Matters Column

Owning up to bad conduct may be the better way to go

May 31, 2013
| By Bill Rohn |
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I got stopped by a police officer over the Memorial Day weekend. And I told him the truth about what I had done.

I’m not suggesting that truth-telling is a new idea. But the idea of doing it probably hit me a little more quickly than usual after having spent part of the weekend watching "Campus P.D."

"Campus P.D.” has been on television long enough to be in its fourth season, but I had never seen it before watching on Saturday afternoon after pushing a lawn mower. The show is like "Cops" — with what struck me as one big difference.

For the last 20 years, "Cops" has often been about drunken and belligerent knuckleheads and the things they do to avoid responsibility for their actions. By contrast, "Campus P.D." is about often drunken and belligerent knucklehead college students and the things they do to avoid responsibility for their actions.

Most people spent Memorial Day weekend with family, often at cottages. I watched eight episodes of "Campus P.D.," some of which were filmed at Northern Michigan University. The typical show included two or three police officers breaking up noisy college parties that featured underage drinking, or breaking up fights at parties in campus apartments.

Speaking of alcohol, what kept me glued to my set were the many times students displayed complete confidence when it came to out-thinking sober police officers, many of whom had been on the force for years. It was as if they believed themselves to be at their brightest after being taken by surprise while under the influence.

In truth, the confrontations seldom went well for the revelers. Some got off with simple warnings. Some were simply asked to pour beers out and leave parties. But again and again, the wittiest and most aggressive students — some of whom were described by the cops as "future lawyers" — ended up in handcuffs in the backseat of police cars on the way to jail.

Me? I'm not convinced "Campus P.D." is merely about what happens when a kid drinks too many beers. I couldn't help but notice that everyone had a cell phone, and most bystanders seemed to want to get near the cameras so they could offer advice to the arrestees. 

I kept thinking that we've all grown up watching reality television, in a world where advances in technology like the "interweb" and smartphones have lured us into thinking we're as smart as, if not smarter than, most people we meet. 

Who needs a brain when you've got a smartphone? Why show discretion when cameras roll and people egg you on? 

I watched "Campus P.D." until the Tigers game came on. The producers kept reminding me that “all suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.” That was good to know, given how often I saw kids get caught red-handed.

Even though my practice as a trial lawyer occurs in the civil courts rather than in the often-televised criminal justice system, I couldn’t help but think about all of the lawsuits I've handled over 30-plus years that involved little more than someone who had done something dumb — like failing to honor a contract, or not being careful, or flat out intentionally doing something wrong.

Again and again, I've seen situations where the failure to admit a wrong led to tens of thousands of dollars in legal expense.

I believe that "Campus P.D." is different than "Cops." The kids in "Campus P.D." are sharp students who were bright enough to get into good colleges. They don't do dumb things on their own like the arrestees in "Cops." They do them in groups. 

These students do dumb things in a world in which a heightened emphasis on self-confidence often promotes the attitude that the truth isn't important if you're quick-witted, even when caught red-handed. 

At the risk of sounding like a crabby old man, I couldn't help but think that simply owning up to bad conduct or a mistake was often the better way to go. I'd also like to be 21 again, but that's a different story.

All of this might have been in the back of my mind when I drove up Main Street in a small town on Memorial Day. See, in my desire to cut even more grass at a cottage, I made the mistake of heading through a downtown holiday parade route only minutes before a ceremony started. It was fun at first, because I was driving an old convertible and got to nod at people who thought I was the lead car in the parade. 

In any event, once I got through downtown, I hit the accelerator, hoping that I had left the parade route and was out of the way of others.

At that point, an officer pulled me over for speeding. Just like they say on "Campus P.D.," he began with, "Good morning. Do you know why I stopped you?" 

My response was that I was quite certain I had been speeding and I had done that after deciding to get away from the parade area just as soon as I could. 

And that was the truth.

All of which may explain why I drove away with just a warning.

William E. Rohn is a partner in the Trial Group in the law firm of Varnum LLP.

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