Saturday, August 20, 2005

Sex, Drugs and Petty Crime: A User's Guide

Last fall a friend asked whether a young author could send her book to me for possible review, and soon thereafter I received in the mail Neeraja Viswanathan's Street Law Handbook. I read the book, submitting a short review to the Texas Observer, then promptly forgot about the piece. Anyway, I ran across the text this morning on my hard drive, and since the Observer never ran the article, I thought I'd publish it here. My apologies to Ms. Viswanathan for the tardiness.

My suggested title was "Sex, Drugs and Petty Crime: A User's Guide."

Viswanathan, Neeraja
The Street Law Handbook: Surviving Sex, Drugs and Petty Crime
Bloomsbury Books, 2004,
230 pages

Most folks have occasionally wondered one or more of the following, "Okay, exactly how much trouble will I get in if I use or share marijuana, drive with an alcohol buzz, have sex with a minor, take this hit of Ecstasy, purchase or view pornography, or pay for a blow job?" (It could be just me, but I doubt it. Even Jimmy Carter admitted he'd sinned in his heart.)

If you consider those or related questions of immediate, pressing concern, first-time author Neeraja Viswanathan has created a new resource for you, The Street Law Handbook: Surviving Sex, Drugs and Petty Crime.

Viswanathan is a lawyer, but she's attempted to keep the legalese to a minimum to create, essentially, a handbook for those engaged or potentially engaged in petty lawlessness, not their critics or their attorneys. The book does not undertake a judgmental tone, but instead matter-of-factly walks through the most common petty crimes: drug use, laws restricting sex, assaults, public disturbances and the like, and their likely consequences.

She's included many anecdotes, often taken from prominent court cases, though with the names all changed to humorous pseudonyms, to illustrate the dizzying array of "Street Law Concepts" peppered throughout the book (94 in all)

Upon seeing the most common petty crimes all compiled and discussed together like this, what struck me most was the extent to which petty crime enforcement, really, is about punishing juvenile behavior among young adults. For example, drinking to excess certainly occurs into the later years, but clubbing and partying are the province of the young, and that's when drinkers are most at risk of encounters with the law.

Similarly, I know life-long pot smokers in their 60s who have never been arrested. So how is it that the kid up the street went to prison for several years for delivering weed? The difference is maturity of approach and demeanor. The deeper I read into this book, I realized that young people should be Viswanathan's real market.

Of the prominent petty crimes, only soliciting prostitutes falls mainly in the purview of middle aged, mostly married men, and only the most pathetic of those are picking up hookers on the street. Most of the rest of the book, though, seems to speak to young people, who are more likely to find themselves in risky situations. I'm as cantankerous, my wife tells me, as when we met in my early twenties, but I haven't punched anyone since I was nineteen, and I felt a little silly after the drunken tussle even then. If your idea of a good time is to get drunk and mix it up, though, Viswanathan lets you know what to expect.

That's why I'm giving my copy of The Street Law Handbook to my 19-year old daughter when I'm finished with this review. It's not that I necessarily think she's engaged in any of these behaviors. She's a good kid, but she's the most likely person in my family to be tempted. Having learned long ago that my own lectures produce limited results, I find myself increasingly settling for giving her honest, neutral information and letting her make up her own mind.

For that purpose, The Street Law Handbook is a valuable book, but it has some shortcomings. Attempting to be casual, Viswanathan occasionally omits certain formalities, though perhaps one should blame her editors at Bloomsbury books for that. The first reference to outgoing U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, for example, just calls him "Ashcroft." If the target audience really is young people engaged in the world of petty crime, one probably shouldn't assume such knowledge.

The 17 tables estimating punishments for various crimes will be useful for Texans, but not for most of the country. Viswanathan chose seven cities - Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Miami, Chicago, Las Vegas, New York, and Dallas - to give examples of minimum and maximum punishments. Since Dallas' laws on most crimes she discusses are state laws, the information therein applies equally across Texas.

With only 17 tables, though, I thought it a significant oversight not to do the extra research for all 50 states. Not only would it be more comprehensively useful, it would have allowed her to market the book in each particular locality. Without the localizing tables, I'm not sure I'd recommend this book, say, for somebody in Ohio. A lot of what folks are interested in is "what penalty should I expect?"

In a similar vein, while I understand the desire to keep it simple, the book contains no index, footnotes, sourcing or even a bibliography, not even a "for more information" section pointing to other resources. Most of the examples given were from Supreme Court cases I knew about, so I'm not saying her information isn't correct. If she wasn't going to tell most folks the specifics for their locale, though, it'd have been nice to at least tell them where to look.

I had a couple of substantive quibbles with the Viswanathan's specific advice, most importantly as it pertains to whether one should consent to a search.

She states that if an officer asks for consent to search, you can decline, but fails to advise readers with the pros and cons of that decision. "If the cops don't have a search warrant, they may ask you to consent to a search - usually telling you that it'll be less trouble than making them come back with one." The next two sentences should be, "This is always a big fat lie. Tell them 'no' and direct them to the shortest route off your property." Instead, she just leaves that comment hanging.

She does go that far in another section, "10 Rules About Home Searches," stating, "Never sign the consent form. Always ask for a warrant." But the question of consenting to searches is raised in several other places, and her advice in those sections isn't nearly as clear and unambiguous.

Police get away with that kind of garbage at traffic stops all the time. On behalf of ACLU I've occasionally given "Know your rights" trainings to young people over the last few years, and one of the inevitable questions is, what if the officer says he'll bring in a dog if I don't consent. I tell them to call their bluff and decline, but Viswanathan says, "Whether you consent is up to you. You have the right not to consent, but if the manner of your nonconsent makes him suspicious, he might detain you longer." That's too weak, and doesn't tell a reader how to decline consent in a way that is non-suspicious.

Elsewhere, Viswanathan appears overly concerned with how the cop feels about you having rights. Here's her advice on consent searches. "Cops prefer if you consent to a search, because getting a search warrant can be a pain in the ass. You don't have to consent, but it's best to withhold consent in a way that doesn't make the cops suspicious."

She just leaves that line hanging, too. What should a non-lawyer do with that recommendation? I would have said, "Always refuse consent. Never give a police officer permission to search you, your car or your property. If need be, they can get a warrant."

Viswanathan is not a working criminal defense attorney. "She has practiced corporate litigation and has assisted in white-collar criminal defense cases," her book bio notes, and perhaps that explains her slightly academic approach, and the lack of more prescriptive how-to advice. The book is well written, though, and she does a good job conveying legal concepts to a lay audience without confusing them or dumbing down the subject matter.

If you're going to get The Street Law Handbook for a young person in your life, I'd strongly suggest packaging it with the DVD,
Busted! The Citizen's Guide to Police Encounters. (You can order the DVD online for $10 at They'd actually make a great companion set. (Ed. note: Grits discussed that video here.)

Busted!, narrated by former ACLU executive director Ira Glasser, gives some nuts and bolts details that Viswanathan left out. Most importantly, it provides concrete examples and language for how to refuse consent and how to manage interactions with officers in ways that don't cause a situation to escalate, the main missing component in The Street Law Handbook.


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Anonymous said...

It's kind of obvious that sex, drugs and crime are connected, all of these factors can be very dangerous if you get addicted to the. It would be better to control yourself and think in more healthier things like viagra online .