Centre Daily Times, Blue Weekly, A conversation with defense attorney Andrew Shubin
Attorney Andrew Shubin takes on the kinds of cases that capture the popular imagination, make headlines and force us to face our values and fears. He represents confirmed and accused criminals of many stripes, from suspected offenders attempting to prove their innocence to incarcerated convicts claiming mistreatment. He also takes on civil rights claims and a host of constitutional matters, such as free speech cases. His work crosses federal, state and county jurisdictions. So what is he doing with a modest solo practice in State College?
I sat down with Shubin at his office on East Beaver Avenue to discuss his background, his practice, and the drug laws he calls the “shame of Centre County.”
How did you decide on this line of work?
My political interest was sparked during a year at a university in Israel. I was there when Israel invaded Lebanon (1982). It was a politicized time to be there and it sparked a fire in me. I went on to work for two congressmen after college (University of Pittsburgh). The anti-apartheid movement was also influential during my college years. I went to Temple Law School, which is sort of a rugged, idealistic place situated in North Philadelphia, where there is a lot happening and many issues to be addressed. Temple was an active campus, a little more active than I’m seeing anywhere these days, including here.
Why State College?
When I graduated from law school, I took a job doing civil rights work for prisoners. Since this is where the prisons are, I came here. It was a great place for a young lawyer to get some experience. I was trying jury trials in federal court, which is almost unheard of for a lawyer two years out of law school. After that, I returned to Philadelphia, where I worked for several years as part of a high-profile firm specializing in civil rights and police misconduct. I loved Philadelphia, but I knew I wanted to live in Centre County. I met my wife here, her family lives here, we love the mountains, and we wanted a more scaled down life. It is also a nicer place to practice law. The pace is a little less crazy.
What does your practice consist of today?
Largely criminal defense work in federal and state courts. The other 50 percent of it is civil rights practice, which includes sexual harassment work, employment law, discrimination cases, and institutional cases. I do much less police misconduct work here. The police are much better in Centre County. They were notoriously bad in Philadelphia—it was a great place to be doing that kind of work. That work has been replaced by my civil rights work, as well as a large number of first amendment cases. It’s a nice niche; there is virtually nobody in Centre County who does what I do.
Is there a particular subset of those practice areas that you prefer?
I like doing criminal defense work. It’s rough and rugged. It’s the front line of constitutional law. Those cases are physical, you’re in a court a lot, and you can really make a huge difference. I also like doing sexual harassment cases, especially those where there is a clear good guy and bad guy. That is good for jurors, but I also like it politically because it gets at power issues.
Are there many clear cut sexual harassment cases?
I think there are plenty of victims, but there aren’t that many people who feel empowered enough to go to a lawyer. I think that people understandably are very fearful that if they come forward there will be retaliation. And that comes from Ph. Ds at Penn State all the way down to the woman who is working shifts at a plant. I think that is also true in medical negligence and personal injury cases. There are a lot more people injured than initiate suit. So it’s a myth—a big lie really—that everybody jumps on the lawsuit bandwagon. In fact, I think it’s the very opposite. Few people are empowered enough to follow through. There will always be some frivolous lawsuits, but that is bound to happen in a county where we want open access to the courts. Very few of them make it past the initial stages.
Have you ever encountered opposition to your work?
Absolutely. On the criminal side, I represent people who have very few allies and few friends, but who I feel a great deal of empathy towards. I have never had a client—as disastrous as some of the decisions they made may have been—who I didn’t empathize with.
I represented, for instance, a person by the name of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a famous and controversial death-row inmate accused of killing a police officer in Philadelphia in 1982. I represented him in a case against one of his former defense attorneys, who wrote a tell-all book about his defense before their death-row appeal was ruled on by a judge. I argued that the publication violated his duty as Mumia’s attorney, but the attorney prevailed by arguing that the publication was protected free speech. Mumia’s sentence was ultimately commuted to life in prison. Mumia was a prominent journalist and member of the Black Panther Party prior to his arrest, and he defied the odds by becoming even more well known in prison. Other controversial cases have typically involved the right to assemble and speak. I represented Penn State students in many cases dealing with those issues.
Speaking of academic speech, did you note that the Pennsylvania legislature recently passed a law requiring college professors to present balanced political views?
