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Virginia Teen Was Detained and Prosecuted for Saying 'Oink Oink' to Cop

This piece originally appeared on The Appeal.


In May 2016, James (not his real name), then 17, was sitting outside a mall in Arlington, Virginia, when police officers approached him. They picked him up, slammed him to the ground, dragged him aggressively to their car, and brought him to the police station. All those details are documented by a bystander’s cellphone.

But what preceded it is a matter of debate. James remembers sitting on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette, and saying “oink oink” to a police officer, but the police had a different version of events. They claimed James provoked violence, refused to give his name, and resisted arrest.

Despite the discrepancy between the two accounts, Commonwealth Attorney Theo Stamos’s office accepted the officers’ narrative during a hearing on whether to detain him. Stamos, who handled the detention hearing herself, never mentioned the video, which had been made public the day before, and charged James with several misdemeanors, including disorderly conduct, failure to comply, and obstruction of justice.

The video was tweeted by a user who tagged the Arlington county police department’s official Twitter handle. But Rachel Collins, the public defender who represented James, said she didn’t see the video or the police report before the hearing. “The prosecutor’s office never turned over a copy of this video to defense counsel, despite it appearing to negate the juvenile’s guilt,” she told The Appeal.

In the courtroom, Stamos described a vastly different scene from the one in the video. “They started cheering on the defendant who was saying things to the officer, causing the others to provoke potential violence,” she said in the hearing, arguing that’s what led to James’s arrest. “That’s what the obstruction charges talk about, that it [sic] causing others to be put in harm’s way. They were cheering him on and circling the police officer.”

James told The Appeal that Stamos’s account did not match what he remembered. “The prosecutor was trying to make it seem like I was a menace and I was the one like starting a riot and making everyone riled up to fight the law enforcement,” he said. “If you really look at [the video] and see what they said, nothing was the same.”

Despite having no serious criminal record other than status offenses, such as truancy, James spent roughly a month in detention and eventually pleaded guilty. Stamos declined to comment on James’s situation, citing privacy concerns because he was a minor at the time.

Advocates say this was not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern for her office. Local defense attorneys described multiple incidents in which children were held in juvenile detention pretrial and were charged for crimes they say should have been handled by schools. Stamos’s office said it does not keep statistics on how many young people are detained. 

Lauren Brice, an assistant public defender in Arlington County who handles most of the office’s juvenile cases, said she frequently sees children charged for small offenses, like school fights and possession of alcohol.

“I see things that are otherwise childlike or teenage-like behaviors being brought into the criminal justice system,” Brice said.

That’s one of the reasons some have opposed Stamos for re-election this year, when the longtime prosecutor faces off against Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, a former public defender. Dehghani-Tafti’s campaign declined to comment on how her office would handle offenses by children, but her campaign website calls for a number of progressive reforms to the legal system, including increasing the use of diversion programs instead of holding people in jail.

Detaining children is more than just cruel, advocates say. Research that shows that juvenile detention can increase the rate of recidivism, and a Justice Policy Institute report found that “detention has a profoundly negative impact” on young people’s physical and mental health, education, and employment.

“Children are different and the consensus in the field in terms of brain development and science is that adolescents are continuing to develop really into their mid-20s,” said Julia Davis, director of youth justice and child welfare for the Children’s Defense Fund. “Thinking about the cognitive skills and young people’s development really requires the criminal justice system to take a different approach to young people than the way it considers adults.”

Advocates say Stamos’s office has been slow to recognize that. The criticism goes back decades to an incident in 1999, when Stamos was deputy commonwealth attorney and the office charged two 10-year-old boys with felonies for allegedly pouring soap into their teacher’s drinking water. The fifth-graders ended up pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery.

Dehghani-Tafti recently referenced the incident as evidence of how the commonwealth attorney’s office treats young people accused of crimes. And Kathie Panfil, who was principal of the boys’ school at the time, recently weighed in with a letter to the editor of a local news outlet.

“I do not believe that prosecuting these children helped in any way, nor did it conform with our values in Arlington,” she wrote. “Such prosecutions have life-long negative, and sometimes dire, consequences.”

But Stamos disputed the notion that the case was reflective of her office’s approach to children. “That couldn’t be further from the truth,” she told The Appeal. “We know the gravity of what it means to charge young people.”

