Jami’s Ordeal Shows Public Defenders Deserve Respect


Jami Tillotson

By Jeff Adachi

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 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.

Jeff Adachi is the San Francisco Public Defender


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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12 thoughts on “Jami’s Ordeal Shows Public Defenders Deserve Respect”

  1. zaqzaq

    Another nuisance lawsuit.  Last time I checked a defense attorney does not have the ability to stop a police officer from taking pictures of an individual in a public place.  She does not have the right to stand in between the officer and the person being photographed.  She did not represent one of the men involved and did not represent the other in that investigation.  In short she  has not role to play in that investigation.  When she attempts to interfere she is delaying or obstructing the officer which can result in an arrest.  She cannot delay or obstruct the police officer’s ability to take a picture be standing in between the officer and individual be photographed.  The proper recourse is to challenge the legality of the police conduct through motions to suppress in court.  Why do you keep posting Adachi’s propaganda?

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      It was her client, she certainly had the right to intervene in this situation.

      But we can agree to disagree on that.

      Even so – why not post it? You’re free to agree or disagree with it. I happen to agree with him that the treatment of the attorney was unwarranted. We had a similar situation in Yolo where a guy was a juror in a trial, he got caught at court security with marijuana and the public defender simply informed him he did not have to answer any questions and they tried to get the attorney brought up on charges and sanctioned.

      1. zaqzaq

        I am not familiar with the facts of the Yolo incident.  I do see a number of issues that you do not address in this post the involving the juror and the juror’s impartiality.  Was it a criminal case or civil case that the juror was sitting on?  I see no problem with the conduct if it was a civil case.  If it was a criminal case was the defendant represented by the public defender’s office?  Did she represent herself as a public defender?  This is something she would have an ethical obligation to report to the judge who was presiding over the trial.  Was she in any way involved in the case the juror was sitting on?  If she was the defense attorney in that case her unsolicited legal advise would impact that juror’s impartiality in the case and must be reported to the judge.  If she failed to do so or mislead the judge about the nature of the contact there would be an ethical breach which should be reported to the state bar.  Please fill in the facts in your post as it is extremely vague.

  2. Tia Will


    I see the fundamental issue here very differently from you. The issue is not about whether you consider Jeff Adachi a propagandist. It is whether handcuffing a public defender for defending her client verbally is an appropriate response. It is about whether justice is served when a public defender is supposed to be limited to 150 cases by state regulation and actually has a case load of 1000. It is about judges assaulting or banning public defenders for doing their job.

    I am amazed that anyone who takes on the law and order approach that you usually take, would defend blatant disrespect for the law ( in the form of preventing adequate defense for the accused) when this disrespect is originating at the hands of the police, prosecution or judge. Are we not supposed to all be equal before the law ?

    1. zaqzaq

      The distinction is that this public defender placed herself in between the police officer and the individuals whom she did not represent in the case the officer was investigating.  She also told the officers that they were not going to take pictures of either individual which she does not have the right to do.  There is a distinction between physical attributes and statements.  Police can forcibly take fingerprints from an individual but cannot force a statement.

      1. Tia Will


        I agree with you that that is one issue. And I would even agree that Mr. Adachi did not choose a good example to make his point about the differential treatment of prosecuting vs defense attorneys. But I think that to pick up on this one case and choose to ignore all of the other examples of differential treatment is to miss the bigger point.

        It is apparent to me that prosecutors and defenders should be treated exactly equally within our judicial system. It is also apparent that they are not. It is also apparent that this discrepancy of treatment of lawyers has a major impact on the equal treatment under the law of those who are least equipped financially while working to the advantage of those who can afford private legal council. I find this unconscionable in a system in which we are supposed to be equal before the law, and yet clearly are not.

        I would truly like to see you address those points.

  3. PhilColeman

    First off, there is no available tort action for “disrespect.” While the author played that card to excess, it had nothing to do with the pending lawsuit.

    Second off, the author is clearly biased, being the woman’s boss at the time. All of us who half a brain will factor that into his rendering of events described here.  That does not necessarily mean Adahi’s embellished account is still not fundamentally accurate.

    A liberal interpretation of “interfering” proviso in the Resisting Arrest statute could be applied in many confrontational encounters involving the police. The reality is that police quickly learn that interfering is very closely scrutinized by the DA’s office and it has to be egregious to be charged. If the story told here is even marginally correct, the arrest for interfering was not even remotely close to being prosecutable. In trying to safe face, wrong end, he got his butt kicked.

    The arresting officer is a supervisor, which concerns me, he should have realized he was on a path to disaster. He became emotionally involved in a silly ego contest with a diminutive woman. A veteran officer and a supervisor should have immediately recognized that there is no way I can win this one and gracefully retreated when he still had the chance. And handcuffing the woman was a really bad decision. It just made everything worse. The smug satisfied look in the photo by the Assistant PD says it all, “I won,” and indeed she did.

    Curiously, the column title played the need for respect for the Public Defender role. That’s true, PD’s are widely regarded as lower skill attorneys who can’t succeed anywhere else. “Getting a PD” is a prelude to a certain conviction. In fact, public defenders are seriously overworked and capable, and most of their clients are factually guilty. They also handle stress far better than most of their legal associates. Public Defenders sure have my respect; among the scores I’ve encountered, only one was a true jerk, a remarkable statistic in the legal kingdom.

    Ironically, the arresting officer was also coping with his own need for respect. Had either of the disputants said, “Can we talk privately?” we’d never have heard of the incident. Lesson to be learned here.


    1. Frankly

      Ironically, the arresting officer was also coping with his own need for respect. Had either of the disputants said, “Can we talk privately?” we’d never have heard of the incident. Lesson to be learned here.

      Exactly.  But then the Assistant PD would not get all the activist attention she was after.

      1. Tia Will


        Exactly.  But then the Assistant PD would not get all the activist attention she was after.”

        Remember that Phil said “either of the disputants”

        You have postulated on what the Assistant PD had to lose by not discussing it privately. What do you suppose the police officer would  have had to lose ?


  4. Tia Will


    I appreciate your balanced comments. I still feel that until we make an alternative arrangement in or society such that all attorneys and their clients are treated equally our judicial system we cannot hope for “justice for all” but will be stuck with a system in which we offer protection from conviction and/or harsh sentencing for those who can afford it and a crap shoot for those who cannot.

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