Young White Rapper vs. The Municipal Courts of the Midwest
November 29, 2007 12:42 PM   Subscribe

Is my white rapper little brother being discriminated against in municipal court?

My little brother was recently caught shoplifting two PSP games from Wal-Mart. This was his first offense, not to mention his first run-in with the law. They arrested him at the store and then released him that night. I did a lot of research on Missouri law and spoke to a lawyer as to what could happen. Between people I spoke to and things I read, I found many discrepencies, such as no guideline determining arrest (some said it was based on the dollar amount stolen, while others said it was based on if the officer thought it was necessary.) Everyone assured me that because it was his first offense and because he was very cooperative, he would not have to serve jail time, and would probably just have to pay a fine and court costs.
However, at municipal court, they told him he had to get a lawyer and then come back for a trial, which went against everything I'd heard and read. I'd thought that one only had a trial if they plead "non-guilty" which he did not.
I do not wish to take the focus off the fact that he did commit a crime, but I have concerns that my brother is being discriminated against. Again, he was extremely cooperative and remorseful. But he is a young, white rapper (and dresses accordingly) in the Midwest. Seems like a recipe for bias.
Can anyone make me feel better about where this is going or should I prepare myself for the worst, ugliest side of the law?
posted by thebellafonte to Law & Government (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
He probably should put on a suit for future court appearances.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:48 PM on November 29, 2007 [14 favorites]

I'm sorry you are going through this, but in your description, it sounds like you lack any kind of baseline for your concern that he has been discriminated against, unless you can cite some examples of other kids getting caught stealing who were treated differently because they were dressed differently.

The point remains (as you acknowledge) that he is guilty of the crime, so what he was wearing at the time seems to me to be beside the point. The fact that he was genuinely remorseful and has no prior record will possibly work in his favor, but I would suggest a trip to the barbershop and the clothing store before he faces a judge.

Good luck. I hope it works out well for him.
posted by 4ster at 12:52 PM on November 29, 2007

Get arrested > get lawyer > got to trial > get fined gels with both what the people you spoke to said and the court itself told you, yes?
posted by DarlingBri at 12:56 PM on November 29, 2007

As much as it shouldn't, and as much as it sucks, appearance does in fact matter. Put him in a suit, make sure it fits right, and if he wears any sort of jewelry, it should be kept to a minimum - single earring OK, any necklaces/chains, not so much.

Encourage him to keep up with the helpful/cooperative vibe, as well, and you'll both hopefully be out of court in no time, wrist duly slapped via court costs and such.
posted by pdb at 12:58 PM on November 29, 2007

Good God. Do not waste another second getting a lawyer. Your post indicates that you do not understand what you are looking at, and you certainly do not know the ins and outs of jurisdiction. You should get a professional to take care of this.

You are doing your brother a great disservice by not getting him a lawyer now.

The young white rapper means very little to the court. He is a body being shoved in and out of a system. However, he should wear a suit and tie to court.

Do not mess this one up.

I am not your lawyer and I am not providing you legal advice, just urging you to immediately seek a legal professional.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:59 PM on November 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

It is possible that your brother drew a hard ass for a judge. I'm not familiar with Missouri law, but if it's judges discretion and your brother is underage he might be trying to "scare him straight" by making him jump through a multitude of legal hoops.

Also, if your brother got caught shoplifting from Wal-Mart, he might want to rethink the life of crime, he doesn't seem to be very good at it.
posted by Phoenix42 at 1:00 PM on November 29, 2007

He needs a lawyer, to make sure that a) he avoids jail and b) he keeps what ends up on his record as inoffensive as possible. A lawyer can arrange a plea. By himself, he has no chance.

Bias may play into it, but you'll get nowhere raising that as an issue.
posted by dhartung at 1:01 PM on November 29, 2007

Lawyer up.
posted by iamabot at 1:02 PM on November 29, 2007

Did you misinterpret "hearing" for "trial". If I understand you correctly he is pleading guilty in exchange for some type of plea deal? Or is he just pleading guilty? He's going to have to appear in court to plead either way. Also, either way yes he should have a lawyer. You should always have a lawyer. If he is pleading guilty he needs to understand fully what that means and the consequences, a lawyer can help him do that and be an advocate for his rights.

