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Black law student in Rhode Island says deputy mistook her for a defendant

In a viral TikTok video, a Roger Williams law student representing a client shares a courtroom experience that resounds from Texas to the United Kingdom.

Brooklyn Crockton, a third-year law student at the Roger Williams University School of Law.Handout

PROVIDENCE — A Black student at the Roger Williams University School of Law says a white sheriff’s deputy mistook her for a defendant when she tried to enter a courtroom to represent a client as part of the school’s criminal defense clinic.

Third-year law student Brooklyn Crockton posted a TikTok video about the experience soon after it happened last week, and now it has gone viral, with more than 341,000 views and more than 3,000 comments from people reporting similar situations everywhere from the United Kingdom to Texas.

Under what’s known as Rhode Island Supreme Court Rule 9, law students are allowed to represent indigent defendants in criminal cases in state District Court under the supervision of a licensed attorney on the RWU Law faculty.


On Thursday, Crockton lined up with other attorneys at the Garrahy Judicial Complex in Providence, preparing to enter a courtroom to represent a client in a misdemeanor case. But she said a sheriff’s deputy, who provides security for the court, placed “his body between me and the door” and asked her to step aside.

After allowing other attorneys to enter, the deputy asked her name and told her he didn’t see it on the docket. She said he asked her: “Are you sure you are in the right courtroom? Are you the defendant?”


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“I have never been so embarrassed in my entire life,” Crockton said in the video. “I felt like crying in that moment. The crazy part about it is you hear stories like this all the time with Black attorneys, but when it happens to you, it is so visceral that you don’t even know what to say.”

She said she was shocked because he had called for attorneys to enter and she had been second in line.

“I literally have all these binders and folders, and I’m dressed pretty nice — not to say that defendants don’t dress nice,” Crockton said on the video. “Why would you assume that I am a defendant? Um, I think we all know why.”


In a follow-up TikTok video, Crockton explained that after she told the deputy she was a student attorney, he allowed her in the courtroom and told her “Hey, sorry.” But she said, “There was no ounce of emotion in that ‘sorry.’ "


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Crockton said the deputy then approached her several times, explaining how court works.

“He acted like I had never once in my life stepped foot inside of a courtroom, [saying] this is where the judge sits and this is where you sit and when the judge asks you a question you are to stand up and address him,” she said. “I’m getting pretty weirded out and very anxious because every time he comes up to me he is saying something very patronizing and I want this experience to be done.”

District Court Judge Christopher Knox Smith, a RWU Law graduate who is one of the few Black state judges, then took the bench. “The judge comes out, who happens to be a Black man, I stand up and say I’m ready for my case,” she explained on the video.

Crockton said she then met up with Andrew Horwitz, her supervising attorney and a RWU law professor. “The sheriff comes over and talks to him and literally does not even look at me, does not even address me,” she said. “That was pretty much the end of that interaction.”


Horwitz, director of the criminal defense clinic and assistant dean for experiential education, said he learned about Crockton’s interaction with the deputy after leaving the courthouse.

“What it shows is that implicit bias is a very serious problem in this country,” Horwitz said. “It’s very hard to find a single attorney of color who has not had the experience of being confused for a defendant or a litigant. Sadly, we still live in a society where our preconceived notions of what an attorney should look like continue to exclude people of color and, to some degree, women.”

That problem is not unique to Rhode Island or to the District Court, he said. “This is a pervasive nationwide problem,” he said. And issues of implicit bias cut across different age groups, genders, and racial groups, he said.

“I don’t think there is a way to eliminate the kind of bias we all harbor,” Horwitz said. “But I do think we can and should engage in significant training so that people become more aware of those biases and develop strategies to avoid having those biases actively harming people.”

In response to Crockton’s experience, he said, “We are deeply engaged in discussions at the law school and with the court about what the appropriate response would be.”

Rhode Island courts spokesman Craig Berke said Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell is aware of the situation and has asked state court administrator Julie Hamil to look into it.


Gregory W. Bowman, dean of RWU Law, said, “We are going to work with the bar and the judiciary to help address this problem, which is all too common.”

On a regular basis, attorneys of color walk into the courtroom and are mistaken for defendants because of the color of their skin, Bowman said. “This is a pervasive problem that really must be addressed in all states and by all court systems and that law schools should take seriously,” he said.

Crockton is “an excellent student” with “a very bright future,” Bowman said. “Here you have a young woman who is dedicating her future to helping others by practicing law and she is pulled out of line and was humiliated by it,” he said.

In the fall, RWU Law became one of the few law schools in the country to require that students take classes about race and the law. And Crockton provided a statement at the time, calling the course “an absolute necessity” for everyone. “I think it’s going to make people very uncomfortable,” she said, “but I also think it’s important that we don’t shy away or back down from that challenge.”

Thursday’s TikTok video clearly struck a chord, as commenters related many similar experiences in various locations and professions:

  • “My brother is a lawyer and practices in Texas and that happens all the time.”
  • “This isn’t new. In the UK criminal lawyers wear a wig and robes. Black criminal lawyers still get ‘mistaken’ for defendants.”
  • “I hear you!! Stethoscope, white coat, but patients still think I’m the janitor. I clean the room just to embarrass them. Then treat them.”
  • “Same! I’ve had bailiffs ask if I’m the defendant’s mother (I represent teens) and I’ve had a judge look past me and ask where the lawyer is.”
  • “I feel this. The amount of times I was confused as my client’s interpreter (I’m Hispanic) and not her attorney is ridiculous.”
  • “Experiences like this as a Latina in immigration is what made me switch to corporate. It was constant. I’ve been followed into a bathroom by ICE.”

Many commenters also emphasized that the sheriff’s deputy should be embarrassed — not her.

In an interview, Crockton told the Globe she never expected the video to attract so much attention. She said she had 400 TikTok followers last week and now she has more than 4,600. “I think there are a lot of people who identify with my story,” she said.


Crockton said knowing she’s not alone has provided a sense of comfort. But also, she said, “It’s really sad that across professions people are experiencing things like this, whether they were racially profiled or mistaken for someone they were not.”

Crockton, 25, from Rochester, N.Y., said she is the first member of her immediate family to go to college, and she sometimes deals with “imposter syndrome,” feeling she doesn’t belong. So, she said, that is why her confidence took a hit when she was pulled out of line like that.

But she doesn’t want this episode to have a negative impact on the sheriff’s deputy or his family. Rather, she said, she simply wants “there to be a time when you see a person of color walking through the courthouse and you don’t assume they are a defendant, and even if they are, you treat them with respect.”

Crockton said that will require “considerable bias awareness training” but also greater diversity among the ranks of the lawyers and judges. She said she hopes to become a lawyer focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion compliance.

But Crockton has another goal. When she was in fifth grade, she wrote herself a note, wrapping it around a gavel-shaped pencil. When she was a senior in high school, she opened the note and was reminded: “My dream is to be a judge.”

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv.