Opinion » Maxed Out

The ends do not justify the means

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A long time ago in a land far, far away, I was a practicing lawyer. In the ensuing decades, I've lived down the shame and in a pinch I can blame my career choice on (a) accidentally accumulating enough credits to get an undergraduate degree, and (b) more proximately, Richard Nixon's inability to find peace with honour in Vietnam. Law school seemed a marginally enlightened choice compared to grunting it out in a rice paddy trying to stay alive fighting against poor people with whom I had no beef. Moving to Canada — a far more enlightened choice — gave me a ready-made excuse to become a recovered, which is to say retired, lawyer.

Being the youngest lawyer in the most successful firm in a small town in southern New Mexico, I ended up doing more than my share of public defender cases. That was because there were only two public defenders in town and the local judges would assign excess cases to practicing lawyers. Since no self respecting partner in the firm would deign to take them, I got not only my own but all of theirs. Meh.

Most of my PD "clients" were, in legal parlance, guilty as hell. But some weren't. And the ones that really got my ire up were the ones who'd been set up by mean-spirited, redneck cops. Being in small town southern New Mexico, mean-spirited, redneck cops weren't an endangered species, in fact, they seemed to be the dominant life form in the plethora of law enforcement agencies operating in the area.

Since we were so close to the U.S. – Mexican border, there were both fixed and random — floating from place to place — Customs and Immigration checkpoints on the various highways. Ostensibly, the feds manning these checkpoints were looking for illegal immigrants, or as they endearingly referred to them, wetbacks.

In reality, the checkpoints caught more "hippies" than illegals. The ruse generally worked like this: Long-haired guy would pull up to a checkpoint — or simply be stopped at random because he looked undesirable — and in the course of checking his licence and registration, or looking for invisible illegals, the cop would "smell" marijuana. Voilà, reasonable cause to search the vehicle.

It wasn't unusual to find pot. An amount as small as a dropped roach would be enough to make a major drug arrest. And if the search turned up nothing, it was not unknown for pot to mysteriously appear in the sucker's car, having been placed there with a bit of ham-fisted legerdemain by the officer of the law.

The cases were problematic to try. Judges tend to believe cops even when they're lying through their teeth. Like the one who had a horrible head cold but could still detect the faint smell of pot. Or the one who, under cross-examination and in response to my question, said his sense of smell was so good he could smell and describe the cologne I was wearing... notwithstanding I wasn't wearing any scent at all.

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