I also highly doubt he is being discriminated against, unless there is something I'm missing. Many kids his age dress that way and I'm guessing about half the people appearing in front of the judge on any given day will be dressed a lot like your brother. Although he should be in a suit, it shows respect for the court and that he takes this seriously, judges like to see that, they also like to see honest remorse, so he's on the right track.

Also as far as the arrest, I don't know the laws in your state, but by and large whether to arrest someone is largely left at the police officer's discretion. There may be internal guidelines for the police officers, etc but I find it unlikely he didn't have the authority to arrest him.

As always, IANAL and you should get a lawyer or accept a court appointed lawyer if offered.
posted by whoaali at 1:02 PM on November 29, 2007

Are you sure they told him to come back for a trial? Even if you admit your guilt, you will usually have to make more than one appearance in most states. PARTICULARLY if you show up the first time without a lawyer.

Shoplifting in Missouri is a Class A Misdemeanor, which can carry a penalty of from 1 day to 1 year in jail, and a fine of up to $1000. This is totally at the judge's discretion. You will not be able to demonstrate bias on the part of the judge unless you examine all his cases and show that he has routinely imposed greater penalties on young white rappers than on other classes of citizens. I doubt you will be able to do this.

Your brother should engage a lawyer and follow the lawyer's instructions. The lawyer will undoubtedly advise him to wear a suit to future appearances. The lawyer will also know the best way to get a minimum sentence (such as community service) under the circumstances.
posted by ubiquity at 1:06 PM on November 29, 2007

Being harder on someone because of the clothes that they are wearing is discrimination, but it is not wrongful discrimination in the eyes of the law. It is possible that a police officer or a judge may have gone harder on your brother than they would have if your brother was dressed differently. This is not something that your brother will be able to appeal if he is convicted of a crime. If the judge or the police officer went harder on your bother because of his attire your brother has no recourse to protest that, so you might as well just put it out of your head because it isn't going to help him. Your best bet is to recommend to your brother that he hire a criminal defense attorney and wear a suit to court.
posted by ND¢ at 1:13 PM on November 29, 2007

Typically you do not represent yourself in a criminal case. I think this is all the judge was implying. In fact, if the suggestion that he get a lawyer is all you're basing a claim of discrimination on, then you may be too sensitive or unknowledgeable to deal with this rationally.
posted by rhizome at 1:18 PM on November 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Don't listen to everyone freaking out.

Do contact a lawyer and see what's up. A little bit of their advice will go a long way.

Anecdotal: I've been involved directly and indirectly in a lot of situations like this--low dollar theft cases, etc. Generally speaking, if it's anything under $500 your brother will be just fine jail-wise and will most likely receive some type of probation and community service as well as restitution fees.

As far as the discrimination? Who knows, but it's nothing new for judges to, ahem, judge people on arbitrary things such as lifestyle or dress. It's just something you'll have to be prepared for. Will it lead to jail time? Probably not. Could it? Certainly. Is there anything you can do about it? No.

Chat with a lawyer, see what's up: I'm sure the situation isn't half as bad as it currently seems.
posted by dead_ at 1:20 PM on November 29, 2007

Typically you do not represent yourself in a criminal case.

People do it every day. I've done it myself.
posted by dead_ at 1:20 PM on November 29, 2007

About 80% of questions on MeFi get at least one response saying "get a lawyer." Many of those aren't really warranted yet. But dude, this is the clearest case of "Get a lawyer" I've ever seen. Your brother needs a lawyer, not you searching google to try to figure out the law.

It may very well be that the lawyer can get a deal for your brother so that he doesn't have to go to jail. But he shouldn't be pleading guilty until he gets that deal. It's the only bargaining chip he has.

Get a lawyer. Get a lawyer. Get a lawyer.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 1:24 PM on November 29, 2007

A white rapper kid who steals video game consoles and dresses like a rapper in court is guilty of two things:

1) Stealing.
2) Stupidity. Not showing up before a judge wearing court-appropriate attire is just dumb . . .

