David Stringer’s False Arrest Drives Empathy For Those Trapped In Unjust System

Arizona State Rep. David Stringer (R-Prescott) with fellow criminal justice reform advocate Rep. Kirsten Engel (D-Tucson).

Back in 1983, David Stringer was 35 years old and well along in a promising career with the federal government.  He had already achieved the civil service rank of GS14 and was named a branch chief in the Office of Human Resources.

He had worked a full-time job while attending law school and had been admitted to the Washington, D.C ., bar in 1978. Stringer was planning on eventually opening his own law practice with a focus on tax law.

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He worked in D.C., but lived in Baltimore because it was much cheaper and he could use his extra income to buy and rent out apartments.  Suffice it to say that by the summer of 1983, life was pretty good for this financially independent 35-year old.

But one night in September, a knock in the night brought it all crashing down.  The police were at his door with a warrant to search his home and arrest him.  The charges were salacious – he was being accused of possession of pornography and patronizing prostitutes.

Stringer didn’t have pornography of any kind in his home and those charges were later dropped.  But two prostitutes who had been arrested earlier were offering up names in exchange for leniency from prosecutors, and one of the people they claimed was a client was David Stringer.

The claims were false, but the immediate effect on Stringer’s personal life was predictable.  Some friends disappeared or stopped answering their phones.  Others shied away.

The allegations also presented a threat to his career and financial future.  The fact that they were unfounded was beside the point.  He was an attorney, he had a top security clearance with the government, and a conviction would be career ending and personally ruinous.

Fortunately for Stringer, his hard work gave him the resources he needed to defend himself.  He pled not guilty and prepared to fight the case, and the case against him slowly crumbled.  On the day of the trial Stringer prepared to do battle, but one of the state’s witnesses failed to show up and the state offered Stringer a deal.

If he accepted Probation Before Judgment for two misdemeanors, which would not be a conviction, the state would dismiss the case and the matter would be expunged after the probationary period ended.  Stringer describes it as the hardest decision he has ever faced.

His attorney felt he had an 85-90% chance of winning the case outright, but that still meant that there was a 10-15% chance that a judge or jury would rule against him.  Lose, and life as he knew it would end.  No more government job, no more legal career, and a conviction for a crime he did not commit that would follow him wherever he went.

On the other hand, the state clearly wanted to end the matter that day, and taking the deal meant Stringer would be allowed to maintain his plea of not guilty, there would be no conviction on his record, and the matter would be expunged.  Weighing the litigation risk against a sure thing, he accepted the deal, completed his community service / probation, and the matter was later expunged.

That wasn’t the end of the matter, because as a member of the D.C. Bar he was subject to attorney discipline.  But the D.C. Bar reviewed the case and determined that his alleged conduct did not constitute an offense and dismissed the matter without any form of attorney discipline.

Stringer recognized that in spite of the outcome, the allegation had fatally compromised his career with the federal government and further advancement was unlikely, so at the end of 1984 Stringer left his government job and turned his full-time attention to his legal career.  Only instead of tax law, he had found his passion, and that was practicing criminal law.

For the next quarter century, Stringer practiced a lot of criminal law, and thanks to his real estate smarts and financial independence, he was able to sign up for court-appointed cases, often working for reduced fees or working pro bono (no cost to the clients).

Over the years he represented thousands of criminal defendants in the D.C. courts, including juvenile cases and serving as Guardian ad litem for wards of the state.  His clients represented the entire racial and ethnic spectrum of the population.  As Stringer points out, D.C. was always an international city, so he was able to defend the constitutional rights of clients of all races, creeds and colors.

The events of 1983 changed David Stringer’s life, but he recognizes that while they hurt him in some ways, they also opened his eyes and his heart to a world and a cause that he likely would not have paid attention to otherwise.  He has performed thousands of hours of pro bono legal work on behalf of those he believed to be wrongfully accused and each life he has saved or protected has given him rewards he considers immeasurable.

He says some close friends know his full story, although it is not something that he has ever publicized.  He came to us with the story because his higher profile (thanks to comments made regarding immigration) has made him a favorite target of the media, and at least one newspaper was trying to dig into his past in the hopes of sensationalizing his ancient history.  Questions he received from a reporter made it pretty obvious they were preparing a hatchet job on him.

Stringer points out that the matter also came up from time to time as a result of his law and CPA licenses.  In 1991 he was licensed to practice law in Maryland and in 1992 he was licensed as a CPA, also in Maryland.  In 2002, he was admitted to practice law in Arizona.  Those admissions required not just technical competence but police clearances and character and fitness investigations, which meant disclosing not just convictions, but arrests themselves.

He said that he has always fully complied with those requirements and is proud that since his first admission to practice law in 1978, over 40 years ago, he has maintained an unblemished record as an attorney.

In describing his story, Stringer said that “Every day of my working life I’ve been aware that my professional standing and ability to represent others is due to my good fortune in having been able to hire good attorneys of my own, and I know that I escaped the worst possible consequences of the criminal justice system only because I had the means to defend myself.  If I was poor in 1983 my life would likely have been ruined, and that is not justice.  Many people caught up in the justice system are not so lucky.  It is a big part of why I have devoted my career to helping them.”

For the last two years, Stringer has been a state representative in the Arizona Legislature.  Arizona has one of the toughest criminal codes in the United States.  We have the fourth highest incarceration rate in the country and we stigmatize a higher percentage of our citizens with felony convictions than any other state.  As a legislator, Stringer has made criminal justice reform his signature issue, and he has been targeted by many in his own Republican party as a result.

It is a safe bet that those who have targeted Stringer because of his outspokenness on criminal justice reform were unaware of the source of his passion.  No doubt they will have a much better understanding after reading this.  Stringer is happy that the United States Congress and President Trump have tackled Criminal Justice Reform and he thinks it is time for Arizona to do so as well.  It is unclear what kind of a role he will be allowed to have in the fight, but he swears “I will not stop fighting for this cause until we get this done.”