We have been blessed with a surprising number of very bright friends, their talents ranging from math to music, from business to origami, from computing to law.  It was with the last that we had a disturbing conversation recently.  The conversation itself was delightful; what we learned from it was not.

To begin, the background.  Most of my readers are familiar with the following story, which I told several years ago in our family newsletter.  But for the benefit of the one or two who meander over here from random places, I'll reproduce it here, sufficiently altered to protect the innocent and the guilty alike.

At the time these events occurred, our friend Curt was a junior at Swansea High School.  He was a top-notch student (he would later be valedictorian), a phenomenal musician, and as clean-cut as a teenage boy gets:  no body piercings nor tattoos, short hair—but not too short—typically wearing neat, khaki shorts and a white polo shirt.  His family was comfortably upper-middle-class.  Both parents were professionals; his father employed full-time, his mother part-time.

Curt was taking a course in biotechnology at his school; as part of the class he often left school early to do research for the Scopes Cancer Institute, sometimes at home, sometimes at the Institute itself.

One day, Curt was riding his bicycle home as usual, and had made it into his own neighborhood, when suddenly he was stopped by a police car.  The policemen asked him what he was doing out of school, and, when he explained, they responded, “Do you expect us to believe that?”  He told them that if they would call Dr. Hedges, his teacher, he would confirm the story.  Curt never heard the phone call directly, as it was made from headquarters; what apparently happened was that they did not speak with his teacher, but called the school attendance office, which only confirmed that Curt was a student at the school who should have been in attendence that day.  The word came back from headquarters to the policemen:  he’s supposed to be in school.

Curt was frisked, and his backpack searched.  He was allowed to ride his bike home, followed by the policemen.  One of them held onto the the front door of his house (“so you can’t sneak out the back”) while he put his bike in the hallway—he wasn’t allowed to take it to the garage.  Then he was put in the police car and taken to the Swansea County Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC).  There, he was interrogated.  (“Do you have any tattoos?” was one of the pointless, insulting questions.)  Curt is brilliant, but not quick of speech, and his slow responses apparently infuriated the officers.  When Curt said, at one point, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you,”  the officer yelled, “You’d BETTER hear me!”

Finally, Curt’s mother was contacted.  (The message she received at her workplace was, “Did you get the strange phone call from the police about your son?”  It took ten years off her life, she said.)  She called the school and spoke to Dr. Hedges, who then called the JAC.  Curt's parents immediately left work.  At the JAC they found Curt sitting between two very scruffy-looking boys, with a police officer, arms crossed, glaring at them.  By this time, Dr. Hedges had succeeded in convincing the police of the truth, so he was able to go home.  All's well that ends well?

Not quite.  Curt was a shy child, and this incident shattered both his trust in general and his respect for the police.  One absolutely innocent child abused and terrified, his parents pulled out of work, scared to death—and needless to say, Curt’s cancer research did not make any progress that day.  For what purpose?  According to the county sheriff, the purpose was to prevent crime.  Teenaged boys who are not in school are likely to be commiting crimes, so we stop them before they have a chance to do so.

Does anyone else find that as chilling as I do?  And what if Curt had had long hair, or an earring, or parents who couldn’t be reached, or didn’t care, or were too poor to make a fuss—and was still just as innocent.  Would he have fared still worse?

So that's the story.  Nothing in the intervening years has lessened my belief that the police—and the sheriff—were wrong, wrong, wrong in their attitudes and actions.  Curt was not threatening, he was not running away, he was doing nothing wrong whatsoever, not even anything suspicious.  But here's what I learned in the conversation with our legal friend.  Curt did absolutely nothing wrong—but neither did the police.  All the police need to arrest someone is probable cause, a reasonable belief that a crime has been committed.  There are truancy laws in the state of Florida, and—despite private schools on different schedules, and the legality of homeschooling—the fact that public school students are expected to be inside a school building during certain hours provides probable cause for believing that a teenager riding his bike toward home during those hours is truant, and is therefore committing a crime.  Especially if the school tells the police what they expect to hear instead of the whole story.  The fact that the crimes the sheriff was hoping to prevent were more serious than truancy, and that there was absolutely no probable cause to suspect Curt of any of them, does not change the legality of the situation.

It probably falls into the same category as one of the more absurd motor vehicle laws that were on the books in Pennsylvania when I was studying to get my driver's license:  the speed limit through all intersections was 15 miles per hour.  No one expected it to be enforced, but it was there, and the police could use it as an excuse for stopping someone if they wanted to check the car or driver for some other reason.

I still believe the police were morally wrong in their actions—though I admit my views are biased by my belief that truancy laws themselves are wrong—and especially in the way they treated Curt.  But when a hot-shot attorney who knows criminal law and correct police procedure inside and out tells you that such actions are legal, and not only in Florida, it's smarter to listen and act than to argue.  Even in these days when homeschooling is widespread and well accepted, if my homeschooled child were in a position to be alone in public outside of public school hours, I'd be sure to equip him with a letter, on our school letterhead (thanks be to computers and printers!) explaining that he is not truant.  Not that a policeman who would respond to a reasonable explanation with "Do you expect us to believe that?" would necessarily believe a letter (they know about computers and printers, too), but it might help.  And in fact such a letter did help Janet at one point.  She wasn't in danger of being hauled off to jail, but being forced to miss this particular math class would have been unpleasant enough….

(Memo to self:  When discussing a subject dear to your heart, test your arguments on Janet's unrelenting logic before subjecting them to one of the most brilliant legal minds in the state of Florida.  Better yet, don't argue at all until you can do it dispassionately.)

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 8, 2007 at 2:52 pm | Edit
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If not a letter, at least make up an id card with the phone numbers of Mom and Dad and the school's colors or coat of arms on it. (Designing one's homeschool coat of arms is an interesting project in itself.)

Posted by Dad-o on Wednesday, May 09, 2007 at 9:12 am
On Justice
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