From Bank Robber To Jailhouse Lawyer To Victor In The Supreme Court, Shon Hopwood’s Memoir “Law Man” Is A Must Read In Post Constitutional America
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SEATTLE ~ Prison is a great place to practice law. Everyone has legal problems.
On October 28, 1998, Shon Hopwood pled guilty to several counts of robbing Nebraskan banks and the judge gave him a 10 year timeout. But, as Hopwood explains in his memoir “Law Man” he’s been winning ever since.
The citizenry would be far worse off but for motivated losers like Hopwood.
Take Clarence Gideon who famously scrawled a letter — in pencil — from his Florida prison cell to the Supreme Court of the United States, complaining that he had not been afforded counsel to represent him. Thanks to Gideon, today felony defendants in all state prosecutions are provided counsel.
The untold story of Gideon is that the resulting opinion was a no-brainer for anyone even vaguely familiar with high school civics. And, yet the Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1868, sat on the books for nearly a century before Gideon – a motivated loser – came along in 1965.
During that century the members of various bar associations sat, either silently watching, or paying no attention whatsoever, as millions of their fellow citizens were unconstitutionally tried and convicted under state systems like the one Gideon successfully defeated.
Today every citizen of the United States is subjected to a system whereby our representatives in the national legislature have empowered presidents to kill their fellow citizens with missiles, and otherwise perpetually detain them in military prisons anywhere in the world.
With few exceptions, the real lawyers are not lifting a finger to save you or themselves.
In interviews, Shon Hopwood explains that before entering Federal prison he did not know even one of his civil rights. Had he known, I suspect that on the plains of Nebraska, he might have known how to better leverage those rights on his own behalf, as opposed to robbing the occasional bank at the tender age of 21.
It wasn’t long after Hopwood was delivered to the Oklahoma prison that would be his decade-long home, that he discovered the law library. The one thing that reliably lives and breathes in prison is the law. Every week brings with it a fresh collection of judicial opinions. Read enough of them and you learn to read between the lines.
Better than any film or novel, these opinions chronicle the ups and downs of the American Experiment. They detail the stories of motivated losers; motivation being the critical characteristic that causes one to run the gauntlet that is Federal appellate process.
My “reward” for having my term of Federal imprisonment declared unconstitutional, representing myself, and earning a separate order for immediate release, was that at resentencing I could have been given even more time. That’s not what happened, but it could have. It’s happened to many others. It’s completely legal. Judges and prosecutors can be vindictive in the face of public embarrassment and the law provides cover. These factors give one pause for thought when considering an appeal, especially when the maximum – as in my case – was 225 years and all you can think about is getting home and, for starters, getting your wife and two young sons off welfare.
Hopwood did not scrawl a letter to the Supreme Court. He waived his rights when he pled guilty. Nonetheless, he mastered Federal criminal procedure, turned himself into a competent Federal appellate litigator and in exchange for commissary, started helping his fellow prisoners.
Most prisoners can’t read. Accordingly, they serve their time unaware that their case is riddled with errors. More than one prisoner was fortunate to have his files reviewed by Shon Hopwood; not the least of whom was Bill Fellers.
Hopwood not only drafted the brief accepted by the Supreme Court in Fellers v. United States, which nudged the needle in the direction of the citizenry, but upon release he won the girl of his dreams and admission to law school at the University of Washington.
The downside of Hopwood’s nominal fame is that he has been subjected to much public ridicule at the hands of anonymous Seattle residents who believe he should not have been admitted to law school. These people believe that someone who has not seen what Hopwood has seen are, by definition, more worthy of admission. They believe Gates should dole his money out only to those individuals who have never been convicted of a felony.
Shon Hopwood knows a higher truth. He knows that free people live the First Amendment and prisoners live the entire Bill Of Rights. He knows that if you need the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments, you are probably in custody. He knows that regardless of who you are when you enter Federal prison, if you’re paying attention at all, you come out a civil libertarian. He knows that the dark side of the Bill of Rights is that it functions as a User Manual for officialdom when it elects to take your property, your liberty, or your life. He knows the pages of that manual — long neglected by the people — are tattered and torn.
Hopwood was given plenty of time to reinvent himself and as a result, this motivated loser, is committed to helping others who may not be so motivated. That’s why Bill Gates is paying his tuition.
I suspect today Hopwood can tell you that the First Amendment is forty-two words. I suspect he can tell you — in order — the five injunctions we the people imposed on the Government when we wrote the First Amendment. I suspect he may be able to recite the First Amendment by heart.
Next time you hear a fellow citizen whine about those “endless appeals,” remind them that we the people – today more than ever — depend on the occasional unelected Federal judge to overrule the legislative and executive branches. Ask them if they seriously want to live in a nation where 100% of the accused are convicted and the non-accused are droned. Remind them of citizens like Clarence Gideon, Shon Hopwood, Michael Santos, myselfand others, who, notwithstanding their twenty-something peccadilloes, somehow managed to find a path that allowed them to provide for themselves, their families and society, even as that some society forever marginalizes us as felons.
Then read your Bill Of Rights, appreciate how little it takes to be looking at 10 years in Federal priso — see, Suspect Returned Used Enemas to Florida CVS — and be thankful that you’re living only the First Amendment.
————————- NOTE: I did not write a book about my experiences with the Federal criminal justice system. However, I wrote and toured a show for five seasons, then turned it into a professionally produced film, which streams here for free. You will need popcorn.