Friday, May 29, 2009

Is Honesty Still Policy?

A few years ago I had the pleasure to serve on a New York County Criminal Grand Jury. When I say pleasure, I really mean that. I am probably one of the few people who actually enjoy doing jury service, but I digress. One of the pleasures of jury duty is meeting a wide array of people from different walks of life with a diversity of life experiences including enlightening experiences right in the jury room.

Grand Jury service, for those who have never done it, can be a lot of waiting around between cases. And just so you can get a mental picture of the room, it was what you might see on Law & Order –the jurors were seating on five ascending rows of cushy leather armchairs, enough for twenty-six jurors. A long wooden rail divided the jurors from the prosecutors who performed at the lowest point (no pun intended for those there for indictment). During a lull on this particular day, one of the jurors related a recent event at the hospital where he worked. An elderly woman had passed away while in their care. The hospital housekeeper assigned to clean the room, found a sack of money under the recently removed woman’s pillow – a sack containing $12,000 to be exact. She immediately took to the sack to her supervisor who in turn, through whatever channels, returned the money to the deceased woman’s grateful family. I do not recall if she was rewarded, but people at the hospital certainly took notice of her actions.

I tell you this not to point out the actions of the housekeeper, but to relate what happened in the jury room. After the juror finished his story, there was a rousing discussion. From listening to that discussion, I realized that there was an uncomfortable majority of people in that room who felt that the housekeeper should have just kept the money. Who would have known? Obviously the family did not know she had this money, so who would have been the wiser? Let just say I was surprised. So it brings me to this question. In this world of increasing moral and ethical ambiguity, is honesty still the best policy?

21 comments:

John Keats said...

Dishonesty is still the second-best policy for sure.

LawHawkSF said...

Wonder why lawyers joke about how a clever prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich? Your story is a good start on the answer. At least there was one honest juror in the room, right Bev?

SQT said...

I wonder when it became socially acceptable to admit to being dishonest? I would have told you that I would give the money back-- and I would-- but you would have no way to know if I was being honest or not. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to just come out and say yeah, I would've taken the money...

BevfromNYC said...

Law, it actually doesn't even take a clever prosecutor. It really just takes one standing upright and vaguely coherent.

SQT and John: I guess honesty about one's dishonesty is it's own special kind of honesty.

SQT: And in NYC we have chutzpah in abundance. Let me know if you need any.

On a side note: it is very unsettling how much videotaped-in-the-act evidence is presented. I was not aware that we were being watched quite so much. Right now it is pretty benign and used primarily as a deterrent. But I worry that it could slowly and easily slide into something more sinister without our notice.

SQT said...

Bev

I haven't been to Britain, but I hear you're watched pretty much everywhere you go over there. I found an article HERE that says "the UK was the most surveilled country". Maybe a snapshot of where we're headed if we're not careful.

freedom21 said...

Bev and SQT: I lived in the UK for 6 years, I can attest that there were CC cameras everywhere....and this is why I can never run for office. (Keep in mind, I did my undergrad over there so the amount of stupidity I engaged in was copious). What's really shocking is that there seems to always be public outcry against the surveillance, yet the government has never deterred. It's a strange sense of Big Brother. For instance, on the buses, cameras are everywhere. It's so monitored that they will post pictures posted of people they caught that week for vandalism/dodging fares/violent crimes--good and bad, I suppose.

Great Article!!

AndrewPrice said...

Bev,

First an on-point joke. I hope I haven't told this one before:

A lawyer renders a service to a client. When he is done, he asks the client for $100. Acting in haste, the client mistakenly hands the lawyer two $100 bills. Now the lawyer faces an ethical dilema. Does he tell his partner?


In terms of honesty, I hate to say this, but my experience has been that liars and fakers do better in our legal system than people who tell the truth.

SQT said...

Andrew

My husband works in an industry full of liars and fakers-- and they do well... for awhile. It always catches up to people at some point. I've seen so many brokers crash and burn after some shifty dealing. In their business you are dealing with other-people's money, so the clients are bound to pay attention sooner or later. But there's no shortage of people willing to try to do things the under-handed way.

Can you imagine how dirty the business of politics is? I shudder to think about it.

AndrewPrice said...

sqt,

Lying/dishonest lawyers can do well for a while, but reputation is key in law and it doesn't take too long before everyone figures you out.

I was talking more about witnesses and litigants. In my experience, people who lie in court often do much better than honest people. It's disturbing, but it seems to keep happening. I suspect that there are three reasons for this.

1. Liars tell better stories. Honest people try to be fair and won't "milk" the facts. Liars will.

2. Jurors watch too much television. TV is nothing like reality, but too many jurors have come to judge humans according to the standards they see on TV. Liars are great at mimicking what they see on TV, honest people don't even try.

