Part 1: Vernon’s Story of Injustice: The First Arrest
“I’ll arrest you every time I see you on the street,” threatened Officer Winston to my client, Vernon. Despite Vernon’s denial of any wrongdoing, Officer Winston handcuffed him and forcefully placed him in the backseat of a patrol car. Contrary to policy and law, Officer Winston’s body camera did not record the encounter, which conveniently malfunctioned. In the scorching heat, Winston left Vernon in the car without air conditioning while searching his parked vehicle for drugs.
The search was prompted by the alleged smell of marijuana, a common pretext for law enforcement to conduct searches. In the arrest affidavit, the officer claimed to detect the odor based on their training and experience. This practice of using the “I smell cannabis” excuse allowed Florida officers to search vehicles and homes freely. Despite legal concerns, this tactic often proved effective, with judges frequently favoring law enforcement’s version of events, viewing uniforms as synonymous with credibility in courtrooms.
In this case, the officer thoroughly searched Vernon’s 2007 Nissan Maxima, ransacking the seats and glove compartment and even ripping off the interior door panels, leaving the car in disarray. Despite the intense search, the officer only found white dust and pebbles on the driver’s side floorboard. Using an on-scene drug testing kit known for its inaccuracy, he claimed the substance tested positive for cocaine. Consequently, Vernon was transported to the Orange County jail and charged with possession of a controlled substance. The search, initially justified with a vague reason, yielded nothing, prompting the officer to shift the focus conveniently to cocaine—a seemingly arbitrary move in the arrest of this targeted citizen.
Upon receiving a call from Vernon at my law office, I promptly submitted a notice of appearance to the court, officially becoming Vernon’s attorney of record. Using the standard form employed by criminal defense attorneys, I demanded discovery or evidence from the prosecutors. Vernon vehemently claimed that there was no illegal substance in his vehicle and the officer had fabricated the marijuana smell. Despite the disbelief in such cases, drug charges were frequently brought against innocent individuals seeking my representation. In one recent instance, the alleged substance turned out to be drywall powder; in another case, it was Dunkin’ Donuts sugar glaze. These bizarre sources of evidence highlighted either law enforcement’s misunderstanding of on-site drug testing or, in some cases, intentional arrests of innocent individuals.
Within three weeks, the assigned prosecutor filed a “no information” notice with the court, indicating that the case was unsuitable for prosecution. The white powder turned out to be a mixture of sand and small pebbles. My theory was that the officer had lied about the evidence, knowing it was invalid when arresting Vernon. His motive seemed rooted in making good on the promise to arrest Vernon whenever possible, disrupting his life. The officer’s mission to cause trouble was successful, as Vernon spent time in jail, facing baseless charges.
The Second Arrest
Shortly after the previous arrest, the officer spotted Vernon in his car at The Chill Lounge in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Orlando while on bicycle patrol. Claiming to have observed Vernon parking without wearing a seatbelt, the officer approached and yelled, “Put all of your windows down now and get out of the car.” In response, Vernon made the mistake of asking, “What did I do, Officer Winston?”
In response to Vernon’s question, the officer dismounted his bicycle, forcibly pulled Vernon from the seatbelt-secured vehicle, and pinned him to the ground. After handcuffing him, the officer placed him in another patrol vehicle. Despite tearing apart Vernon’s car in another intense search, no illegal items were found. This time, onlookers’ cell phones recorded the officer, preventing any attempt to fabricate evidence. Nevertheless, Vernon was taken to the County jail, facing a seemingly baseless charge of resisting arrest without violence. The state attorney, perhaps influenced by Vernon’s repeated encounters, remained committed to prosecuting the charge.
The prosecutors proceeded to trial, but the jury swiftly returned a not-guilty verdict after about 15 minutes of deliberation. Despite the favorable outcome for Vernon, the relentless officer seemed unfazed, as Vernon had still faced significant inconvenience and incurred legal fees for the trial. In conversations with the jurors, it became clear that they did not believe the police officer’s account and could not comprehend the basis for arresting someone for resisting arrest without violence when there was no apparent reason for the arrest in the first place.
During jury selection (voir dire), I asked potential jurors about their awareness of local news, making note of those who followed the news. This move was strategic due to recent news stories on police misconduct and wrongful convictions. Voir dire, meaning “to speak the truth,” aimed to have jurors assess the evidence in Vernon’s case honestly. Fortunately, they did just that and chose truth in delivering the not-guilty verdict.
I have come to understand that jury selection is a crucial aspect that can determine the outcome of a trial. It’s a creative art akin to writing or composing music, with real-time decision-making tailored to each case. Like navigating moguls on a double black diamond ski run, seating this jury was dicey without a blueprint, relying on unique judgments for each trial.
As potential jurors filed into the room, I began assessing their leanings, trying to gauge if they were liberal-minded or fair, even though first impressions are often deceiving. The judge started with basic questions about marital status, occupation, and prior juror experience. The prosecutor followed with scripted questions, and then it was my turn as the defense attorney. While not always advisable, I subtly influenced jurors toward my perspective through creative questioning, identifying those sympathetic to my client or the case.
In this particular misdemeanor case with 18 potential jurors, both sides had limited strikes, and the process involved eliminating jurors for various reasons. The judge, prosecutor, and I carefully selected a jury of six plus one alternate, following similar protocols for more serious crimes.
In criminal defense, scheduling a trial on a specific day doesn’t guarantee a client will see a judge. Arriving at court, you may find multiple trials set for the same day, and the judge decides which ones proceed and in what order. Trials may be postponed, adding to the unpredictability. Criminal defense lawyering involves a lot of hurry-up and waiting, making it a nerve-wracking day. Clients, already anxious about their lives being on the line, are further unsettled by the unpredictable nature of the process. My role is to communicate effectively, reassuring them amidst the wild and woolly waiting game, and over time, you get accustomed to the uncertainties.
Despite a few schedule changes, we efficiently navigated Vernon through this trial with a successful jury selection and a valid legal defense, resulting in a quick not-guilty verdict.
The Third Arrest
Shortly after the trial, tensions escalated between Vernon and the same officer. During another encounter outside The Chill Lounge at 2 a.m., the officer, once again on a bicycle, allegedly screamed at Vernon for a nonexistent seat belt issue. Fearing for his safety, liberty, and dignity, Vernon slowly attempted to leave the parking lot. The officer, taking exception, used an ASP baton to smash the driver’s side window. As Vernon left the scene peacefully, the officer radioed fellow cops, falsely claiming that Vernon had attempted to run him over, leading to charges of aggravated assault on a police officer.
Four police cars converged on Vernon, arresting him again, this time for an offense that could result in significant prison time. While the officer failed to activate his body cam again, other officers captured footage of the stop, harassment, and arrest. Watching the footage was difficult, as they nicknamed Vernon “Flamingo” and taunted him about his job.