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Think Before You Ink

Tattoos are a very common form of self-expression with people today. Tattoos can last a lifetime and can say a lot about who you are and your state of mind. They can be true works of art. But as a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, I can tell you that they can lead to serious trouble. I am not telling you not to get a tattoo, but I am telling you to think long and hard before deciding where to put it, what the symbol is, and what other people may think about you when they see it. It can affect you getting a job and it can impact any potential criminal case you have in the future.

Tattoos with Gang Connotations

In the criminal world many symbols, numbers, and words have gang connotations. Putting the symbol associated with a gang can cause big problems. First, when you are classifying at the jail, you may be identified as a member of that gang, housed with them, or placed in more restrictive housing. Second, other inmates or gang members can misinterpret your tattoos and target you as a rival gang member. Third, if the gang that uses that symbol finds out you are using that symbol (without authorization) they can attack you. I once had a case where gang members took box cutters to a guy in a pool hall who had their tattoo on his arm. When they were done, that tattoo was no longer recognizable and the guy was in the hospital.

Tattoos Are Admissible in Court

Your tattoos are admissible in court. As a prosecutor, I have often sent my investigator to go and photograph a defendant’s tattoos in jail. I have also successfully gotten court orders for tattoos to be photographed for admission in court. Most courts in Texas will admit photos of tattoos into evidence to show gang membership and to show the state of mind. In a recent case out of Dallas, the court held that a tattoo that said “187” which is the California penal code for murder was relevant and testimony about the meaning of that number was relevant to show the Defendant’s state of mind. See. Salazar v. State, 2011 WL 3770297 (Tex.App.-Dallas 2011).

I once prosecuted a young man who had a full back tattoo of a very similar looking person with a bandana covering his face holding a smoking double-barreled shotgun and had his last name printed on top. He was charged with sticking up two markets wearing a bandana mask and holding a double barreled shotgun which he would fire into the celling. Judge found the tattoo relevant (due to the similarities with the defendant’s conduct) and agreed to admit it into evidence. The defendant then changed his plea and received a long prison sentence. That tattoo made the case very easy to prove for the State.

Many people are getting tattoos done on their face or neck. This is always a bad idea. In a week long jury trial twelve people will be staring at your face all day. I have spoken to many juries after trials, and they do not like face or neck tattoos. I have heard on more than one occasion that they make the defendant look like a “monster” or a “criminal.”

That is not the idea you want to have a jury to have in their mind before they decide your fate. Juries are often older and more conservative than the general population.

My friend defended a case where a young man had the word “SATAN” tattooed in very large letters all around his bald head. The judge was starring disapprovingly of the young man prior to sentencing on an aggravated robbery charge. My friend turned to me and said “what do I do.” Jokingly, I told him “tell the Judge he tried to get a tattoo that read “SANTA” but that he was too stupid to spell it right.” The stern judge sentenced the young man to 20 years in prison. Without that tattoo I believe he would have gotten about 12-15 years. The message that Judge took from the tattoo was that the kid did not care about societal values and he was going to do whatever he wants no matter what anyone says about it. Well to the Judge that says I am going to rob people with a gun if I want, so the Judge put him away for an extra 5-8 years to give him less chance to do so.

People say that “you should not judge a book by it’s cover” but people do it all the time. You walk into a bookstore and may have limited time to choose a book, you look at the book's cover and maybe read the synopsis on the jacket and then make a decision. It is impossible to read the book prior to making a decision. That judge or jury is there to judge you and they have limited time to do so. Do not make it easy for them to dismiss you has an individual worthy of their trust by making your appearance fit negative stereotypes.

Before you get a tattoo think about the following:

What are the alternative meanings of the symbol, number, or object? Remember it is not what it means to you, it is what it means to everyone else that matters in court and on the street. Will a tattoo on my face or neck impact me getting a job or how I may appear to a jury? What does this tattoo say about me and my lifestyle? Is that a good thing? Is that something I am willing to take responsibility for?

If you are going to get a tattoo make it something powerful, artistic, something that creates a sense of pride. Make it something that will have a positive, not a negative, impact on your life. If you have further questions, feel free to speak with our San Antonio criminal defense attorney.

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