“Can you say Racial Profiling? Strike that. Can you say Blatant Racism??” This was my original thought for an intro to a post about what happened to that high school kid in Texas, Ahmed Mohamed, who was arrested for possessing a clock. Actually, it was worse than that. It looked as if he was arrested because his name was Mohamed.
Or so it seemed. Now it’s not so clear what was really going on here. That is very typical in my work; criminal cases are so often not as simple as they seem at first, especially when everyone rushes to judgment. My job is to dig down into the facts to unravel what really happened. We criminal lawyers find ourselves going down the rabbit hole of analysis, curious about what we might find there. Mohamed’s situation provides a perfect way to illustrate this.
This all began when the kid, Ahmed Mohamed, brought something to school to show to his engineering teacher.
Although he explained that it was a homemade clock, his teacher told him it was nice but that he shouldn’t show it around, apparently thinking it might appear suspicious to an untrained eye.
Next, the alarm went off in English class. The English teacher, who probably was not up to speed on technology, became concerned that it looked like a bomb. Before long the principal had detained Mohamed with the help of some police officers. Once detained, Mohamed was searched and told to write a statement or be expelled. Ultimately, the boy was arrested and suspended for three days from school. If this were a criminal case, right away we have lots of issues that make lawyers like me very curious.
Was the search legal? Was it legal to coerce him to make a statement? Was the arrest legal, based on valid probable cause? If any of these actions were arguably illegal, could evidence be suppressed? What evidence? (The legality of the suspension is another issue, but not one that would be central to most criminal cases.)
Next you have to be curious about the motives of the police. Were they indeed being racist? If so, does that make their actions illegal? Lots of people, from Mark Zuckerberg to President Obama apparently thought so. Suddenly Mohamed was famous, being invited to the White House and offered college scholarships, which also makes me curious.
At this point it appeared that the police had probably acted illegally, arresting Ahmed Mohamed because of his name, coupled with the fact that this all occurred right after the anniversary of 911. Which is when you need to drill down further, because typically nothing is at is first appears in this world.
A central problem with the initial analysis is the “rush to judgment”, both by the police and by those who criticized them.
In many criminal cases we see how the desire of the police to make an arrest quickly and “solve” the case causes them to make mistakes. O.J. Simpson’s lawyers argued this extensively in his murder trial, but it has been argued by criminal lawyers forever. Probably because it is a real ongoing problem. The invitation to the White House? Not something we see so much.
This is when the more methodical drilling down began. Enter the tech nerds, stage right, a naturally curious group. Here in Seattle, we are very familiar with techies. They fill every coffee shop on every corner. In Ballard, they practically own the place. They do not strike me as a bunch of racists. If they were, they would have a lot of trouble working in a business where half of their colleagues have brown skin and funny names. But they are curious about technology. So, when they started weighing in about the homemade clock, I got curious.
The techies were almost unanimous in their opinion that the clock was a fake. They said that it looked like Mohamed had simply removed the inner workings of a real clock and put it in some sort of pencil case to make it look like he had made it himself. Or perhaps to make it look like a bomb? They looked at things like the circuit board, which is commercially available and did not appear to be homemade. Me? I have no clue. I’d need an expert to help me sort it out, something else that is common in criminal cases.
Next came the rampant speculation about what Mohamed was up to, faking this clock that looked like a bomb. This ranged from those who thought he was probably trying to create a problem, seeking the limelight; to those who thought maybe he was just a 14 year old kid cutting some corners to impress his teacher.
Then it got curiouser. And curiouser. Turns out Mohamed’s dad, Mohamed El Hassan Mohamed, is not some random anonymous immigrant. In fact, he is famous. He ran for President of Sudan. Twice. He also volunteered to be the lawyer for the Koran in the infamous case where that nut job minister from Florida wanted to put the Muslim holy book on “trial”, whatever that means. This is Mohamed’s father and role model. It has to make you curious about what was really going on here. This is especially true when you consider that Ahmed made comments to the effect that he was delighted with the media coverage he was receiving because he was looking to get noticed in the first place and had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
So, what is my point? My point is that not everything is as it seems upon your first impression. The more you dig down the more you may find yourself down a rabbit hole of curious and confusing facts, facts that have to be carefully analyzed, calmly and objectively, in the cold light of day.
Which is why this odd little story is so useful to demonstrate what criminal lawyers like me do every day:
We take something that looks simple at first, and we look again.
Once we do, we often start finding new and different ways to look at that initial information. Ultimately, we may need to bring all of this information, or evidence, into a courtroom to be examined in the light of day, without the hysteria and knee jerk reactions that cause confusion. If done correctly, we hope that justice will prevail.
What would be justice here? I have no idea. I would need to talk to the witnesses and find out much more than is available online. But one thing is clear: nothing is as simple as it first appears.
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