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Equality before the law

I admit to not having a precise and snappy definition of "equality before the law" in the sense in which I think equality before the law a good thing. For example, it seems to me legitimate that a child should receive a lesser sentence for some actions than an adult.

But I have a rough and ready notion of what is not equality before the law and what is, on those grounds, unjust. If I commit a crime and the evidence is excellent, but my cousin is a good friend of the judge, and if I get off with a light sentence because of that friendship, that is not equality before the law. If I commit vandalism and the police refuse to prosecute because I come from an influential family, that is not equality before the law.

Now most of us, myself included, would like to believe that this sort of equality before the law is part of what the American legal system is all about. We don't have aristocratic titles in America, and our ideal, our goal, is that people who commit crimes for which there is good evidence will be prosecuted regardless of their parentage, their profession, or their "pull" by way of friendship with people in high places.

The reality is rather different from the ideal. Reality usually is. And this seems to me to be a rather egregious example of inequality before the law. Or would have been, were it not for the blogosphere.

The brief version is that a Marine, about to embark for Iraq, came out of a house he was visiting in Chicago early in December to find a man rubbing his hand along the Marine's car. Upon immediate inspection, the owner found that the car had been scratched by a key on multiple sides. He confronted the alleged perpetrator, who proceeded to cuss him out roundly for being military personnel. (The car had military plates.) Instead of whacking the guy, Marine Sgt. McNulty called the cops and pressed charges. Once it was discovered that the damage was approximately $2400 worth, it became evident that this level of damage warranted felony charges, being over $300. The alleged perpetrator, a Chicago lawyer named Jay Grodner, rather insultingly offered to pay the victim's $100 deductible; the rest could be billed to his insurance. When Sgt. McNulty turned down this offer and pointed out that the charge should be a felony, the Illinois State attorneys instead pressured him to accept the $100 and to drop the attempt to file felony charges, on the grounds that Grodner is a lawyer. They said they "didn't have the time" to pursue felony charges and that it would be difficult to recover damages against Grodner because he is a lawyer. Only after the story hit the blogosphere and sent some negative publicity their way did the State's Attorney's office take a different tack. It now appears that Lawyer Grodner might even be prosecuted to the fullest extent. Whether Sgt. McNulty (who is now back in Iraq) will get his full damages paid by the one person who ought to pay them is a different question.

Now, I understand that there needs to be prosecutorial discretion. Sometimes there is not enough evidence to convict, and the police and state attorneys have to be able to make those kinds of judgement calls. But in this case, the matter was fairly obvious. Grodner was all but admitting fault by his offer to pay the deductible. There was no other alleged perpetrator anywhere around. McNulty appears to have caught the guy in the act. It should be an open and shut case. But the state's representatives hesitated because they did not think it would be worth their time to try to prosecute a lawyer to the full extent of the law. It's our own little American version of the benefit of clergy. Perhaps he should have claimed "benefit of lawyer-hood" and asked to be tried in a special court set aside for lawyers where they are tried only by their fellow lawyers.

Comments (14)


Good post. I am a police officer and it can be frustrating at times, with the plea bargain system. The DA's have a tough job too . Without it they would have an overwhleming case load. I guess this even more so in that they said it was because he was a lawyer.

Since crimes are against "the state", there should be more reform, letting victims have more say in their case.

Special privilege for students and professors at colleges is another example of this. In general, we seem to have classes with inequality/privilege presumably justified on the basis of their advocacy of equality for others, equality of results as between groups which differ genetically. When this contradiction, the inequality/privilege of egalitarians is remarked upon, some historical references to American revolutionaries using the colonial privilege of students against the aristocratic regime get dishonestly put out. Moving from de jure privilege to a new republic is the opposite of trying to move from equality before the law, to a regime of racial privilege for disadvantaged minorities.
If anything, this would yield extra, not reduced punishment for those trying to use student or academic privilege for the establishment of new entitled ignobility.

