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Unpopular Decision

February 24, 1988

On Jan. 15, I handled the case of People vs. Carlos (Pee Wee) Chavez. The case involved the cruel and senseless gang killing of 16-year-old Suzanne Coleman. Chavez was arrested and confessed to the shooting. His attorney made a motion to suppress the confession, claiming that Chavez was arrested without "probable cause" and that the confession was the product of an unlawful arrest. After considering lengthy briefs and hearing testimony, I granted the motion. The district attorney was unable to proceed without the confession and the case was dismissed. Within the next few days, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates went on television and attacked me personally and I received a steady stream of letters criticizing my decision. I am troubled that many people have little understanding of the basis for such a decision, of our legal system, or of the role of a trial judge in that system. Perhaps the following points will shed some light:

1. In 1961, the United States Supreme Court, in a case called Mapp vs. Ohio, held that in order to implement the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unlawful searches and seizures, trial judges in all state courts must apply the so-called "exclusionary rule." If a person is arrested without "probable cause," then the fruits of that arrest, including any confession, cannot be used as evidence. The purpose of the role is to deter improper police conduct by removing the incentive. The result in an individual case, such as Chavez, will always be unacceptable because a guilty person will go free as a result of police misconduct. If the rule is wrong, then the remedy is to amend the Constitution or convince the Supreme Court to change it.

2. A judge must apply the exclusionary rule if that is what he or she honestly believes the facts require. A judge takes an oath to follow the law and must take that oath seriously. Everyone abhors gangs and violence and empathizes with the victims of such violence. It is simply absurd to suggest that a judge wants to, or takes pleasure in releasing criminals.

3. It is entirely appropriate for a public official to criticize a trial court's decision. It is simply wrong, however, to attack the judge personally. In the Chavez case, Chief Gates chose to focus attention on me so that the public would not consider the police's conduct--conduct which was the basis for the dismissal. He also tried to intimidate the judiciary by showing that he will attempt to hurt a judge who dismisses a publicity case. Such attacks do not work.

JUDGE ROBERT T. ALTMAN

Los Angeles

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