abilities.

Those who believe Allen is innocent may be right; I will never know and neither will they. But neither they nor Allen himself have a right to claim that Dylan was easily confused and now sadly tied to that confusion. To believe Allen is innocent is, in all likelihood, to reject the detailed account Dylan has given, and to reject her as a liar; the worst kind.

Period.