Marty, you have a good point about the overloaded justice system. It really is an argument for more judges and courts, I suppose, because when the system is so overloaded that the DA _has_ to offer plea bargains and the like just to keep from being overwhelmed, it's almost guaranteed that injustices will be done one way or another. A decision to prosecute for a lesser crime may be made on grounds like in this case--that the alleged perpetrator is going to be a hard guy to catch or to bring it home to. And it can go the other way, too, I know: An innocent person can be pressured to accept a plea bargain when he knows he did nothing wrong, because of the hurry to get the case settled.

I've not been able to find out the answer to one legal question: If this Grodner fellow were convicted, could he be made to pay the damages to the victim as part of his sentence? All that I have seen is that it carries a "fine of up to $2500," but I guess a fine would go to the state, not to the victim, right?

He should've whacked the guy.

But then _he_ would have been in trouble.

Well, yeah, but he still should've whacked the guy.

But I take your point.

Not convinced.

I'm sure there are a million other things more worthy of Chicago prosecutors than property destruction. I'll let them make the decision.

Offers to settle the damage are oftentimes "not admissible" in court. Meaning that, you can't use it. I don't know Illinois law on this matter, but I presume this Illinois lawyer might and knew if it were or not before making the statement.

Royale: that is PRECISELY why he should've whacked the guy.

And whacked him good.

I mean, report a crime to the Chicago police?

You might as well report it to your cat.

Been there, done that.


Didn't bother, the third time.

(Disclaimer: not a lawyer.)

In most (if not all) places, a defendant can be ordered to pay restitution on any conviction regarding property damage or loss, incurred medical expenses, or any other monetary loss as a "direct" result of the crime. Generally, a victim cannot recover punitive damages, loss of consortium or damages for mental or physical pain. Laws of course vary by state and county.

Criminal conviction can sometimes make a civil trial easier to win because of the lessened burden of proof vs criminal cases.

I'm sure there are a million other things more worthy of Chicago prosecutors than property destruction.

This is dangerous ground on which to tread for two reasons (ignoring the argument from either moral or ethical obligation to treat all cases with respect to their respective written law): for the -- some would say ineffectual -- means of deterrence, if it is known that all crimes of type X will go to plea bargain with a high level of certainty, the laws and punishment no longer serve to dissuade committing said crime; second, at what point do we put the breaks on to decide a type of crime must be prosecuted rather than forced to plea bargain/dropped entirely? Do we ignore/dispose of assault cases if there are too many murders?

From an operational perspective, I can certainly understand and sympathize with the prosecutor's initial hesitation to take on a case when the offender is a lawyer. Lawyers have lawyer friends and practices that will no doubt do pro bono work, and a seemingly tiny case could spiral into a massive fortune spent by the state to prosecute with regard to appeals and such, regardless of the overwhelming quantity of evidence. And as a likely first-time offender, it'd be a felony but probably still a slap on the wrist. Sympathy doesn't really override what's right, though.


I think the fine would be for what ever state an incident happens. The victim's car insurance company would have to sue or if there is no car insurance he would have to sue in a civil court.

In some places they have attempted to combine the process. I think we need to restore the idea of restitution.

@Steve, I agree. But that makes my job so hard.

Personally I think aristocrats - which we do have, though we are in denial of the fact, which I'm not convinced is particularly healthy - should be held to a higher standard by the law. But then, most people think I'm kind of a nut.


For once, so far, you and I agree. The aristocrats ought to be expected to display better breeding than the rest.


What's a few thousand dollars worth of property damage between two people?...

If you say America is build upon the basic equality that criminals should be punished irrespective of their race, age, ethnicity, sex, locations etc. And I am happy that it happens in America. BUT what if the person upon whom crime is being committed is not US citizen? For example, if American citizen commits a murder of a person who is non-US citizen. Do you still think that the American guy will get the same life sentence for this as non-US citizen gets for committing murder of US citizen????

No, because American laws are not been made for equality before law. I who have come from other country have to show that I am an American citizen in order to get job in what I want. What special has Americans done for the qualification of the job? They born here. Now I also wanted to born here, but I was never given such opportunity. And now I am being prevented to call myself American, even though I have more emotional attachment then regular American has towards their country.

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