Quora Question: Why Do Good Lawyers Support and Defend Criminals?

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The Hancock County court house is pictured in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, August 26. Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

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Answer from Matt Howell, former federal prosecutor, criminal defense attorney, civil litigator

It does not follow that just because a defense attorney represents a person who has committed terrible crimes, that the attorney wants everybody to be allowed to do the same thing. At first blush, it is easy to understand how someone might make that mistake. Careful thought, however, will make the answer clear.

There are two great man-made forces that, if left unchecked, would make life miserable. Indeed, throughout history, each of them has done just that on many occasions. The first of these two forces is anarchy/criminality. If criminals are allowed to do what they want, none of us would ever feel secure. We would spend all our time making sure we would not be suddenly attacked and we would be prepared in case we were. Additionally, none of us would work to generate food, clothing, housing, medicines, or any other goods that are necessary or beneficial for life because we would know that as soon as we developed some good thing, another would be able to come and steal it from us. It is to prevent this tragedy that we, as a society, have created a government with power to prevent these antisocial actions by others. Prosecutors and police are the agents of the government with the assignment to keep criminality in check. Without them, the government could not fill this important role.

The second great negative force is government itself. If left unchecked, government will find its way in to every nook and cranny of our lives. Read Orwell's 1984 for a chilling look at what life would be like with a government that is not subject to limitations and control. Unlike criminality, the government cannot be expected to be kept in check by government agents. They have every incentive to gather power to themselves.

Instead, the role of keeping the government in check is given to two groups. The first is the voters. Although they sometimes act to rein in the government and its powers, the voters are, as often as not, part of the problem. Individuals tend to vote in accordance with the role they usually fill or most fear they are likely to fill, which for most people is that of law-abiding citizen who may be the victim of some crime. Most voters cannot imagine themselves being accused of, let alone charged with, a crime. Thus, they tend to vote for the law-and-order candidate.

As one of my law professors told us, when the Nixon administration was first elected, they were focused very much on law and order, never imagining that they would eventually be on the other end of that stick. By the time they were leaving office, they were probably more concerned about prison reform. You never know when you may depend desperately on those rights.

Because of this problem, the real role of keeping the government under control is left to defense attorneys. They are the ones who have the power and incentive to argue to presumably neutral judges the principles that are included in the Constitution and Bill of Rights that all of us depend on for a good life but which most of us never need to call on.

It is the defense attorney who, in pursuit of justice for his client, ensures that the police have no incentive to break down your door without probable cause and a warrant because they know a judge will not consider the evidence they obtain in that circumstance. It is because of defense attorneys that you can feel secure in protesting government policies, communicating with your radical-yet-lovable uncle, and buying a gun for target practice, hunting, or self-defense.

Many candidates for office claim to defend the Constitution. But very few of them are really focused on defending the Constitution. They are really seeking political power, which is what the Constitution is designed to limit. While it is true that many of them are disputing some particular policies their opponent is espousing, they raise that argument only because they think it will work for them. It is only the defense attorneys who are constantly retrying to limit government power and enhance individual rights.

That is why even the most honest, upright citizens should be grateful that defense attorneys work hard to vindicate the individual rights of people who may be the dregs of society.

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