Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a "total institution" that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. "[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . ." It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity. -- Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Vick indicted on dog fight related charges

Michael Vick (apparently nicknamed "Ookie") was indicted today.

You know, I have sort of been following this over the last several months and wondering how it would play itself out.

I have mixed feelings but let me preface my remarks with a prison story.

Eli was one of my roommates for a few weeks. A black guy down for a long time on drug charges, he did a lot of reading and writing. I liked him.

Turns out he also used to own 13 (?) pit bulls that he lost upon his arrest. He used them for dog fighting. Having no experience with this subject, I peppered him with questions (probably more than he was comfortable with). I was fascinated.

Based on my conversation with him, I concluded that

1. Dog fight owners love their dogs... they would not intentionally allow them to be hurt. (Certainly true of Eli.)
2. The losing dog surrenders, he is not killed. Most dog fighting is a war of attrition and endurance. It is the responsibility of the owner to pull his dog away (kind of like a boxer's manager throwing in the towel) once he realizes his dog has lost.

When I read about dog fighting in the United States on Wikipedia, I read a different story, one that is much darker and vicious.

I don't know what to believe.

I understand that this is a sub-culture activity, especially among gangs and black males. It is also associated with other criminal activity including, of course, gambling. I never met a black guy in prison who claimed to own a poodle or chihuahua. It was always pit bulls, dobermans, and rottweilers.

I didn't know this but:

"In May 2007, a new federal law went into effect making interstate dog fighting activities felonious and providing for imprisonment and imposition of large fines. The Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act, a new federal law, was enacted by the U.S. Congress earlier in 2007 and signed by President George W. Bush on May 3, making organizing a dog fight a felony. The law provides a penalty of up to three years of imprisonment and up to a $250,000 fine for each offense of interstate or foreign transport of animals for fighting purposes. Using the provisions of the new law, which took effect immediately, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is pursuing cases in a number of locations around the country with considerable support from humane societies and local police departments." [Wikipedia]

See also this ESPN story on the subject:

"Is dogfighting a serious crime? If Vick was involved in it, what can happen to him? "

"Until last month, a federal dogfighting charge was a misdemeanor and likely would result in probation and a fine. Now, though, the recently strengthened federal law provides draconian penalties for people involved in dogfighting. There's a jail term of three years, and there's a fine of $250,000. And if that isn't enough, those penalties are per dog. Remember, the police confiscated 66 dogs in the raid on Vick's property. These laws are the result of powerful lobbying by the Humane Society of the United States and other animal protections groups. Their lobby is as powerful as the gun lobby. "

"Is dogfighting illegal everywhere? "

"Yes. It's a felony in 48 states and a misdemeanor in Wyoming and Idaho. But the new federal law trumps state laws. If you're involved in dogfighting, you now face the prospect of a federal prosecution with agents of the USDA, FBI and IRS coming after you. "

Sigh. Yikes. Another federal law. Can't they just leave these things to the states? Look, I am not a big fan of this kind of stuff. I understand the opposition to dog fighting. But, please, a little perspective is in order. Are we really prepared to turn these people into federal felons and send them to prison? For dog fighting?

The indictment is pretty detailed. If the facts are correct, there are some pretty cruel acts Vick was directly involved in. They are also pretty ancient for the most part and I'm a little confused as to how the new law applies to the old conduct or if he is being charged under an old law. He is charged with "Conspiracy to Travel in Interstate Commerce in Aid of Unlawful Activities and to Sponsor a Dog in and Animal Fighting Venture." The "conspiracy" part means he is just as guilty of a particular act that is part of the enterprise he assisted in even if he did not commit the act itself. In other words, if a codefendant killed a dog, whether Vick was directly involved or not, he is equally guilty because he furthered the overall illegal enterprise.

I hope he is innocent. Actually, I just hope he wasn't as cruel as the indictment indicates. I don't care about the dog fighting per se. I do care if he killed the dogs for being "weak."

Fortunately, he won't need a public defender. Unfortunately, I'm not sure his co-defendants can say the same thing. Don't expect the case to go to trial. Vick will plead. I have no idea what kind of time he is facing.


Life ticks on said...

So you know we lived where this type of stuff is everywhere for 8 yrs. Not just dog fights but cock fights too. They would actually attache RAZORS to the cocks. Not that a chicken is that valuable but they did go for the jugular with both. I guess it really depends on the owners and the place they are fighting though.

Bill Bailey said...

This was not my favorite article to write. I prefer to find things to criticize the "system" for. :)

But in this case, I'm not sure there's much to criticize. I have read some of the other media comments and they seem to agree that, if accurate, some of the acts Vick is accused of participating in are especially cruel. If true, I am going to have a hard time generating much sympathy for him.

I still have two concerns:

1. I hate the idea that so many crimes are being federalized. I wish these kinds of things would be kept at the state level. Keeping things at the state level allows for accommodations to be made based on the values of local sub-cultures, which brings me to the second point.

2. I wish there was a less drastic way of dealing with conduct that is so widespread within a particular sub-culture. (According to CNN, there are 40K people involved in dog fighting professionally!) I am sure there are a lot of young black men who don't see what the big deal is and will further resent heavy-handed efforts to just put more black men in prison.

Anonymous said...

Do you think Michael Vick's lawyers had him intentionally get caught being high on Marijuana so he could get into the Drug and Alcohol program more easily and get some time shaved off? Or was it just a totally boneheaded move to get caught before sentencing and will look that much worse.

Bill Bailey said...

Absolutely not!!! I have really tried to bend over backwards to be sympathetic to Vick because I really believe that the only reason the feds took over what started as and should have stayed a state matter is because of Vick's celebrity. Prosecuting a celebrity provides more "bang for the buck" so to speak in terms of general deterrance. It is impossible to catch everyone so if you can catch someone famous and throw the book at him, the theory is that the publicity will be more effective at discouraging others from criminal conduct. I believe that "general deterrance" plays too large a role in sentencing myself...

Unfortunately, my patience has about run out with Vick. Testing positive for drugs while awaiting sentencing is so totally absurdly stupid, it defies rational explanation. Whatever benefit of the doubt the judge might have given him is now gone. When the judge lets you remain free pending sentencing, he is to some degree sticking his neck out giving you the benefit of the doubt. Violating the terms of release is like Vick slapping the judge in the face. It is so totally disrespectful of the process that he is practically begging the judge to slam him.

As for the drug program, Vick was only facing 12-18 months based on the plea deal. The drug program doesn't get you any time off when you have such short sentence. Even if he were to enter immediately, the program is 9 months, plus 6 months in a halfway house. Of course, he may be going to prison long enough now that he might benefit from the drug program (!) but I can assure you this was not part of any strategy.

In addition, his qualification for the drug program would depend on the interview with the probation department for his presentence report. (Hopefully he didn't already lie to them and say he never did drugs. Lying on your PSR is not smart either.) Simply acknowledging past drug use and suggesting that it might have influenced his poor judgment would have been enough to probably get him in. He didn't need a positive drug test while awaiting sentencing to do that.

Regardless of whether a person agrees with the way the system has treated him, it is simply foolish to be openly contemptuous of the rules. The system will bury you and not lose one wink of sleep over it.

Many of the guys I met in prison who I thought had unduly harsh sentences received those sentences because they were arrogant and made some very foolish strategic errors during their case, either during plea negotiations or in preparation for sentencing. They made it easy for the system to not like them. That is what Vick is doing.