In the wake of the recent New York Times article about my review of Alice Goffman’s On the Run, I received a sternly disapproving email from a world-famous social scientist. “I’m surprised,” it went, “that you didn’t respond to Goffman’s remarks about the apparent misstatements you made about a number of things, including points of law, and matters of fact . . . . She made substantial points that require substantial answers.” The same person also posted a comment to the Times article, saying “Lubet answered her charges very selectively and he owes the world better than that."
My irate correspondent has asked to be identified only by initials, but I will not even do that, as initials alone would spill the beans. Still, when challenged by someone of such academic stature and international standing (and I am not being sarcastic here), I feel compelled to set the record straight.
I made no misstatements of law or fact in my review of On the Run, and Goffman's assertions to the contrary are all baseless. I did limit my published reply to the most important aspect of her statement – most importantly, that she completely revised the story of her late-night vendetta ride – because that further undermines the reliability of many other episodes in the book. Here are my additional replies to Goffman’s claims.
Let’s begin with the story of Tim, upon which Goffman places great weight. She tells it not only in On the Run, but also as a central vignette in her lectures. In brief, Goffman claims that Tim, at age eleven, was arrested, prosecuted, convicted of receiving stolen property, and placed on three years of probation, merely for riding as a passenger in a stolen car. And let’s be clear – Goffman presents this scenario as fact, not merely as Tim’s own account.
I was doubtful. I contacted two former Philadelphia public defenders and a current prosecutor, all of whom were equally skeptical (actually, much more than skeptical) of the story. As I said in my review, I don’t know what really happened to Tim, but neither does Goffman. Conviction and three years of probation, however, was all but impossible under the facts as Goffman presented them.
In her response, however, Goffman doubles down. She quotes the website of a Pittsburgh lawyer whose adult client (not an eleven year old) had indeed been arrested for riding in a stolen car. But Goffman’s account ends there. She does not reveal – as is plainly explained on the website – that the prosecution dismissed the charge. Unlike the story of Tim, there was no conviction and no probation – although you would never know that if Goffman were your only source.
It gets worse. In her next paragraph, Goffman claims that “the courts have upheld these kinds of charges,” citing Sanders v. City of Philadelphia, 209 F. Supp. 2d 439. I invite everyone to read the case, which involved an adult defendant who was charged not with receiving stolen property, but with drug and gun possession. Most important, however, is the fact – unmentioned by Goffman – that the criminal charges were “dismissed as the Court of Common Pleas held that [the officer] lacked probable cause to arrest Sanders.” This appears in the very first paragraph of the opinion. This again demonstrates Goffman’s exceptionally loose regard for accuracy.
In addition, Goffman completely mischaracterized my skepticism of her account of police activity at Philadelphia hospitals. In On the Run, Goffman stated, “it is standard practice in the hospitals serving the Black community for police to run the names of visitors or patients while they are waiting around (emphasis added).” I pointed out that disclosing patient lists in these circumstances would violate HIPAA. In her response, however, Goffman ignored her own text, and my specific critique, saying only that “HIPAA protects patients, not visitors (emphasis original),” as though that had not been precisely my point.
In other words, Goffman is able to avoid my critique only by rewriting her own account – just as she did with the drive-along incident.
She also says that police often violate the law in making arrests, which of course is true and undeniable. But it is also irrelevant. The question here is whether major Philadelphia hospitals routinely disclose patient lists to cops who are “waiting around.” Has any cop ever peeked at a patient record? Sure. But let me repeat the point: the improbability in On the Run is about the “standard practice” of hospitals, not the occasional curiosity of cops. I don’t think that Goffman’s claim in that regard is credible, and no one else has ever asserted that hospitals conduct themselves in that manner.
My next post will address the extraordinary veil of secrecy that has been drawn across Goffman’s work.