Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sometimes the hard part of doing the right thing is knowing what the right thing is

Today, I learned something very troubling about one of my favorite restaurants. The owner has been indicted on federal charges of harboring aliens and forcing them to work for him. The allegations are pretty awful. Forcing immigrants to work long hours, 6 days a week. Making them all live in one small, cramped apartment. Holding the workers' identifications and passports so they couldn't leave. Authorities began investigating after finding an immigrant dead in this apartment. The man had died of acute pneumonia.

I've eaten at this restaurant a lot. Every time anyone suggests we eat there, I jump. My first reaction to today's news is to feel sick that I have contributed to this situation in any way. I have given this owner my money. I have accepted service from these indentured servants without having any clue as to their plight. I don't ever want to eat there again. I can't look this owner in the eye again without showing my revulsion for these abuses.

But then my defender kicks in. No one has been convicted of anything. These are only allegations. I have dedicated my career to promoting the presumption of innocence. And I have long counseled against imposing penalties on people just on the basis of charges being filed. It's way too easy for anyone to be charged. I have seen enough to know that police and prosecutors can make innocent people seem obviously guilty in a well and salaciously-written affidavit. How many times have I read the police reports and come away with a very different picture of things than I got from that affidavit? They never put any of the exculpatory stuff in the affidavit. I know that it's wrong to judge guilt from the one-sided version we hear in the early days of a criminal proceeding.

This man could be just an innocent immigrant caught in the anti-illegal immigrant tidal wave. It would be a grave injustice if false allegations ruined this man's life and destroyed his livelihood. On the other hand, if he really has done these things, I don't want to give this man one more dime of my money. So, which way do I go? Do I continue to eat there until the criminal justice system does its thing, running the risk that I continue to finance the restaurant version of a sweat factory in my neighborhood? Or do I stop eating there, running the risk that I am contributing to the financial destruction of a wrongly accused man?


Language Lover said...

Wow. I don't have much to say on the situation, not knowing facts other than what you posted, but thank you for continually keeping us vigilant in how we view justice. I think in this situation I'd probably have just swallowed whatever the media said and started boycotting, without much thought into whether this person could be wrongly accused. And I totally feel your dismay over having to make a decision (effectively delivering a verdict) without knowing the truth. If only everyone were as thoughtful about his or her actions...but then you won't have a job, huh?

Unknown said...

Sarah, Thanks for that great post. That really is a moral dilemma. I think I'd make a reasonable guess, using any and all information available, always taking things I don't know first-hand with a grain of salt, then I'd either continue eating there or stop. I think that's the best we could do in a situation like this.

The danger is jumping to one conclusion or the other with too little evidence and too little consideration. You are a great example to us all in avoiding that danger.

S said...

Well, I think most of the people I would go to lunch with aren't comfortable eating there anymore, so I think the reality is I won't eat there. But I won't feel entirely right about it. I doubt I'd feel entirely right about it if I ate there, either.

How did I turn some other guy getting charged with some awful crimes, with actual victims, into a moral dilemma for myself? I didn't mean to make myself seem that self-centered and important.

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