by | Mar 11, 1990 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

I got a letter the other day. Well written. Told a story. Man is arrested in Canada. Has marijuana in his car. It’s a large amount, and he is convicted. Trafficking narcotics. First offense. Does six months in prison, six months in a halfway house, and two years on parole.

The arrest was nine years ago. He’s been clean ever since. Works for GM, in Windsor, on the assembly line. Oh, it’s not his dream job. His dream was to be a sound man for arenas like Joe Louis and the Silverdome, but he had to give it up as part of his parole. “The music world is too risky,” he was told.

So why is he writing me? Because last year, on Mother’s Day, he’s coming across the tunnel from Windsor, he’s got his girlfriend and her mother in the car, and an officer stops him and says he’s not allowed to enter the U.S. He’s a convicted criminal.

What? He’d been going across for two years. Nobody stopped him before. Didn’t matter. He was given a hearing date, and four months later he sat in a room, with an immigration officer and a telephone speaker box, over which a judge in Chicago asked two questions: 1) What is your name? 2) Have you ever been convicted of a drug offense?

He answered both honestly, and the voice in the box said, “You’re excluded,” meaning: you can’t come into America. Case closed.

The whole thing took five minutes. Later that day, another man came in for a hearing.

His name was Bob Probert. And justice for all?

Well, by now you can probably figure why this man is writing me. He has stacks of recommendations saying he’s a decent, hard-working guy, he has no criminal associations, he’s paid his price. All he wants is to be able to travel in and out of the U.S., to study and train for job advancement with GM, and to visit friends and family. Last year his aunt died, and he couldn’t even attend her funeral. “Why?” he asks himself. One crime. Nine years ago.

And then he picks up the newspaper and sees where Probert, whose arrest record is significantly longer, and who was caught at the border a year ago with 13 grams of cocaine in his underwear, is back on the scene after just three months in a prison/rehab center. He got a short-term work permit and an OK by the NHL to resume his career as a hockey player.

“It just makes me so mad,” says the man. “There are two sets of rules. One for the rich and famous and one for everybody else.”

Many speak sadly of the Bob Probert saga. But if you ask me, this may be the saddest consequence of all: People stop believing in equal justice. They see Probert arrested over and over, helped out, taken care of, propped back up and given skates and another chance. “What did we expect?” they say, shrugging. “Those guys got the money, and we’re nobodies.”

That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. On the outside looking in

Now it is not for me to decide whether Probert’s crimes were justly punished. That’s what the courts are for. And lawyers will be quick to point out that his case is still pending. His deportation has been ordered, but appealed. The work permits are only temporary successes.

So these two cases are not exactly alike. Then again, no two cases are. And the beauty of lawyers is that they can turn that fact into legal spaghetti, with enough wraps and twists to stay in court for years.

In the meantime, what message is sent to the average Joe? He doesn’t understand all the legal mumbo jumbo. He doesn’t know from appeals and waivers. He just sees Probert, a guy with a history of alcohol and drug arrests, a guy who was led away in handcuffs at the border just one year ago, now already finished with prison and cleared to skate in the NHL — and draw a paycheck.

The average Joe looks in the mirror and says, “Would that happen for me? Could I afford three lawyers working on my case? Would my employer be that patient?”

The answer is no way.

And it hurts. Every Probert and Dwight Gooden and Zsa Zsa Gabor rubs a little more salt in the wound, it boils the resentment between the classes. One should not be penalized for being ordinary. But let’s face it; with an army of expensive lawyers, your chances in court are better. Our legal system is like a maze of underground tunnels, where the privileged have a map and flashlight and others are left to grope in the dark.

This is the silent backlash of the Probert case. And today, over in Windsor, a guy who made one bad mistake nine years ago looks across the river at Joe Louis Arena and knows he can’t go there, and knows Probert is skating inside.

Doesn’t seem fair. But then, I’m not sure where fair enters into it anymore.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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