A sheriff’s deputy confused a Black third-year Roger Williams University law student as a defendant as she entered into a courtroom to represent a client as part of the school’s criminal defense clinic, she claimed on social media last week. The dean of her law school says that the mistake is “all too common” and an example of “implicit bias” in courtrooms.
According to the Boston Globe, law student Brooklyn Crockton alleges she experienced racial profiling during a recent visit to Garrahy Judicial Complex as a part of her school’s criminal defense clinic.
Because she goes to school in Rhode Island, she is allowed to represent indigent defendants, those who have been arrested or charged with a crime but are unable to hire a lawyer due to suffering undue hardship, in criminal cases under Supreme Court Rule 9.
In order for students to gain this experience in the state District Court, they are required to work under the supervision of a licensed attorney on the RWU Law faculty.
She claimed that after the sheriff’s deputy called for attorneys to line up and prepare to enter the courtroom, she was singled out and stopped.
Despite being second in line and possessing materials needed (binders and folders) to represent her client in a misdemeanor case, the official asked her “Are you sure you are in the right courtroom? Are you the defendant?”
Crockton took to social media to explain what she says happened that day.
“I have never been so embarrassed in my entire life,” Crockton said in a TikTok video on her @sobrooklyn profile.
“I felt like crying in that moment. The crazy part about it is you hear stories like this all the time with Black attorneys, but when it happens to you, it is so visceral that you don’t even know what to say.”
She continued, “I literally have all these binders and folders, and I’m dressed pretty nice — not to say that defendants don’t dress nice.”
“Why would you assume that I am a defendant? Um, I think we all know why.”
Less than a week, 341,000 TikTok views and 3,000 comments later, she realized that her experience was not an isolated occurrence. Many people from all over the world were able to recount their own versions of her story.
One person said, “This isn’t new. In the UK criminal lawyers wear a wig and robes. Black criminal lawyers still get ‘mistaken’ for defendants.”
“My brother is a lawyer and practices in Texas and that happens all the time,” another said.
“Same! I’ve had bailiffs ask if I’m the defendant’s mother (I represent teens),” one woman said, “And I’ve had a judge look past me and ask where the lawyer is.”
In a second video, Crockton shared that the deputy apologized to her, but she believed it was hollow.
She said once she explained that she was a student lawyer, he permitted her admission into the court and said, “Hey, sorry.”
“There was no ounce of emotion in that ‘sorry,’” she said in the video.
Throughout the day, the student alleged that the deputy continued to speak to her condescendingly.
“He acted like I had never once in my life stepped foot inside of a courtroom, [saying] this is where the judge sits and this is where you sit and when the judge asks you a question you are to stand up and address him,” Crockton remembered. “I’m getting pretty weirded out and very anxious because every time he comes up to me, he is saying something very patronizing, and I want this experience to be done.”
When her supervising attorney and an RWU law professor, Andrew Horwitz, started talking to her, the deputy came over to the two and only spoke to her white teacher.
She said, “The sheriff comes over and talks to him and literally does not even look at me, does not even address me.”
Horwitz, who serves as the director of the criminal defense clinic and assistant dean for experiential education for the school, was later made aware of the incident.
He noted, just as the legions of comments did, that this was a systemic issue that many people of color and women encounter when dealing with the court system.
“What it shows is that implicit bias is a very serious problem in this country,” Horwitz said.
“It’s very hard to find a single attorney of color who has not had the experience of being confused for a defendant or a litigant,” he said. “Sadly, we still live in a society where our preconceived notions of what an attorney should look like continue to exclude people of color and, to some degree, women.”
This “implicit bias” in the judicial system, he states, “is a pervasive nationwide problem.”
“I don’t think there is a way to eliminate the kind of bias we all harbor,” Horwitz reckons. “But I do think we can and should engage in significant training so that people become more aware of those biases and develop strategies to avoid having those biases actively harming people.”
RWU Law’s Dean Gregory W. Bowman said that Crockton is “an excellent student” and has a “bright future.”
“Here you have a young woman who is dedicating her future to helping others by practicing law,” he continues. “And she is pulled out of line and was humiliated by it.”
He also stated that the institution will be working with the bar association and the judiciary “to help address this problem, which is all too common.”
“This is a pervasive problem that really must be addressed in all states and by all court systems,” Bowman stated before adding, “and that law schools should take seriously.”
Already, the school is taking steps to address race and law as they prepare the next generation of practitioners.
During the fall 2021 semester, RWU Law became one of the only law schools in the nation that programmed classes on race and the law as requirements for the Juris Doctorate.