File this article under “You Can’t Make This Up” or “The Constitution is Overrated.” Warren Demesme is awaiting trial on charges of first-degree rape and indecent behavior with a victim under the age 13. He sought to suppress a purportedly incriminating statement made to the New Orleans Police Department sex crimes detective Nijel Baddoo (his real name). According to arrest documents, Demesme admitted to sexually assaulting one of the child accusers, but denied doing so to the other. He now denies both crimes. His contention was that he was denied his constitutional right to an attorney during questioning when New Orleans police ignored his request for a lawyer. Here is exactly what Mr. Demesme said:
“If y’all, this is how I feel, if y’all think I did it, I know that I didn’t do it so why don’t you just give me a lawyer, dog, cause this is not what’s up.”
But the transcript did not contain the commas I added. So in a twisted bit of logic, Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Scott Crichton wrote in his decision that the request was ambiguous. Here’s what the court said:
“As this court has written, ‘If a suspect makes a reference to an attorney that is ambiguous or equivocal in that a reasonable police officer in light of the circumstances would have understood only that the suspect might be invoking his right to counsel, the cessation of questioning is not required.In my view, the defendant’s ambiguous and equivocal reference to a ‘lawyer dog’ does not constitute an invocation of counsel that warrants termination of the interview.”
Are you kidding me!? Are you telling me that the NOPD is not familiar with the slang use of “dawg?” Are you telling me that Det. Nijel Baddoo did not know what Demesme meant? Of course he did. I was just down there for a nephew’s wedding and if I had a dollar for every time I heard someone refer to someone else as “dawg” . . . well, I would have a lot of dollars. . And what did the court think he could mean? What is a “lawyer dog” for crying out loud.
This case reaches far further than Louisiana. It shows how there are limits to your Constitutional rights because they are often reliant on facts interpreted by judges. IT shows how the criminal justice system works backwards – it presumes you guilty and not innocent so that losing your rights should be no big deal. And many who read about this case will say “Did you see what the guy was charged with? That’s a horrible crime.” No doubt – and if he is found guilty then he should receive appropriate punishment. But its the tough cases where our Constitution should shine. It should not matter what the charges are or who the defendant is. The right to counsel is firmly contained in the Sixth Amendment to our Constitution. The Supreme court stated in Gideon v. Wainwright that the Amendment means that people are entitled to legal representation at every critical stage of the proceeding. Custodial interrogation by law enforcement is a critical stage of the proceeding so there is no doubt that Demesme – once he asked for a lawyer – was entitled to have the questioning end immediately.
The Court here has gone too far and I hope that the case will find its way up to the Supreme Court of the United States. No reasonable person would say that Demesme’s words were equivocal. His intentions were clear, even if his syntax and use of slang was imperfect. This is just a court employing willful blindness and twisted logic to deny a person his Constitutional rights. It is also a window into what minority defendants face every day – countless times a day – in our criminal justice system.
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