3. The system (for a variety of reasons) rarely punishes liars, but most people don't know this. You've heard of perjury right? And that will scare you because you're honest. And you would assume it will scare others, thus you likely believe that people are not likely to lie for fear of being punished for perjury.

But liars know that no one gets smacked for perjury. So they've learned that they can take advantage of your misunderstanding, and boy do they ever.

Writer X said...

It's funny how we're always surprised when people do the right thing. In my dad's day, and my grandfather's day, the money would have been returned, no big deal. Today it's probably a human interest story in the housekeeper's local newspaper complete with fanfare and keys to the city. Still, I'm a glass is half-full kind of gal. I believe that most people in a similar situation would do the right thing.

patti said...

i never fail to be astonished when someone reveals their dishonesty, and in such an open manner. makes me look like a curmudgeon at 47 when i rail against what is happening in our society today.

freedom21 said...

Oh patti, I'm 25 and I do it too. I'll be the crazy lady on the porch in no time :)

"kiddies these days...bah!"

Captain Soapbox said...

True story, about a month ago went into one of the convenience stores, got myself the essentials: Gallon of iced tea, some beef jerkey and 4 packs of cigarettes. Don't start on me. Anyhow, the clerk rings it up and says $11 and change, which I knew was no way even close to being right. So I told her, maybe she better check again, here she only rang up one pack of cigarettes. She rerang it and I paid much more. She was very happy I pointed out her error.

To me it was just natural to, but to her it was like I just invented a pill that would magically grant her the title of Queen of the County or something. It's just how I was raised for one thing, and for another I figured it would come out of her check if the register didn't add up at the end of her shift. Double whammy as I see it. The sad thing is she could have just said thanks and I would have been happier, I mean I am ruggedly handsome and all, but it was almost embarrassing how she acted. Which shows how rare simple decency can be when a federal case is made over something so simple to do the right thing on. That is sort of sad really.

AndrewPrice said...

Patti and Freedom21,

I'm a young 38, and extremely hip, yo' word. I personnally would never. . .

Hold on. . .

Are those kids on my lawn. . .?

I gotta go.

Turn off the damn stereo!!

Captain Soapbox said...

It's not that the stereos are on with me so much as the (c)rap that comes from them. Yeah I went there!

I already do the porch thing, that's where I clean my weapons. Fumes you know. Plus it keeps people off my grass, and generally polite in the bargain! ;-)

patti said...

~ punching old man fist in the air ~ you dadgum kids!!!!

SQT said...

Andrew

I'm not surprised, but sheesh, that's disheartening.

Speaking of kids on my lawn...

I had a neighbor kid scare the crap out of me recently. I park in the garage (thanks to my very organized hubby) and when I was backing out there was this kid standing right next to my garage on the driver's side. I guess he was riding his scooter across my driveway and ran up to the side to get out of my way as I was coming out. I get twitchy when I'm afraid I might run over a kid so I rolled down my window and started yelling what are you doing there?! Being a kid he just kind of shrugged and went on his way.

Darn kids....

Writer X said...

Andrew, in my old neighborhood, we would have called you "Mr. Exeder." When your ball made the unfortunate bounce in his backyard, it was pretty much gone forever.

StlDan said...

As a retired Deputy Sheriff I have seen the best and worst of society. More often than not, most of my dealings with the stories of lost and found, were good ones. Numerous times I have been handed valuables hoping that the owner would be found. Usually the finder did not even want to leave their name. Of course, I live in the Midwest, not that other areas don't have honest people. It's just the way we were raised. So, in most cases honesty is the best policy, ovibously there are exceptions. And to give backing Andrews statement,(not that he needs any) yes liars do better in court, than the the honest person.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X,

LOL! Having jumped over a few fences and run like lightening to retrieve errant balls in my past, I know exactly what you mean.


StlDan,

I've done a lot of work with local law enforcement in my community, (I've represented several officers on a variety of issues), and I can completely back up what you say. I constantly hear stories of average people just doing the right thing -- either turning in lost property or helping someone out. It kind of makes you feel good about the human race.

Sure, we have some jerks (take our President, for example), but when the rubber hits the road, most people are decent and honest.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew and Gang: Here's a true story about how honest the legal profession used to be. Bancroft-Whitney, the law book publisher of all the official law reports in California was located in San Francisco until just recently. In 1906, the company was burned to the ground during the fire that followed the Great Quake. All B-W had left for records was the names of all the lawyers who made their law book purchases from B-W on time payments. No account records, just the names. Every single lawyer on the list provided B-W with a copy of their accounts, and paid them in full. Can you imagine that happening today?

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