You'll never "prove" any sort of anti-rapper bias, and frankly, you are sending a horrific message by even thinking about this. My family's attitude would have been that I deserved all that the judge gave me for stealing, and they would have been right in thinking it. If I'd shown up in court with inappropriate clothing and anything less than deeply heartfelt remorse and respect for the proceedings, they'd have been delighted with an even harsher sentence, and again - they'd have been right. I'm an upstanding citizen today.

My sweet mother taught me that all people - Serbs and Croats and Jews and Gypsies and Albanians and Germans and any other ethnic or cultural or religious or national group. But people who willfully choose to be stupid deserve everything that comes their way.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:25 PM on November 29, 2007

I also just reread your question and feel compelled to point out that your brother being sentenced to up to a year in jail and a $1000 fine for a crime that he did indeed commit is in no way "the worst, ugliest side of the law." I can't even begin to convey to you how ludicrous that comes across. If you encourage your brother to feel like he is a victim and he acts consistent with that in front of a judge then you will not have done him any favors. It does suck that this happened and I certainly don't condemn your brother as I have done many dumb things in my past, but he fucked up and he is going to have to pay the consequences of that. He needs to do whatever necessary to minimize the consequences that he will have to pay. A lawyer will help him do that. Find the money somewhere and pay one.

On preview, I agree with dead_ that it sounds like the kind of thing that will result in a fine or community service, but I don't know shit about Missouri law so I can't say that with any level of confidence. A Missouri criminal defense attorney will be able to tell your brother exactly what to expect and exactly what he should do.
posted by ND¢ at 1:31 PM on November 29, 2007 [3 favorites]

What Dee Xtrovert said. If the judge knows he's a white rapper, there's a problem. When he's appearing before the judge, he needs to be indistinguishable from a white businessman, white carpenter, white cab driver, or white college student.
posted by jferg at 1:37 PM on November 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

I just want to clarify one thing. Pleading guilty without a plea deal is not necessarily a bad thing in some instances, I HAVE NO IDEA IF THAT IS THE CASE HERE, but if you get a lawyer and he advises him to plead guilty absent a plea deal (which if this is a slam dunk case the prosecution may not offer depending on how crazy their case load is) this is not as insane as it sounds. Many judges will take a guilty plea as a sign of accepting responsibility and remorse and will take that into account during sentencing. People do this all the time, plea deals are not handed out left right and center as some people seem to think that they are. Of course determining this is yet another reason why your brother needs a lawyer like yesterday.

Also, a lawyer will know the sentencing guidelines which will give you a far far more accurate picture of what your brother can expect should he plead guilty or be found guilty after going through a trial.
posted by whoaali at 1:43 PM on November 29, 2007

"they told him he had to get a lawyer and then come back for a trial"

- This sounds much more like good advice than railroading to me.
posted by bitdamaged at 2:01 PM on November 29, 2007

Again, he was extremely cooperative and remorseful.

Then he probably just isn't aware that court, even juvie court, is one of those situations (like funerals) which call for extremely sober and unremarkable standards of dress.

Yes, do get him a lawyer, or at least visit one of those free legal clinics for some advice. Do you have a public defender system of some sort? Get him a suit from the goodwill store, ideally one that is a little bit too big for him and gives him the right sense of pathos. Just tell him "you'll grow into it, and hey, if you keep hanging out with those screw ups, you might need it again." Keep the receipts for all expenses incurred in this, and make him pay you back.

Realistically this is an open-and-shut juvie case which should cause him no serious long-term problems. He admits guilt, apologises, promises never to do it again, stands and takes his scolding with tears in his eyes, replies "yes sir" and "no sir", and in all probability gets off with a fine which you pay up front and again, make him pay back.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:08 PM on November 29, 2007

When I went to court (as a witness), it was one of those feedline get-him-in-and-out deals, probably what your brother went through. A lot of people waiting, each case taking maybe five minutes. Nearly every time someone appeared who did not have any sort of legal representation, the judge said to get a lawyer. It is just good advice to make sure your little brother's ass is covered--he could plead guilty and deny his right to representation, but unless he really wants whatever sentence the judge feels like throwing at him that's a bad idea. A lawyer can be in charge of the negotiation and demonstrate to the judge that your brother means business. If your brother showed up in "white rapper" clothes, that does not demonstrate he means business, nor does it demonstrate he has the intelligence to represent himself.

