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A case of false arrest

6/29/2010, 9:32 a.m.
“We stop these people from time to time to remind them who is in charge.”

A case of false arrest

Almost one year ago, the noted Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his Cambridge home. Upon returning from a business trip in China, Gates was unable to open his front door. When he and his driver forced the door to gain entry, someone passing by thought that they might be burglars, so she notified the police.

When police Sgt. James Crowley arrived, Gates was already in the house. At Crowley’s request, Gates presented two forms of identification, his Harvard University identification and his Massachusetts driver’s license with both his photo and his address. One would think that this would end the incident.

However, a confrontation ensued which resulted in Gates being carted off to jail in handcuffs. His arrest became an international incident, with people heatedly lining up in support of Gates or Crowley. The most benign comment about the racially divisive event is that it was “a teachable moment.”

It takes a talented teacher to make an angry and heated moment teachable. Since Crowley decided to resolve his dispute with Gates by resorting to the criminal law, it is best that the teacher be a law professor. There is no one in the nation more qualified to perform that function than Charles Ogletree, the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

Ogletree’s new book, “The Presumption of Guilt,” is an important primer to help the concerned layman understand the many ways that African Americans are denied a most important right of the nation’s legal system, the presumption of innocence. Ogletree states it best:

“Ultimately, if we are to move forward as a nation, we must examine not only what happened to Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on July 16, 2009, but we must also examine what we can and must do, individually and collectively, to develop a justice system that is truly committed to the presumption of innocence.”

In the manner of a skilled attorney, Ogletree sets forth the record of the Gates-Crowley incident. There is the transcript of the 911 call reporting the apparent burglary at Gates’ house, the testimony of Crowley and other police officers at the scene, and most importantly, the requirements of the statute under which Gates was arrested.

The record speaks for itself. The woman who called 911 did not raise the specter of a black home invasion. Crowley seemed to have difficulty believing that Gates lives at such a good address on Ware Street. And significantly, nothing occurred to justify Gates’ arrest under the statute cited by Crowley.

Ogletree adroitly uses the Gates incident to demonstrate how class and achievement do not insulate blacks from racial discrimination. He provides numerous examples of prominent blacks who have been victims of driving while black and other forms of racial profiling. Ogletree cautions that “our efforts to achieve a post-racial America may obscure rather than eliminate true disparities.”

A subtext of “The Presumption of Guilt” is that academic and professional achievement do not create a special class of African Americans who are beyond the reach of racial bigotry. It is important, therefore, for the talented to perfect our legal system, as well as ameliorate the “social ills [such] as hunger, poverty, abuse, and neglect” that are the causes of crime.

“The Presumption of Guilt” is a thoughtful read for all Americans.