Slate triggered a mini-ethics train wreck by hiring a non-lawyer for what any fool could surmise would be an assignment that would often require knowledge of the law: covering the broad issue of crime for Slate’s readers. Note: to all those scambloggers who insist that there are no good jobs in which having a law degree would be an obvious asset: here’s an example. Their note back to me: “Oh, yeah? This why didn’t Slate hire one of us?”
Touché! I presume, however, that this was because the journalist Slate did hire, Justin Peters is an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review and has pals in Slate’s management…or, in the alternative, the online magazine has a death wish. I don’t think Slate has anything against lawyers. Peters is unethical, because ethical professionals don’t accept jobs they are unqualified to perform. Then again, journalists increasingly are unaware of the concept of ethics, so now we are back to Slate, and why they would hire someone to opine in a law-strewn field without knowing shinola about the law.
It didn’t take long for Peters to find himself in the yawning trap that should have been apparent to him from the beginning. While discussing the concerns of readers about their obligations to cooperate with police in situations where they did nothing wrong and the police officer hasn’t suggested that they have done anything wrong, but just want to shoot the breeze, Peters made his first mistake by crossing the line into legal advice territory—which is known as “practicing law without a license”—before linking to an article on the topic by a real lawyer. He leapt into the trap with gusto, however, by writing this:
“And to be clear, I’m not talking about those times when a cop stops you for speeding, or jaywalking, or stealing an old woman’s purse. In scenarios like these, when there’s reasonable suspicion that you’ve done something wrong, you’re obliged to cooperate, and refusal to comply may lead to your arrest.“
As any first year law student knows, this advice is not merely wrong, but dangerous. I know words supposedly are a journalist’s tools of the trade, but lawyers have to use words with special precision, and “cooperate” could suggest to a Slate reader that he has to let an officer who stops him for a broken tail light search his car for headless corpses and crack. Peters also fails to mention that you always have a right to an attorney, perhaps because he never read that there is a right to have a journalist present when one is being questioned, so this never occurred to him.
I did learn something from the episode: people like Peters have heard the Miranda warning given to suspects on TV shows so often that they no longer pay any attention to what the words mean. If he did, he certainly wouldn’t have written that you had to cooperate with police before you are in custody, since you don’t have to cooperate with police after you’re in custody, which we all have heard Jerry Orbach say about a thousand times. Now Peters’ incompetent and irresponsible advice is sitting there ticking on one of the most popular websites, kind of like that videotape in “The Ring” that causes you to die seven days after you watch it. Read Peters’ column, and you get arrested because you have been told that the 4th, 5th and 6th amendments don’t apply to police stops.
Finally adding his caboose to the mini-train wreck was, of all people, Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds, a law professor who should know better, who directed his readers to the Peters post, which is like sending that videotape of the girl in the well to people you want dead with a horrible expression frozen on their facees. So don’t go to Peters’ blog—-I’m not linking to it–it might kill you. Go to Popehat and read Patrick’s typically clever dissection of the post here.
Maybe Slate will hire some lawyers now.
Pointer and Source: Popehat