"There is more than one way to skin a cat." How I despise that detestable aphorism. There are more genteel ways to express that there is more than one way to accomplish a task. Is the adage even apt? It is hard for me to imagine one, let alone two or more ways to accomplish this abhorrent act. Nevertheless, I draw upon this pitiless yet familiar proverb because everyone knows in an instant what it means. It is my opening to discuss the au courant practice of avoiding traditional avenues to seek justice. Some call it alternative dispute resolution. It is one thing in the area of civil law, but something quite different in criminal law.
I am not talking about creative or new methods of dispensing justice in the traditional forums. A goal of the Realignment Act is to reduce the prison population. (See Pen. Code, §§ 17.5, subd. (a)(4) & (5), 1170, subds. (h).) Some judges employed novel sentencing techniques to accomplish this goal long before the Realignment Act became law. Shaming defendants because of their wrongdoing is an example.
In the old days people could endure just about anything but shame. If you felt ashamed, it would be unbearable to look others in the eye. That’s why Oedipus switched to Braille. His “shameful” act has become a popular expression of derision, more frequently used by those who have never heard of Sophocles. Like substantial evidence questions, the expression occurs with “rhythmic regularity” in the transcripts of criminal cases.
Does anyone feel humiliation or shame nowadays? If “reality” shows are an indication, the answer is obvious. People eat live bugs and snails, reveal their most vulgar traits, plot against their friends, have sex with strangers, and suffer innumerable humiliations witnessed by millions of enthusiastic viewers. If Hester Prynne were here, she would be doing commercials for the Auto Club.
In United States v. Gementera 379 F.3d 596 (2004), defendant was convicted of stealing mail. As part of his punishment, he was ordered to stand in front of a post office for a day wearing a sandwich board sign that said, "I stole mail. This is my punishment." On appeal, Gementera argued that the sentence was not legitimate because it violated contemporary standards of decency and humiliated him. The Ninth Circuit saw it differently and affirmed the sentence. The majority acknowledged that the sign condition likely will cause Gementera humiliation or shame, but the condition is reasonably related to rehabilitation, a goal of the federal Sentencing Reform Act. Apparently it did not occur to Gementera that his pilfering letters violated contemporary standards of decency.
In Demery v. Arpaio 378 F.3d 1020 (2004), the sheriff used "web‑cams" to stream on the Internet live images of pretrial detainees in county jail. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of a preliminary injunction prohibiting this practice. The appellate court failed to see how turning pretrial detainees into unwilling objects of a kind of reality show served any legitimate goal. The practice amounted to unlawful punishment of pretrial detainees. There were dissents in both Gementera and Demery proving that notions of justice can depend on perception and the right panel.
If shame is an anachronism, why did Gementera and Arpaio appeal? I think there is a world of difference between choosing to act in humiliating and shameful ways in front of a jaded public, and quite another to be forced to do it.
One California judge, since retired, ordered a beer thief to wear for one year a T-shirt on which was boldly written, "I am on felony probation," and "My record plus two six packs equals four years." The Court of Appeal in People v. Hackler 13 Cal.App.4th 1049 (1993) disallowed the order reasoning that the T-shirt just might not favorably impress prospective employers, thus defeating defendant's rehabilitation. In another case, unpublished, the same judge sentenced a woman convicted of beating her children to wear a contraceptive Norplant device as a condition of probation. The judge’s rationale for the sentence was that the defendant was a drug addict and the dependency court had terminated her parental rights to her five children. The judge reasoned that he was trying to protect a child not yet conceived from brutality and neglect. No surprise that on appeal this sentence was reversed as unconstitutional.
Many years ago Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Veronica Simmons McBeth made international headlines when she sentenced a slum landlord who refused to bring his apartment house up to code to live in the squalor of his own dilapidated tenement for a few months.
In appropriate criminal cases, creative sentencing that avoids incarceration is beneficial to society and to defendants. But it is quite another story when alternative dispute resolution is used to avoid prosecution in criminal cases.
We reject the notion that gangs may exact retribution against one another for perceived criminal acts. We should also reject the notion that those who belong to religious, social or ethnic groups that break the law may bypass society's law enforcement system for their own internal system of justice. It has been reported that some in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church thought it best that priests accused of molestation be dealt with within the church rather than through the police department, the district attorney and the criminal courts.
In an article in The New Yorker (Nov. 2014) entitled "The Outcast," Rachel Aviv wrote a compelling piece about a man's teenage son who was allegedly molested by a man who prayed at the synagogue to which they belonged. Aviv wrote about the Hasidic community of Borough Park, Brooklyn where these alleged acts occurred. A "modesty committee" enforces standards of sexual propriety among Borough Park's hundred thousand ultra-Orthodox Jews according to Talmudic law. Aviv reports that "[w]hen children complain about being molested, the council almost never notifies the police. Instead, it devises its own punishments for offenders: sometimes they are compelled to apologize, pay restitution, or move to Israel." The article raises questions that apply to all groups whether they be religious or not. Is it ever appropriate to keep matters involving the criminal "in house"?
Less serious alleged criminal violations may not always be amenable to adjudication in traditional courts. Penal Code section 383b states in part: "Every person who with intent to defraud, sells or exposes for sale any meat or meat preparations, and falsely represents the same to be kosher, … is guilty of a misdemeanor…." Many decades ago, when I was a young deputy city attorney for the City of Los Angeles, I was assigned a case in which a violation of section 383b was alleged. I leave for another column my adventure with the kosher chicken case.
The California Supreme Court in Erlich v. Municipal Court of Beverly Hills Judicial Dist. 55 Cal.2d 553 (1961) held that the statute was constitutional and not void for uncertainty. But Korn v. Rabbinical Council of California, a civil case originally cited as 148 Cal.App.3d 491 (1983), held that the determination of whether a meat company's food is kosher is an ecclesiastical question best left to an ecclesiastical court when rabbinic authority is in disagreement over whether the meat is kosher. This holding could have a profound effect on criminal cases or maybe not. The California Supreme Court ordered that the "opinion be not officially published."
Except in the most exceptional criminal case, I draw upon what is reputed to be an old Spanish proverb: "There are more ways of drawing a cat out of a well than by the bucket." I prefer my own version: "There is no better way of drawing a cat out of a well than by a bucket."