Still, she defended the prosecution. “In that case, it was a victim-driven decision,” she said. “That teacher wanted to make sure that those children understood the gravity of what they had done.”

More recently, Stamos’s office charged a 13-year-old and another child with misdemeanors for throwing rocks and breaking a glass bus stop structure. Collins, who represented the 13-year-old, said he was ordered to pay $980 in restitution to the county. Such fees are not a rare occurrence, she added.

Davis noted that fines and fees have a damaging effect. “Forcing children to be responsible for hundreds or thousands of dollars of fees is really an enormous hardship on children who don’t have a source of income,” she said. “It’s also profoundly unfair because most of the children that are coming into contact with the system are poor children of color.”

When The Appeal asked about restitution, Stamos noted that such decisions are made by judges in Arlington County rather than by prosecutors.

That wasn’t the only situation involving minors that raised questions, Collins noted. In 2017, Collins represented a 16-year-old victim of sex trafficking who was detained on prostitution charges for three weeks until her trial date. Though prosecutors ultimately decided not to move forward, Stamos’s office could have dropped the charge earlier, Collins said. Instead, the office argued that she was a flight risk and should be detained.

“She had no parent, she had no guardian,” Andrew Parker, deputy commonwealth attorney in Arlington, told The Appeal. “There was no one to whom she could be released.” He added that the judge makes the decision on a child’s detention status and when there was someone who could take the girl in, the office dropped the charges.

In another instance Collins cited, a 14-year-old was arrested, along with two friends, in 2018 and charged by the police with a felony—attempted breaking and entering—for pulling on the door handle of an RV. The charges were eventually reduced to misdemeanors and this year a jury found him not guilty.

Parker said that the RV owner reported some cosmetic damage to her door so the charges were appropriate. He also noted that the child admitted he was trying to get inside the RV.

Last fall, an 11-year-old boy was charged with assault and battery for taunting a girl and touching her thigh on a school bus, according to Brice, who represented the boy. “These are kids being mean and stupid,” she said. Stamos eventually agreed to drop the charge after the child was found not to be competent and his guardian agreed to file a Child in Need of Services petition.

Though Brice detailed a number of incidents in which children were charged with what she sees as minor offenses, she said she has seen the number of children detained pretrial drop in recent years, though she attributes that more to new diversion programs and reform-minded judges rather than to Stamos’s office.

Stamos is painting herself as a reformer during the primary, Brice said, but her record doesn’t support that image.

“The problem is that Theo has been in office for a number of years and has had the power to effect change,” she said, “and none of these reforms have been implemented.”

New Virginia Majority, a statewide organization involved in criminal justice reform, has endorsed Dehghani-Tafti, partly because of Stamos’s treatment of children in Arlington courts. Maya Castillo, the group’s political director, said she was concerned that Stamos still chose to prosecute James, given the conflicting cellphone video.

“It’s alarming,” Castillo said. “These are children. I can’t imagine, except in rare circumstances, why someone who is maybe being mildly disrespectful to a cop is going to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Castillo raised other concerns with Stamos, including racial disparities in prosecutions in Arlington County. According to a data analysis from the Virginia Supreme Court, between 2016-18 in Arlington, despite being just 9 percent of the population, Black people accounted for over 40 percent of the disorderly conduct convictions and over 60 percent of obstruction convictions.

Stamos explained those disparities by saying that a majority of people held in Arlington jails are not residents of the county. “To suggest that you’re only going to prosecute 10 percent African American offenders doesn’t comport with what we see as far as people coming to our community and committing offenses,” she said. “Arlingtonians are very law-abiding, as it turns out. It’s other folks coming from other areas of the region.”

But Stamos’s handling of young defendants is what stands out to attorneys who have worked with her in court and family members like James’s mother, who saw her son suffer as a result of his harsh prosecution.

He missed his prom and the last few weeks of his senior year, she said, and ultimately didn’t go to college, as he had originally planned.

She described the situation, and dealing with Stamos in court, as “a dark time” for her family.

“It didn’t seem like she understood that she was about to change the life of a person drastically,” James’s mother said. “His, his family’s. It just seemed like another day, and maybe it was to her.”


This piece originally appeared on The Appeal.

 

 

 

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