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"Misprision," or misapplication of the law? Woman in police shooting case is caught in the middle

Let's talk about this stretch of a charge against the woman police say was driving the car when two Tampa cops were killed during a traffic stop.

Community college student Cortnee Brantley, 22, is accused of what's called "misprision of a felony," a crime that would get a blank stare from many a learned lawyer.

Here is the fusty legalese: Whoever, having knowledge of the actual commission of a felony ... conceals and does not as soon as possible make known the same to some judge or other person in civil ... authority ... shall be fined ... or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

Translation: If you know someone committed a federal crime and you conceal it and don't report it, you are in trouble.

But does it apply?

Brantley is the sometime-girlfriend of Dontae Morris, the man charged with gunning down Tampa police Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab. Police say after the shots, he ran away and she drove off.

The slayings of two cops — men with families and futures — have understandably made this one highly charged, emotional case. The trick now is keeping things fair, even if to some people in the thick of it, fairness might seem a moot point.

While Morris was on the lam, investigators questioned Brantley for more than seven hours and then let her go. If prosecutors believed any state law fit what she did and did not do that night — accessory, fleeing and eluding — no doubt she would have gone to jail.

The fact that she did not call police may be terrible, even unforgivable. Is it criminal?

Morris surrendered and Brantley was arrested on the federal charge the same day. The criminal complaint against her says she knew Morris was a felon and knew he had ammunition that night.

Why ammunition, you ask? Why not charge her with knowing he had an actual gun?

Because according to court testimony this week, .38-caliber bullets like the ones used to kill the officers are not likely to be made in Florida. And bullets that crossed state lines mean "interstate commerce," which is part of a federal charge.

And yes, now that you mention it, federal court is an interesting place.

Brantley is accused of concealing the fact that a man she knew was a felon had bullets. A prosecutor said she did this in part by not giving police Morris' name during questioning.

She was not asked about bullets. Hmm.

But here's the big question on "misprision." If I'm somehow involved when a crime is committed, don't I have the right not to rat myself out for whatever part I played? Don't I have a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination?

Lawyer John Fitzgibbons, a former federal prosecutor, calls this misprision: You are present during a bank robbery and you help get rid of the robber's clothes afterward.

"There does not appear to be any state law that (Brantley) violated, so they've tried to bootstrap it into federal court by stretching a 200-year-old statute to try to fit the crime," he says. "Unfortunately, it seems to have more holes than Swiss cheese." Fitzgibbons is not much for word-mincing.

Since I have gone on about the imperiousness of federal court here, let me say it would have been easier and more popular for U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas McCoun to hold Brantley without bail.

Instead, he listened and asked questions and carefully crafted a release appropriate to the charge and circumstances, including an ankle monitor for Brantley.

Maybe, just maybe, that is a small sign that her case will ultimately be treated like any other, even if it isn't.

"Misprision," or misapplication of the law? Woman in police shooting case is caught in the middle 07/09/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 9, 2010 10:38pm]
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