Sure. They claim to have received 50 complaints about politics in academia in the state system. So, it’s a crisis. They probably received many more complaints about a dangerous intersection.
What are some of the memorable cases you’ve handled?
The largest financially, and among the most memorable, was a medical malpractice case involving a catastrophic injury sustained during delivery of a baby. The settlement was seven figures. I remain in touch with the family, lifelong Centre County residents, on a constant basis, and they tell me routinely that they could never have raised their child without the settlement. It was not money that went into their pockets, it was money that funded a handicap-accessible van, nurses, and the installation of bathing, nursing and others facilities in the home. The money is overseen by a trust officer who must determine that each expenditure is medically necessary. I have talked to the family about the possibility of testifying against award caps in the state. The $250,000 award cap in Texas, for example, would have funded this child’s needs for about a year.
I also represented Julian Heicklen, Penn State professor emeritus of physics, who staged marijuana smoke-ins outside the Allen Street gates to protest the criminalization of the plant. On one occasion, he was arrested for disorderly conduct on the basis of using a bullhorn to give the speech. But others commonly used bullhorns at the same spot without incident. It was clearly permissible. The difference is that a store owner complained about Julian. But it then becomes the duty of the police to say, ‘sorry, we can’t selectively enforce the statue simply because you don’t like this guy’s message.’ The case was settled.
What are your views on the local drug laws?
I think that is a great shame in this area, how kids are set up and arrested and faced with decisions that will essentially change their lives in dramatic fashion. For instance, a very typical situation at Penn State is that a small time dealer will get busted for either smoking or selling marijuana to his friend. That little guy is then approached by the police who say, ‘look, if you set up your friends, we’ll help you.’ What often happens is that these kids are then asking the people that they sold to to sell to them, and then the police are busting those people. So instead of going up the chain, these setups are going laterally or down the chain.
The penalties are incredibly severe: two to four years in prison for a first sale of marijuana if it occurs in a school zone. Virtually every part of State College is a school zone. This is because the statue incorporates colleges and the property owned buy colleges. So a thousand feet from the 18th whole of the Penn State golf course is a two-to four-year sentence. A thousand and one feet typically is a probation sentence. Even the standard plea bargains are for felony charges and jail time. And the police go out of their way to set up the busts within the school-zone limits. Kids are terrified of these penalties, rightfully so, and, as a result, they agree to work as confidential informants and bust their friends. These kids are driven to the point of recklessness to get reduced sentences by setting their friends up. At some point somebody is going to be killed. In fact, I was involved in a case last year in which violent threats were made against an informant. What are we as citizens getting out of this? Busing little guys for selling pot is not making this a safer community. Giving these kids felonies they’ll have to deal with for the rest of their lives is not making them any more able to redeem themselves. These kids selling small amounts of marijuana are incarcerated for periods of time which are much longer than those served by people driving under the influence of alcohol or committing domestic violence.
Have you gotten any new clients from the recent drug bust?
I don’t’ know so much about that one. It is too early for me to have gotten any cases yet. But I have been intimately involved with past busts, and I can say that the pattern has been that they are busting kids for selling amazingly small amounts of marijuana. My practice is statewide, so I get involved in cases from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, and I have never seen a county with uniform mandatory-minimum jail sentences like this.
How do you defend DUI charges in Centre County?
We defend most cases by arguing that the police did not have sufficient probable cause to stop the vehicle. We also look to whether there was a failure to read the accused his or her Miranda rights.
At what point must those be read?
At any point at which you are in custody and being interrogated. Typically what they’ll do is put you under arrest once they have probable cause and place you in the back of a police car without saying anything to you. They hope that you will blurt something out, because that information could be used against you. If they were to ask you a question at that point, it could be thrown out. It is worth considering that the police can use any information provide prior to the actual arrest. So remember that, as an American citizen, you have no obligation to speak to the police in that kind of interrogational setting. The best thing to do is to be very cooperative but say ‘I’d rather not speak with you right now. If you’d like, I can call you next week, after I speak with my attorney.’ Engaging in a casual back and forth with officers in a DUI situation can often lead to misunderstandings later. In all of my years of practice. I cannot tell you one scenario where it was a good idea to answer a police officer’s questions in a DUI situation before talking to your attorney. People tend to believe inappropriately that the police are on their side. A good police officer will appear to be very objective, but he or she is also trying to build as strong a case as possible.