It was the video seen ‘round the world — a public defender, tiny in stature but huge in conviction, standing up for her client while surrounded by bullies with badges.
The Jan. 27, 2015 exchange between San Francisco Public Defender Jami Tillotson and San Francisco Police Sgt. Brian Stansbury was notable for its absurdity. In a cross between a Kafka novel and Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” the sergeant tells Jami to move aside so he can photograph her client outside the courtroom.

“Two minutes,” he tells her. “Or we can make this…”

Jami smiles politely as his threat trails off. “I’m pretty sure we’re okay here. We don’t need any pictures taken, thank you,” she says.

“No, you’re not pretty sure,” Sgt. Stansbury counters. “If you continue with this, I’ll arrest you for resisting arrest.”

“Please do,” Jami says, instantly becoming the most cooperative suspect ever nabbed for resisting.

Stansbury slaps on the cuffs. Jami calmly tells him she is representing her client. Uniformed officers march her downstairs and into the police station, where she is cuffed to a wall for an hour before being released.

Her client and another man, both young and black, look helplessly in the direction the attorney was led away. Left without benefit of counsel, they are forced to submit to the photographs.

While the video garnered 1.5 million views, sparked petitions and prompted national news coverage, life went on for Jami and her colleagues. The district attorney refused to file charges, and the police chief apologized for her distress while admitting no wrongdoing. Jami documented her mistreatment with the city’s Office of Citizen Complaints. She eventually left the San Francisco public defender’s office to pursue other opportunities.

The story eventually fell dormant. That is, until this month, when Jami hit the city, the San Francisco Police Department, Stansbury, and five other officers with a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The case and its outcome will be followed closely by public defenders everywhere.

There are more than 25,000 public defenders in the United States. The clients whom they represent have little money and even less power. Perhaps this is why public defenders are routinely disrespected in the criminal justice system.

The police officers’ disregard for Jami and her client is shocking in its overtness. But disrespect of poor people and their advocates is not the exception. It is the rule.
This contempt for the indigent is the reason behind woefully inadequate budgets that hamstring public defender offices and violate the constitutional rights of millions of Americans. It is the reason that public defenders in Fresno handle up to 1,000 felony cases each year when state guidelines cap the number at 150. It is the reason that part-time public defenders in New Orleans, according to a 2009 report, were allowed an average of seven minutes to prepare cases with life-altering consequences for their clients.

This disrespect for the indigent and those who defend them was at the root of a June incident, also caught on video, in which Judge John C. Murphy of Brevard County, Fla., challenged and engaged in a physical fight with a veteran public defender, Andrew Winestock. The public defender’s crime? Refusing to waive his client’s right to a speedy trial.

It is behind the recent Mississippi fiasco in which Judge Jeff Weill permanently banned a public defender from his courtroom for her zealous representation and announced he would reassign all of her cases to private attorneys against the clients’ wishes and in violation of their 6th Amendment right to counsel. The judge held two additional public defenders from the Hinds County office in contempt when they resisted his efforts to reassign their cases as well.
It takes courage to stand up for poor people accused of crimes. Like Jami, these public defenders refused to stand down.

The right to counsel may be an inconvenience to a cop trying to crack a case or a judge trying to get through his calendar. But it is also much more. It is a shield to protect ordinary citizens from intimidation, brutality, and wrongful conviction.

It is always worth the fight. Jami Tillotson may have ended up in handcuffs for doing her job, but she walked away with her integrity as a public defender fully intact.