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Monday, September 30, 2002


If people were made of paper, this just might work

By Scott Harrison




Wall to Wall Law


To back up a bit: I had pleaded guilty to one count of dissuading my wife from calling the police. This was a plea bargain made six weeks after my arrest. In San Francisco, plea bargains are the rule, not the exception. In fact, more than 90% of all cases are resolved with plea bargains. D.A.’s pile on as many charges as they can in order to have the best possible bargaining hand. It’s like poker, but with months and years of people’s lives instead of chips.

As a result, the vast majority of people like myself find themselves never going to trial. We are given plea bargains and many of these people end up on probation. Probation sounds harmless, but anyone on probation soon finds out differently. Probation means you have given up many of the normal rights and protections that ordinary citizens enjoy. Probation officers can show up unannounced and make a search of your home without a warrant. They can require any number of conditions regarding employment and limitations about leaving San Francisco City and County. Often you are subject to drug and alcohol tests. (I was required to be tested at the counseling facility)  You must follow all laws, but you must also follow all probation conditions and show up to all court and probation appointments or you will immediately and suddenly find yourself in jail. Having a probation officer is like having your own private Big Brother watching you. Former public defender Matt Gonzalez told me, “Now you know what one in three black men all across America are going through.”

In my case, if I had gone to trial and been found guilty of much more serious charges than the one I pleaded “no contest” to (if the jurors had believed my wife instead of me, which was very likely), the most time in jail I would have realistically done was four months. But now, any small infraction can result in a charge of violating my probation and a longer time in jail. I agreed to a plea bargain because I thought it would take away the risk of being sent to jail and resolve my legal problems. I believed at the time that this action would absolve me of any suggestion that I had been violent to my wife.

But then I went off to domestic violence counseling. I’ve related what happened there.

And I went to meet with my probation officer.

In our first meeting I told him I was relieved that the more serious charges had been dropped because I had never harmed my wife.

“But you did!” he informed me.

“But I didn’t plead guilty to any counts of domestic violence.”

“Doesn’t matter. I am a deputy probation officer specially assigned to domestic violence cases. If you didn’t commit domestic violence, you wouldn’t have been assigned to me. As long as you are here, I will consider you guilty of being violent with your wife. As far as I’m concerned, you are guilty of everything it says here in the police report.”

“Look, you cannot hold me guilty for things the court didn’t find me guilty of. That just doesn’t make any sense!”

“The court did find you guilty or they would have dropped charges. Or you needed a jury to acquit you. A jury didn’t acquit you, did they?”

“No. I pleaded “no contest” to dissuading my wife from calling the police. That isn’t domestic violence,” I told him.

“You’re not listening to me. You are coming in here with entirely the wrong attitude.”

He was adamant that I was guilty and he wasn’t going to back down one step. He went on to inform me that I had to be aware of the kind of lady I was dealing with. Was she someone who would report any contact or not. If she would, it was my responsibility to make no contact, and if she was the other type, then he didn’t want to ever hear anything about it or he would be bound to report it to the judge.

What the heck was he saying? One minute he’s telling me I am guilty of things I didn’t do, and the next minute he’s telling me he knows restraining orders are broken but make sure I don’t get caught? Is that what he was saying?

I know something about restraining orders. In my opinion they often impose a massive force in conflicts that should not be criminalized at all. They get so far off the track of the realities of a particular relationship that they are just ignored. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that more are ignored than are obeyed. I was in court one day when a couple came before a judge to get their restraining order modified. He denied their request, telling them that they still could not have any personal contact. Afterward, three blocks from the courthouse, I saw them arm in arm. I heard from many guys in counseling (outside the counseling room) that they too were ignoring the restraining orders. It seemed to just come with the territory.

I had heard someone say that the truly violent are the most likely of all to completely ignore a restraining order. Sometimes the restraining order has a tendency to aggravate men and increase violence. Maybe this is pure myth.

