The Sad Case of Tanya McDowell

I hope Tanya McDowell will forgive us, someday, for our hypocrisy and cruelty. I hope her son will as well. But first she will have to serve her prison term. Her son will have to learn to get along without her.

Ms. McDowell was sentenced to a five-year term behind bars. Her crimes: Larceny and drug possession. Experienced criminal defense lawyers know these charges often go hand-in-hand: An addict has to steal, often, to support their habit.

But Ms. McDowell is no ordinary drug user. She did not steal to support her habit. She stole an education from the City of Norwalk. Yeah, that’s right. We now send people to prison for theft of an education.

Ms. McDowell was living by her wits with her kindergarten-age son, spending time where she could, most often in Bridgeport at homeless shelters. She wanted a better life for her son. So she enrolled him in the Norwalk public schools. She had no real ties to the city, however. When the city found out that it was spending its money educating her boy, it demanded that Ms. McDowell be charged with a crime.

Norwalk prosecutors, known statewide for an unreasoning mean-streak, obliged. She was charged with first-degree larceny.

At this point, Ms. McDowell was something of a folk heroine. Public support rallied behind her. Then the undercover cops moved in. Just who sent them and why they targeted her is as yet unclear. She bought some narcotics, and was then charged as a drug user. Public support for her vanished.

Why, the woman self-medicates? A homeless shelter isn’t good enough for her? She struggles being a single mom? Maybe she’s got mental health issues? And what’s this about wanting a better life for her son? Let's warehouse her!

This woman needed help, not a prison bed. But Norwalk prosecutors piled on. They would not negotiate a resolution of her separate and distinct cases. No, not these ministers of justice. She faced a lengthy prison term on the drug cases. If she did not enter a plea resolving both the larceny case and the drug cases, then she’d face a far longer term in prison than the one to which she pled. 

No judge was able to step in assure that justice was done.

Norwalk Superior Court has for years been a mean and surly place. This case illustrates that. 

A woman is sent to prison for wanting a better life for her children. She is doing time for using an illegal drug. Had she drank herself to death it would be no crime. Or had she smoked four packs of cigarette a day to sooth her jangled nerves, no one would care. But the wrong people are profiting from the drugs Ms. McDowell used. 

We imprison the sick and call it justice. Now we imprison the homeless looking for something better for their kids. 

Class war? You bet. Ms. McDowell just go sacrificed on the front lines.



Attacking the Vote in Hartford

I have long grown accustomed to the facts of life known to all criminal defense lawyers: little people get run over and crushed in court. When a defendant errs, he is prosecuted, sanctioned, held accountable. When the government errs, an exception to the rule defining the error saves the day. We call it the heinous crime exception to the Bill of Rights. I keep fighting because, frankly, the fight is all there is. I accept futility as a portion of my daily bread.

But I did not know that this sense of futility would come to define the civil side as well. And I never expected it to be embraced with enthusiasm by lawmakers.

I was naive.

Last week, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling declaring that the state’s ouster of an elected school board in Bridgeport unlawful. It was a stunning rebuke of the administration of Dannel Malloy.

There was little doubt about the outcome of the appeal to the state Supreme Court. The only real surprise was Justice Richard Palmer’s dissent. There was whispering around the state last week that the dissent was withheld as long as possible to delay publication of the decision. Some speculate that this was so the governor’s men could try to sneak through the General Assembly a measure designed to retroactively cure the issue before high court. Perhaps it was a mere coincidence that the decision was published only days after these pages called on the Court to account for the delay in publication of the opinion.

The Supreme Court ordered the case remanded to the trial court to set a special election date for vacant school board seats. The unlawfully seated board remains in power until a new board can be selected. Such are the difficult equities created by this coup: Bridgeport’s school need to be managed. So an illegal board remains in place until a lawful one can be installed. In the meantime, my clients, who were elected to terms of office that are as yet unexpired, are locked out of offices they were elected to fill.

This would normally shock the sensibilities of the political class. Imagine, turning out an elected official and replacing him or her with a gubernatorial appointee. This is the very sort of conduct we deplore in third-world countries.

It’s all business as usual for Gov. Malloy. Rather than accept a rebuke by the high court, his lobbyists are working lawmakers over and trying to pass an emergency measure to justify the Bridgeport coup. The governor’s legal advisers have, apparently, never been accused of being too smart. Yes, the Supreme Court decided the case on narrow statutory grounds, thus avoiding the underlying constitutional issues. That is what high courts do. But does anyone really believe that the General Assembly can deprive an elected official of the right to serve by passage of a Special Act? There are grave constitutional issues that will be addressed should this theft of the vote be dragged on by attrition or political artifice.

As this was written, the governor’s men, and Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, were walking legislative corridors looking for votes for extraordinary remedial legislation. The governor wants a bill passed in an expedited manner, without a public hearing. And for good measure: What pimp wants to rub his customer’s nose in the fact that it is not love, but lucre, that brings them their pleasure?

For all I know, these anti-Democratic conspirators may well get the votes they need, thus guaranteeing that the case will return both to state and federal courts on state and federal constitutional claims. In the meantime, residents of every city in the state with struggling schools gets the message: You’re too stupid to run your own schools. Dannel knows best.

Forgive me my cynicism, nay, call it contempt, for this direct assault on democracy. The governor is said to have his eyes on national office. If this is the ethos he brings to governing, I hope the office he seeks is not in this nation. This cold-blooded assault on elected offices cannot be justified by platitudes about the needs of children. Top-down reform of school boards doesn’t address what ails urban schools. We need housing, jobs, civic responsibility: we don’t need autocratic hijinks by politicians enjoying the satin sheets of corporate support.

Little people won in the state Supreme Court last week. The governor wants to make sure that even if they won, they lose the right to occupy the offices to which they were elected. That ought to be a crime, but, instead, it is business as usual for an arrogant governor. Even elected municipal officials are now treated like criminals.

Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.


About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis


Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

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