When the Constables Blunder

Posted: Apr 11, 2006 9:33 AM

Justice never will be perfectly administered. Two cases that illustrate the truism are now pending in the Supreme Court on petitions for review. They merit a sigh of regret.

The cases are Dawson v. Newman from Indiana and Buttrick v. United States from New Hampshire. The odds are 1,000-to-1 that the high court will reject both petitions without a public murmur of reflection, but even the lost causes are not without interest. In both cases, as I read them, defendants were wrongly treated because constables blundered.

In 1990 Lance Dawson pleaded guilty to certain unstated criminal charges. The charges could not have been very serious, for they resulted only in probation and a suspended sentence of six years in prison. In 1992 his probation officer filed a notice of probation violation, but nothing much happened and Dawson remained free to get on with his life.

Then, in 2000, the state unaccountably hauled Dawson back into court, this time before Judge Thomas Newman in the Superior Court of Madison County. In June 2000 he revoked Dawson's probation and reinstated the suspended sentence. Dawson went to prison. Thirteen months later the Indiana Court of Appeals unanimously reversed that decision: There had been a "complete failure" to prove probation violations. Dawson must be freed.

Judge Newman obediently ordered Dawson's immediate release. Someone in the judge's office faxed a copy of the court's opinion to the state Department of Corrections. Nothing happened. Dawson wasn't freed. He protested. Still nothing happened. Dawson was routinely shipped from an overcrowded prison in Indiana to an available prison in Kentucky. Fourteen months passed -- 14 months! At last he got out. Naturally he sued everyone in sight. Judge Newman pleaded immunity to suit. The other defendants said nobody ever ordered them to do anything. Now the Supreme Court will decide if the succession of blunders merits review.

The case of young Dustin Buttrick presents a different picture of justice gone awry. He has been sentenced to 18 months in prison, plus five years on probation, for thinking unthinkable thoughts. That is not the federal offense, of course, but it is what the evidence boils down to. These were the facts as partly inferred, but mostly drawn, from an affirming opinion of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals:

In the summer of 2003, Buttrick was 20 years old. At that age hormones leap like kangaroos. He had clicked onto sexy chat rooms 30 or 40 times. Seven or eight times he had engaged in "explicit sexual conversations." Now on the Net he picked up on "baybeedawl." He asked her age. "Fourteen," she replied. For two weeks they swapped suggestive messages. One thing led to another, as they usually do, and over the Internet they agreed to meet at 8:30 a.m. outside a state liquor store in Portsmouth, N.H. It seems an odd hour, but you never know. They would "fool around."

So the sucker loaded his pockets with condoms and set out from his home five miles away in Maine. Once in Portsmouth his nerve faltered. Twice he drove around a traffic circle, just thinking it over. Miss Baybeedawl was not in sight. The third time around, police lost their patience. They arrested him for traveling in interstate commerce for the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct. His trial followed.

You will have surmised correctly that there never was a Miss Baybeedawl. The Portsmouth cops had set up a sting. Young Buttrick was the stingee. Speaking for a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, Judge Sandra L. Lynch explained:

"The crux of Buttrick's defense was that he never had any intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct even before he left his home on his trip to the meeting place. Curiosity, in other words, not sex, led him across the state line."

In the appellate court, the defendant argued that the feds had not proved his intent to engage in illicit conduct. The panel was not impressed. Buttrick argued that his right to travel had been violated. No way. The trial court had refused his motion for an instruction on "abandonment or renunciation": After all, he had never attempted to fulfill the awful assignation. Such an argument, said Judge Lynch, "has not been generally accepted." Tough luck, Buster!

My guess is that neither Lance Dawson nor Dustin Buttrick will be granted a hearing before the Supremes, but at a quiet time on the Hill I wish them luck.