There was a young woman who lived with her boyfriend in the hotel next to my bookstore. She loved him, but he’d get drunk and violent. He punched her. He struck her. He threw things at her. He threw things out their five-story window, including the TV and their kitten (the kitten broke both paws but survived). The guy was really bad news. But she worshiped him and used her considerable intelligence to make excuses for him. He had a restraining order against him, but he slept every night in the same bed with her.

As for me, I didn’t dare have any contact whatsoever with my wife, as badly as I wanted to see her (I kept taking out pictures of her and then hiding them from myself).  Because she had deliberately started this thing, I was at great risk that she would entrap me again.

I think she was well aware of the dynamics - namely, that if I tried to talk to her, she could report me and greatly help her cause in securing a green card - because even though she moved several miles away, to live with her friend Fatima, she took a job a block and a half away from my bookstore, at a café we had gone to regularly. It was directly across the street from the Mission Police Station. When this didn’t ensure a violation, she got another job directly around the corner, less then 50 yards from my bookstore. The restraining order said I had to be a minimum of 100 yards from her, her place of work, and her residence. This prevented me from even walking to the corner to go home.

All of this had started to shape into something quite nasty when I made my second appointment with my probation officer. This time I decided to keep my mouth shut. I was trying to go with the flow without getting drowned.

At my second appointment the probation officer was very upset with me. I sat down and he said, “I have a complaint from your wife that you have been harassing her!”

“How could I? I have had no contact.”

“You tell me. She has filed a complaint with victims’ services.”

“But how could she?”

“Look, I advise you to tell me the truth. I will be talking with her later this afternoon and, depending on what she says, you can be subject to immediate incarceration.”

“I haven’t done anything!”

“That’s not what she says. If you tell me what happened first, Scott, it’s going to go a lot easier for you. I see you haven’t done much jail time. You might need some jail time to take these matters more seriously.”

“I do take them seriously.”

“So explain what this complaint could be about. As I said, I will be talking to her.”

Boy, talk about a hot seat. I just told him over and over that I had no idea what he could be talking about and he kept telling me I hadn’t done much jail time.

He let me go but told me to call him in the morning. He said he might ask me to come directly in. (Do not pass go, go directly to jail). When I called, he told me to call him back. When I called back, he set up another appointment in two weeks.

During the next two weeks, the crisis lingered. I scrambled to prepare myself for jail. I paid bills ahead of time. I tried to arrange for the bookstore. I was a nervous wreck. I was afraid that I would suffer yet another attack by my wife, where she would accuse me of something totally untrue that I would have no way of disproving. (“He said, she said,” yet again.) This probation I was under, I was learning, was a huge weapon for her. With probation they eliminated pesky things like witnesses or trials. If my wife talked to my probation officer and my probation officer believed her, that was it. A brief hearing, then I was gone. And, mind you, not for a crime but for picking up a phone, for dropping off a letter, for walking past her business, for pressing rose petals into her hand as I try to give her cheek a kiss and run out again. (No, I didn’t do that, but I thought of it many times). The lines had shifted. The lines were around my neck. Maybe you can see that I was a nervous wreck.

When I went in to see my probation officer again after two weeks, he was calm. I asked about the complaint my wife had filed. He said, “Oh, I’m not sure what that was.”


“See, if she calls victims’ services, it comes up on my computer screen.”

“Yes, but her complaint? You said she had filed a complaint?”

“Doesn’t show anything here. See, if she calls, then there is a record. I don’t see any problems.”

So I somehow got out of that corner.

Then a couple months later, when I went in, he said, “So let’s talk about the phone calls.”

“What phone calls?”

“To the victim.”

“I didn’t make any phone calls.”

“Oh, sorry. I’m looking at another case.”

And in a few more weeks this same probation officer told me that I would definitely do six months or a year in jail if I didn’t get into a domestic violence program. I’m not violent. I’d never been violent with my wife. If I didn’t get into a program that required admissions of violence, then I’d be put in jail for not lying about what I didn’t do. No trial. No evidence. No cross-examination. Nothing. Just the guillotine of a process called probation. Some system! (I’ve already written how I got out of that stranglehold).

My hot seat never did cool off. Next time I should glance down and see if there are any high voltage electrical wires going to it.