Furthermore, is your brother a minor? Is it even legal for a minor to represent themselves?

From my limited experience, this sounds normal to be. Your brother is hardly being railroaded by The Man.
posted by schroedinger at 2:17 PM on November 29, 2007

I nth at least talking to a lawyer. If it's not affordable, call your local Lawyer Referral Service, or Legal Aid.
I also nth him wearing a suit and being remorseful in court.
I also wonder how old your brother is. You refer to him almost like he's a child, but if he were a juvenile, things would probably be a lot different than your account. He needs to be an adult and own up to what he did. And, um, stop shoplifting.
I also am not a lawyer.
posted by fructose at 3:24 PM on November 29, 2007

I have stood next to clients in court and watched them get straight up mocked by a judge before getting locked up. You want to know if a municipal court judge is capable of being an outright asshole while wearing the robe, in front of a room full of witnesses? Talk to a public defender or a social worker who has to advocate in court on a regular basis.
posted by The Straightener at 3:36 PM on November 29, 2007

Between people I spoke to and things I read, I found many discrepencies, such as no guideline determining arrest

Don't waste your time worrying about "discrepancies." If you're not a lawyer, your research is likely to be a waste of time. A big part of the way courts operate is local custom, which you will not found written or described on the internet. You need a lawyer to navigate that system.

Everyone assured me that because it was his first offense and because he was very cooperative, he would not have to serve jail time, and would probably just have to pay a fine and court costs.

That might well be true. But you'll need a lawyer to tell you that. What laypeople say is completely unreliable.

However, at municipal court, they told him he had to get a lawyer and then come back for a trial, which went against everything I'd heard and read.

A vanishingly small percentage of cases go to trial. I would be shocked if there were actually a trial on his next court date. This may be the way the local courts function --- again, something you need a lawyer to explain --- but it may be that your courts use that customary terminology when telling defendants to get an attorney. (Where I practice law, every time I have a report date on a criminal case in federal court, the judge announces a trial date --- but cases never go to trial on that date. It is a tentative date placed on the calendar, but nobody ever listens to it because trials never really happen on that announced date.)

I'd thought that one only had a trial if they plead "non-guilty" which he did not.

He is likely not allowed, by the court, to plead guilty unless he has an attorney. In many municipal courts, a not-guilty plea is automatically entered on behalf of a defendant. Where I practice, it is assumed that the plea is not guilty, until the defendant formally pleads guilty after being advised, by the judge, of his rights.

But he is a young, white rapper (and dresses accordingly) in the Midwest.

How would the court know he was a rapper? Surely he did not dress in baggy, rapper-type clothes in court.
posted by jayder at 7:07 PM on November 29, 2007

single earring OK, any necklaces/chains, not so much.

Please be aware, if necessary due to any possibly non-court-appropriate visible piercings, that a local tattoo/piercing parlor can temporarily put in discreet, plastic place-holders on the cheap.
posted by Morrigan at 7:28 PM on November 29, 2007

IAACDL (I Am A Criminal Defense Lawyer)
But I am not your or your brother's criminal defense lawyer.
And I don't know crap about Missouri law.
This isn't legal advice.

I agree that, in general (and not necessarily in your brother's specific case, since I know nothing about it), a first-offense shoplifting is probably going to get at most a misdemeanor with a fine and no jail time.

The judge probably told him to get a lawyer because this is a criminal proceeding. If your brother doesn't qualify for a public defender (perhaps he or your family make too much money), and did not specifically and clearly invoke his right to represent himself, the next logical step for the judge is to ask your brother to look into getting a lawyer.

And I also wanted to emphasize what jayder said, which is that when a judge says "trial date" what they really mean is "a day we might have a trial if both the prosecution and defense are ready to have a trial, and if I'm not busy doing anything else". It doesn't mean the trial will happen next time your brother shows up. So don't worry about him using that terminology.

Really, it sounds like business-as-usual in a courtroom. I understand this is a stressful situation for you, but to me it doesn't sound like any discrimination is going on.

Please consult with a lawyer in Missouri.
posted by falconred at 7:44 PM on November 29, 2007

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