Students turn to Ekstrand, Duke Law alum, for defense and counsel
By Will Robinson and Emmeline Zhao
When students find themselves in legal peril with the Durham Police Department and at odds with the University, they often turn to a local attorney who has gained a reputation as a student defender.
Bob Ekstrand, Law ’98, founded Durham law firm Ekstrand & Ekstrand with his wife Samantha, Law ’01, and offers services ranging from merely giving advice to students to filing a lawsuit on their behalf. He has worked with students on a number of high-profile cases over the last few years, including cases involving conflict between DPD and students.
Ekstrand said he believes there is an emerging pattern of abuse by DPD against students.
“We care about the school dearly, so when we see bad things happening to students we take it very seriously,” Ekstrand said of his law firm. “There is no question that it has been a tough few years for Duke students in the sense that I think it is very unusual for any Duke students to go out with their friends and not run a very high risk of having an encounter with law enforcement-whether they engaged in criminal activity or not.”
Currently serving as a lecturing fellow at the School of Law, Ekstrand said his long-time ties to the University have attracted him to the opportunity to advocate for its students.
“We are all Dukies here, we have a personal affinity for students-we were all once there before,” he said. “But what we saw happening beginning a few years ago was frightening and troubling to me.”
On Feb. 27, Eric Halperin, Trinity ’08, answered the door of his 1026 W. Trinity Ave. home to sign for a DHL delivery package that, unknown to him, contained 27 pounds of marijuana. DPD officers believed the package was ordered by Halperin and entered the house to perform a search for drug paraphernalia.
“What I understood happened was that the raid happened and there was an overwhelming show of force, it was a SWAT-style complete with black outfits and guns,” Ekstrand said.
Around 6 p.m. that evening, after Halperin had been detained, the other residents of the house paid a visit to the lawyer’s firm. Additionally, one of the residents called his mother for advice soon after the raid, Ekstrand said. The mother sought advice on the Internet blog Liestoppers, a Web site created in response to the 2006 lacrosse case, where bloggers referred her to Ekstrand.
Matt Goldman, Trinity ’08 and another resident of the house, said he knew before the incident that Ekstrand had a reputation as one of the top legal counsels available to Duke students. Goldman said he was impressed with Ekstrand’s ability to relate to the students in the aftermath of the police raid as if they were his own children.
“He kind of gets the feeling that [DPD] is not always thorough in their investigations,” Goldman said. “He knew right away that we were innocent.”
Ekstrand said his law firm works to help students who are more interested in vindicating their innocence than simply having their charges dropped by enrolling in a first-offender’s program.
“When you enter into a first-offender’s program your case gets dismissed when you do the community service,” he said. “We look for ways to raise the issue, to move to suppress the evidence that was obtained illegally, to try a case on its merits. It takes a whole lot more work than signing someone up for a first offender’s program, but we found it was more important to litigate the case and demonstrate their innocence.”
All drug-related charges against Halperin were eventually dropped, and a month later all of the residents of the house were cleared from wrongdoing. The experience was the latest in a series of legal episodes in which Ekstrand has provided legal advice to students.
In 2005, Ekstrand represented some of the nearly 75 students who were cited by Alcohol Law Enforcement agents early in the school year.
Ekstrand also represented several members of the 2005-2006 men’s lacrosse team. In December 2007, he filed a lawsuit on behalf of three unindicted members of the lacrosse team against the University, the city of Durham and others. The lawsuit alleges that the pursuit of the charges against the three teammates not only wronged them, but also points to a wider pattern of mistreatment against Duke students. Durham attorney Bill Thomas, who represented Halperin as well as members of the 2005-2006 men’s lacrosse team, said he respects Ekstrand’s reputation and quality of work as a criminal defense lawyer after working with him on several cases.
Thomas added, however, that he has not noticed an increase in the number of Duke students arrested by DPD in recent years, noting that many are consistently arrested every year.
“I have been representing Duke students for 28 years now,” he said. “I can say that the Durham police can tend to arrest Duke students at a disproportionate number in relation to other schools and the flow of students into my office has been substantial.”
President Richard Brodhead and Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, declined to comment for this story. John Burness, former vice president for public affairs and government relations, could not be reached for comment.
Ekstrand said it is sometimes difficult to manage his respect for the University with cases that often bring him into conflict with Duke’s administration.
“I love the University and the University is only the students. Its land and its buildings are nothing without them.”