The August issue of Vanity Fair magazine contains an intriguing article about the arrest and processing of former I.M.F. chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was charged with sexually assaulting a maid at the Sofitel Hotel in New York. In their words “Americans cheered the Law & Order style arrest…The French were appalled”. As we now know, the maid’s allegations did not hold up and the charges against Mr. Strauss-Kahn were dropped.
In the midst of this criminal justice circus, in which Mr. Strauss-Kahn was ceremoniously pulled off an Air France flight and taken to the “Special Victims Unit” in Harlem, was the infamous “perp walk”. For those unfamiliar with the process, it begins with a prosecutor’s office notifying the press that they will be arresting an individual and gives them the date, place and time. The press then send their best photographers and film crew, and the accused (the “perp”) is then paraded through the gaggle, usually bound with handcuffs and accompanied by a body of agents, prosecutors and any other law enforcement personnel looking to get on You Tube.
The perp walk has become a staple for prosecutors in high profile cases. The “innocent until proven guilty” mantra of the American criminal justice system has no usefulness in this arena. The history of perp walks goes back to the days of organized crime arrests, where John Gotti turned these events into fashion shows. The process was perfected by Rudy Guiliani, when he was the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. With a penchant for drama (and an unabashed political ambition) he raided brokerage houses, trading firms and luxury apartments with the press in tow. Little did he care about those innocent defendants who would take their cases to trial and walk out of the courtroom acquitted. To him, the arrest and the public shame and humiliation became the name of the game.
And what a game it turned out to be. A couple of case examples highlight the deviousness of these tactics. In one of my cases, three members of a family business knew they were under investigation
for a white-collar offense. The father had health problems and was in his mid-70s. They hired prominent New York attorneys, former federal prosecutors, who called the U.S. Attorney’s office to inform them that their clients would be happy to report any time for processing if they were looking to arrest them. The following morning at 6 am federal agents burst open the door of their apartment and lead them out in handcuffs through the pre-arranged media throng. They were released later that day on bail.
In another major white-collar case, the defendant had agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the government. As a condition of the plea, he asked that he not be subjected to a perp walk, as he had small children and elderly parents and he did not want to embarrass them. The Assistant U.S. Attorney could not get his boss to agree, the press was called, and he and his attorney had to fight off cameras walking across Foley Square for arraignment.
It’s time to end this senseless and unnecessary practice. It unfairly stigmatizes the accused, and places a “GUILTY” scarlet banner across his or her forehead, even before the charges are read to the Judge. It disgraces our criminal justice system and, along with our massive experiment in incarceration, belittles our international reputation.