Mimesis Law
22 April 2021

Thomas Vitanovitz’s Lucky Intervention…To A Point

June 8, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Although most cops who get caught doing something illegal immediately make the best of a bad situation and keep their mouths shut, one dirty Philadelphia cop has decided to publicly declare that his arrest saved his life and explain what led up to it:

It was the summer of 2015, and Philadelphia Police Officer Thomas Vitanovitz was ashamed – and addicted.

Two shoulder surgeries from on-the-job injuries had led to a prescription for pain pills, and when it was time to stop taking them, he couldn’t.

“By the time I needed help, I was scared, extremely scared,” he said. “I was embarrassed and ashamed to be a cop that has a pill problem.”

Rock bottom for Vitanovitz may have been last year, but it was some very recent charges that led to him talking to the press about his situation:

In a telephone interview Monday, just hours after the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged him with attempted extortion – and a police spokesman confirmed he had been suspended for 30 days with the intent to dismiss – Vitanovitz, 31, shared his story of addiction, recovery, and gratitude.

“If this whole thing didn’t happen, who knows where I’d be,” he said of his arrest. “Even though I lost my job and I have a tough time ahead of me, they pretty much saved my life.”

Vitanovitz sounds like countless criminal defendants. He didn’t seek out illegal drugs, but rather became addicted to ones he was prescribed. On top of that, they were prescribed after an injury he supposedly received protecting and serving. Addiction stirs up enough sympathy on its own, but it’s more powerful when its roots are in public service and medical necessity. The old story of the underprivileged person turning to drugs to escape a hard life and personal trauma is so common that it’s nothing special these days. Vitanovitz’s story involves the sort of addiction ordinary people, ones who aren’t disadvantaged, can better understand.

Vitanovitz’s gratitude for being arrested is also something fairly common among criminal defendants who are sufficiently self-aware to realize they have a problem. For some people, it does take dramatic consequences to make them reexamine their lives and address their problems. An arrest is as close to dramatic as it gets.

An arrest is just a prelude to much more, however. While the arrest itself may be enough to make Vitanovitz get help for his problems and ultimately overcome them, the justice system isn’t designed to arrest someone and call it even if the person appears to be sufficiently straightened out.

Because of that, someone in Vitanovitz’s situation probably shouldn’t be talking to anyone about what happened, even if it does make him come off as a pretty decent guy who had some hard times. He did commit a crime, after all:

According to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, on July 21, Vitanovitz, a 10-year veteran assigned to the 24th District in North Philadelphia, took 50 pills that he believed to be a controlled substance from an unidentified drug dealer.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said she could not specify the type of pills that Vitanovitz is accused of taking, or the manner in which he allegedly obtained them.

Police spokesman Lt. John Stanford said the arrest resulted from an ongoing probe by a task force of investigators from the FBI and the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit that investigates police corruption.

Even though he may get special treatment because he’s a former cop with a sad story, Vitanovitz is probably not going to leave his criminal case with nothing more than hug from the prosecutor and judge, along with some new drug treatment and counseling resources. There’s likely to be some real punishment, though perhaps far less than many others suffer.

It’s as the criminal cases actually proceed that criminal defendants’ gratitude for the system’s intervention begins to turn into disgust with how it functions as seen from the receiving end. If the fact he was a cop doesn’t result in especially lenient treatment, he’ll probably end up with some fines despite the fact he’s unemployed and all but unemployable in the future.

He’ll maybe spend some time in the custody of the bureau of prisons too, and he won’t have an easy go of it. It’ll make his transition to a normal, sober life with a career in a new field far more difficult. Then, he may end up with all sorts of unnecessary terms of supervised release that make reintegration that much tougher.

If Vitanovitz gets off with essentially nothing, then the takeaway might be that there really are two different systems, one for cops and one for everyone else. It also might be that we should all try to emulate what cops do when they’re in trouble and listen to our lawyers. While a lawyer might not ordinarily be too happy with a client telling his story to the world, the situation with Vitanovitz might merit it:

“The night of [the arrest], I admitted to everything, I cooperated with everyone,” he said.

The next morning, he made some calls and checked himself into rehab for first responders, he said.

“I owned up to it. I had a problem and I asked for help,” he said.

Pinto said Vitanovitz will own up to the charges in federal court, too.

“He has taken full responsibility and will plead guilty,” Pinto said.

If you’ve got a dead bang loser of a case, which it seems Vitanovitz might have due to his cooperation with authorities prior to retaining counsel, sometimes the best approach is to emphasize acceptance of responsibility and remorse. Vitanovitz is probably scoring some serious points by continuing the consistent narrative of a good guy with an addiction who’s finally coming clean thanks to a criminal justice intervention. If he did preclude the possibility of him having any defense to the charges with his initial statement, now would certainly not be the time to go down swinging. It would seem that Vitanovitz met with his lawyer, told him what he already said, and then listened to his lawyer’s suggestion that they work as hard as possibility to reduce the consequences.

To achieve that, Vitanovitz seems to be saying the right things:

Though the deepest fear he had during his addiction – losing his “dream job” of being a policeman – occurred on Monday, Vitanovitz said, he was thankful for the arrest that led to his recovery. “I didn’t know how bad addiction can be,” he said. “They saved my life that night everything happened. . . . I’m nothing but grateful.”

It’s good that Vitanovitz is finally getting help. It’s good that he’s seeing his arrest as something for which he should be grateful if it has indeed led to necessary changes in his life. The problem is that, if he doesn’t now have to suffer needlessly because that’s what the system requires, then he’s a well-publicized but misleading example of everything turning out great.

Even if people learn from Vitanovitz that they should listen to their lawyers, an unlikely lesson given that the more obvious one seems to be the dangerously wrong idea that total cooperation and immediate acceptance of responsibility makes everything turn out just fine, it’s still not something that will help others as much as it might end up helping Vitanovitz. I bet few others charged with the same thing experience anything like what he gets, in fact. However, the general public will read the story and get a warm and fuzzy feeling about the criminal justice system.

If Vitanovitz does get hammered, it will send a more accurate message. That message is that the system punishes; it doesn’t just give people what they need. The message is also that, whatever you’ve suffered prior to the conclusion of your case, it’s almost never going to be enough unless it’s exactly what authorities have decided is right for you.

Although Vitanovitz will hopefully maintain his mitigating outlook, if he’s treated like everyone else, he’ll soon be wondering why the prosecutor and the court still want more from him. He probably won’t be so grateful then.

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