Last week, California Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi had shoplifting charges against her reduced to a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to three years probation.
On October 23 of last year, she was arrested after leaving the upscale Nieman Marcus store in San Francisco with about $2500 worth of unpaid merchandise. Her lawyer had argued that she’d been distracted by a cell phone call and had forgotten to pay for the clothing (after the trial he also revealed that she’d been suffering from a benign brain tumor that affected her judgment — a detail that played no part in the judge’s decision, but which was enthusiastically picked up by the press, leading to several stories claiming she’d been spared jail time because of the brain tumor). It’s fair to wonder whether she’d have found the judge as sympathetic about her distraction if she’d been Mary Jones from downtown Oakland represented by a legal aid attorney.
On the other hand, it’s certainly logical to assume that it’s far more than likely that the well-off Ms. Hayashi was intending to pay for $2500 worth of clothing than the hypothetical Ms. Jones would have been.
Which seems to bring common sense into conflict with the principle of equality under the law: in a case like this, should a rich defendant be treated differently — given the benefit of the doubt — where a poor defendant isn’t?
(We’re only discussing “should” here: let’s stipulate that poor people aren’t in fact treated as well as rich people in the courtroom, and consider this irrelevant to this discussion)
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© 2012 by Bill Bickel unless otherwise noted.