In Iran, there are stories about how the families of prisoners are charged money to retrieve the bodies of the condemned following their execution. A variation from China holds that families are actually billed for the cost of the bullet that was fired into their loved ones’ brains. The term to describe this practice is “bullet fee.” That bullet fees are known to us outside of those countries while there are no doubt countless odious practices of those repressive regimes of which we remain unaware is a testament to the particular level of insult they inflict on people suffering grief. It’s just so … inhuman.
We can add another location where such a charge is assessed. It’s not a totalitarian state. It’s Cleveland, Ohio.
The Cleveland Scene reports that the city has filed a creditor’s notice against the estate of Tamir Rice. Cleveland seeks $500 “past due and owing” for the cost of emergency medical services rendered following Rice’s shooting by Cleveland police on November 22, 2014. Yes, you read that correctly: it is charging Tamir Rice’s family for the EMS services after its own agents killed him.
A copy of the filing involved can be read at the Scene. It’s short and devoid of the usual language of advocacy one sees in legal filings. A junior attorney no doubt copied and pasted the relevant language from one of the many other such filings he has made. He attached the affidavit of the city billing clerk who was in charge of this particular account. Based on the computer-generated signature, he filed it in probate court electronically, likely without leaving his desk. The entire process might’ve taken 20 minutes of his time after he got the affidavit signed. Then, perhaps, he got a sandwich.
As an Ohio attorney myself I’ve sat here all evening trying to figure out how such a document gets filed. Hanlon’s Razor counsels us to never assume malice when stupidity will suffice for an explanation, but to claim $500 from the estate of a child whom your own officers gunned down, after which the entire country’s attention, sadness and anger was focused on your city as a result, would require some profound stupidity here. How does this happen?
One explanation is that it was mere oversight. That this attorney files many of these probate claims a day, has gained some frighteningly efficient cutting and pasting skills and simply zipped this one along with all of the others, not realizing that he’d be filing a document that would make his employer look like it’s slapping a grieving family in the face in a way that only China and Iran might do. If that was the case, however, and the attorney literally did not read what he was filing, it violates Ohio’s Code of Professional Responsibility which requires attorneys to, you know, read what they’re filing. I’m assuming the lawyer in question here won’t want to use that as a defense.
If he did read the filing, however, it speaks to something far worse than an ethical breach. It requires a complete moral failing on the part of the city.
There is virtually no one in the City of Cleveland and literally no one in the city’s law department, I presume, who does not know who Tamir Rice was. If the attorney in question exercised even a moment’s professional care and read the document to which he was affixing his signature, he would know what he was doing. He would know that such a filing would lead to the level of outrage about it that is already beginning on social media and, in the next few days, will likely be the subject of national news stories. He would – as I would hope any attorney would – have gone to his boss and asked if this was really something that the city should be doing. Maybe run it up the flagpole, past the lifers and to the political people. Past the p.r. folks and the ones who have spent over a year trying to deal with the mess that those officers created when they shot down an unarmed child.
If he did do that and if he and everyone was fine with it and the pleading was still filed, what then? Hanlon’s razor’s requires that we conclude that it was malice. That, as is the case with the practices of Iran and China, it was inhuman.
Which is it, Cleveland? Did your attorney commit professional misconduct or do you, as a city, think it appropriate to impose a bullet fee on the family of Tamir Rice?