What I Learned from “Law and Order SVU” | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

What I Learned from “Law and Order SVU”


Leslie McLemore II

I've always been a hypocrite when it comes to cutting corners. In one sense, I loathe the idea of taking shortcuts in order to acquire the same result as those who work their ass off to achieve. However, cutting corners is no stranger to me; I can argue that it has been a friend and ally.

Take my third and final year of law school. Throughout the second semester of my third year, criminal procedure was on the back burner of my study hierarchy. I convinced myself that the elements of due process, searches and seizures, plain-view doctrine and other legal jurisprudences that fall under the umbrella of criminal procedure shouldn't be too hard to grasp.

However, as the final exam date loomed over my huge head like a dark, ominous cloud, I realized I didn't know a damn thing about criminal procedure. So I did what any reasonable third-year law student would do. I busted out generic outlines, obtained old exams (because most law professors are lazy and recycle the same questions every year) and binge-watched "Law and Order SVU."

While obtaining a Ph.D in "Law and Order SVU," I acquired a real-world understanding of how beneficial an individual's civil liberties are when navigating the criminal-justice system. Civil liberties are the fundamental and unalienable rights we as American citizens receive at birth. Liberties such as the right to due process, the freedom of speech and the right to privacy are guaranteed like death and taxes, and stay attached to us until our dying day. Due process is even afforded after death to unfortunate individuals who perish not by natural causes, but by acts the law may or may not deem to be criminal.

The recent protest that has swept our nation as a result of racial injustice is labeled as a civil-rights issue, and that is, obviously, an accurate assessment. The protest, rallies and social media hashtags provide individuals with a platform to bring awareness to the civil-rights violations that plague our nation's culture like a deadly virus.

However, as a constitutional lawyer, I admit that I am equally, if not more, troubled by the civil-liberty atrocities that are associated with the recent racial injustices.

Most often, we make the mistake of assuming civil rights and civil liberties are the same thing. Yet, they are different, even though they exist together in the realm of intersectionality. Civil rights have traditionally revolved around the basic right to be free from unequal treatment based on certain protected characteristics (race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc.), while civil liberties are basic rights and freedoms that are guaranteed to all Americans, either explicitly in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, or that have been interpreted through the years by legal doctrine or policy decisions.

Civil-liberty violations consume the legal cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Sure, people are upset and protest over how they were killed. The reason both of these unarmed black men were killed speaks and tugs at our civil-rights heartstrings. However, the blatant stripping away of due-process liberties in both cases is the scariest notion of all. some even arguing that the selling of individual cigarettes or petty theft of cigars somehow strips away one's civil liberties.

These opinions are so asinine, stupid and fundamentally wrong, not to mention un-American, that I refuse to even entertain them beyond this sentence. Civil liberties must be blind of color, gender, sexual orientation and income status, only displaying absolute loyalty to the American citizen, a citizenship Garner and Brown obtained in birth—and that includes citizens who are accused of a crime or misdemeanor.

The lack of grand jury oversight, which denied the basic civil liberties of Garner and Brown, fully display the conflict of interest between law enforcement and prosecutors. Hell, one can watch a full season of "Law and Order SVU" and see how such a conflict would arise. The prosecution in both cases exhibited grand-jury practices that are alien to most, if not all, in the legal community. These practices included conflicting witness testimony and allowing both potential defendants to share their side of the story without threat of cross-examination.

Solutions to such conflicting interests cannot be fought and won in the protest arena. Focusing our attention solely on the civil-rights aspect of racial injustice and not showing equal attentiveness to civil liberties may prove to be a recipe for failure. Without civil liberties, it is impossible to fight for civil-rights equality in the most prudent arenas of litigation and policy. Civil liberties afford us the right to fight against actions a reasonable person would deem to be unequal, essentially providing legal standing.

I confidently claim that I am right about my assertions. I survived a "Law and Order SVU" binge-watching marathon.

Leslie B. McLemore II is a Jackson native, now in Washington, D.C. He is a proud graduate of Jackson State University, North Carolina Central University School of Law (J.D.) and American University Washington College of Law (LL.M.).

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