'The World is Not Equal'
Melaney LaGrone uses her police and prosecutor backgrounds to help criminal defense clients
Published in 2021 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on February 12, 2021
Updated on February 17, 2021
Being a lawyer was never a lifelong passion. In college, I majored in criminal justice studies, and when I graduated, I wanted to go to the U.S. Marshals but the marshals weren’t hiring. Because I attended University of Detroit, right in the heart of the city, I met a lot of police officers and they were like, “We’re hiring. Come on.” So I went straight out of the academy to “gang squad.”
They changed the name to “special enforcement section” because we ultimately did more than just deal with gangs. Basically it was plain-clothed officers in semi-marked vehicles. I worked almost six years there, then I went to narcotics.
I would never [become a police officer] now—the respect that police have for citizens and the respect citizens have for police has changed drastically—but back then I had a great experience being an officer. I just wanted something more. Basically, life happened. I got my master’s degree and did random jobs to figure out my next move.
I started law school after getting a divorce. I did criminal defense in Michigan for about two years, but all my family had migrated to Georgia and I decided to do the same. My concern was that Atlanta is saturated with really good criminal defense attorneys: Do I want to start over in a market where I don’t really know people? Because of my background, I knew I could get in at the Fulton County Prosecutor’s Office and do a great job. It just vibed.
But at the end of the day, I wanted to select the type of cases that I took. So I opened LaGrone Law in 2017.
As a criminal defense attorney with a background in policing, I can use that to my clients’ advantage. For instance, I know how they’re going to write their report or what they’re going to say to get the ultimate outcome they’re looking for. What comes to mind is getting into a vehicle. Police officers, when they write their reports, they say they smell marijuana and then start questioning the driver, trying to make him put his foot in his mouth in order to get in the car. It’s the same with a DUI: asking somebody if they’ve had something to drink, they say no, but then they keep asking and the person is like, “Oh, maybe I just had one glass of wine.” Well, that allows them to say, “Let me pull you out of the car and do these tests just to make sure that you’re safe to drive.”
I’ve seen the good and the bad [with the police], but my experience for the most part was very good. All the officers I worked with were top-notch. You have racism in any field—so, yes, I saw that. And yes, I did see profiling. At the end of the day I can look at both sides and say why certain things happen.
I know for a fact that the criminal justice system is one-sided. My fellow African Americans and brown men don’t get a fair shot, and they need somebody who knows the system to be able to go in there and give them that fair shot. I also do immigration work and there’s definitely overlap between the two.
The world is not equal, and I’m trying to make as much of an equal playing field as possible.
There is a lot of disparity in the system, and it is our Black and brown men that get treated differently. Small mistakes shouldn’t make you go to prison for a long period of time; being taken away from your family for something that’s minor isn’t right. Maybe he’s the breadwinner, and now you’ve taken him away from a wife, the kids, and now they’re struggling.
Where I am now is where I can help the most and make a difference, even though it’s hard and the system is the system. But if there’s even one person who didn’t go to prison because of me, then I’m good.