Not A Word
8 weeks ago I was pulled over, arrested and spent the night in jail. I lost time, money and sleep over a minor driving infraction. But what I gained was incomparable to the ordeal itself.
I had just had a pretty good set on Shalewa Sharpe’s show, Wilson, in Bushwick. Two young people asked for my info afterward. They said that they were “instant fans.” All the comics were great and it was a ton of fun. I was riding a wave of confidence as it had been a minute since I had a good set.
I walked to my car after the show. I opened the door and looked at the floor of the back seat. There was an old marijuana pipe I thought was thrown out, laying in the back. I didn’t have any other shows, had a great set and was already blasting Kanye in my head. I just celebrated 30 days of sobriety. Why not celebrate and take a drag of resin like a grown man in his late 30’s?
I sat in the car for a couple minutes, coughing my lungs out. I took another drag and then started to drive. I attempted to navigate Bushwick to Flatbush by memory. A stupid idea when you just took hits of pot. Needless to say, I got lost.
I ended up finding my bearing and started towards Eastern Parkway. I got behind a car at a stop sign and, stupidly, decided to take another hit.
The car I was behind had turned right and a cop car was in front of it, now I am trailing the cop car. As I inhaled the smoke the cop car made a hard right, pulled over and let me drive by. I held in the smoke as I passed the officers and exhaled right as they got behind me and turned on their lights and sirens.
Here I was, 37 years old, and about to be pulled over for smoking pot.
I thought my life was over. How would I explain this to my fiance? My parents? Whatever money I had saved up for my wedding was going to be used for bail or for finding a new place after my fiance kicked me out. I was terrified.
Two cops approached my car, one black (the senior officer) and the other white. I had already rolled down both windows when I was pulling over to air out the car. I set the pipe underneath my seat. As they walked up, the senior officer shined his light inside the car and asked where I had been? Had I been drinking? Do you know why we pulled you over?
A comedy show. No. No.
“You have a headlight out” muttered the senior officer. “We have to pull people over for stuff like that. You know this is a bad neighborhood, right? We have to try and get people for this stuff because usually they are committing crimes. I need your license and registration.”
Yes, sir. Sure thing. Totally understand.
“Is there anything I should know about before we run your license?”
Not that I am aware of, no.
They both walk back to the vehicle. No one mentioned anything about the smell of pot. I stuffed the pipe securely under the seat in a more concealed spot, wedged in between some cushions so it wouldn’t move unless they found it. I figured if they searched the car at this point then I was screwed anyways but I might as well make an effort. These guys are cops. This is what they do.
I have been arrested before – and up until now – it was as a kid or young guy. I knew to keep my hands on the wheel when being pulled over and to comply.
They approached again.
“Sir….we would have let you go but it seems here that you have a warrant for your arrest.”
I forgot. I had an unpaid $25 ticket from two years ago. The officer filled out the ticket wrong and I could never figure out how to pay it properly. I forgot about it, because it was just a $25 ticket and it would never come back to haunt me.
I was wrong.
“Sir, we are going to need you to step out of the car. We have to take you in.”
I thought this was definitely it. The junior officer placed me in cuffs. He noticed how tight they were so he gave me a second pair to bridge them because of my Shrek-like back. The senior officer flashed his light inside the car. He looked at the can of Coke I had in the center console and asked if it was just Coke. He leaned in further and shined his light around. Still didn’t say anything about the pot.
I was standing back at the police cruiser with the junior officer. He was a pretty nice guy. Brooklyn born. While he was searching me he grabbed my key chain and saw my dog tags that I keep on my key ring — the only constant reminder I keep that I served. He looked at me and asked “Why didn’t you tell me you were a veteran?!”
He kept telling me that he was “sorry to have to do this but once they start the process, they cannot stop it.” He said that once they called in an arrest they have to go through with it. They ran my license. I had a warrant. They were just following the system and “doing their jobs.”
I started panicking about having the car towed and impounded. My fiance and I had that done a couple times in NYC and that alone is a $400 process. I tired to plead with the officers a little. You guys are married, right? You know this will get me killed? How about a little leniency? For once, my crowd work wasn’t working.
The junior officer was in training. The senior officer had to remind him to keep his arm on me at all times, even though I was handcuffed and pulled over for a headlight out. The JO said that I was a cool guy and being compliant. The SO didn’t care. Keep your hands on him, he said.
I told them both that if they wanted to use me for a training example then please feel free. If they really wanted to endear themselves to the community then they could take a couple shots at me in public. Anything in exchange for freedom.
The junior officer laughed. The senior officer furrowed his brow at him and the JO stopped laughing immediately.
They told me that they would take me and my car to the precinct where I would be charged, the car would be held and I could call my fiance to let her know I would be processed.
I was placed into the back of the cop car. I was never read my Miranda rights. Is that still the law they have to do that? I don’t even know anymore. The senior officer drove me to the 73rd Precinct on East New York Ave. The junior officer put on surgical gloves, got in the driver seat and took my car over. There is no way that cop got in that car and didn’t smell the pot. I was a nervous wreck in the backseat of that car.
We arrived at the precinct at different times. I was lead into the station and never released from my handcuffs until I was patted down and searched for a 2nd time. The junior officer hadn’t returned yet with my car keys so I have no idea where my car is. I am certain that it is being searched.
They told me that I was being charged for the outstanding warrant and I would see a judge. I figured this was going to be just like Night Court and that Marsha Warfield and Harry Anderson would be letting me go around 2AM. This was not the case.
I had to be formally charged, processed downtown and go before a judge. Until then, I was placed into holding. After all of this then they told me that I would be exonerated of the tickets for having served time in the city jail over night.
I was the only white guy in holding. The junior officer apologized again and waved me off when I started to remove my belt like the other guys. Unlike the other guys, I was allowed to keep that and my shoe laces.
I wasn’t bothered by being in holding. My father was a criminal. I saw him in jails and halfway houses his whole life. When I was a senior, Public School sent me to “Scared Straight” wherein they take dumb, screw-up kids and take them to jail to show them how much prison sucks. More than a few kids I grew up with have gone, or are in, prison. Some for murder. I am familiar with jail — although I wish I weren’t.
As the night progressed, more and more guys started showing up in holding. All young, black men. And all of them seemingly already knew how this process worked.
More arrestees were brought in. By 1AM, I had left a voicemail for my fiance telling her that I had been arrested but I should be out by the morning and to not worry when she woke and I wasn’t there.
I was then brought before the booking officer. I was charged with having a headlight out and an unpaid ticket and I had paperwork to sign. That was it.
Again, no word about the pot.
I had to get a mug shot and finger prints taken before being shipped downtown. The junior officer took me out of holding, gave me a sandwich (which they did give to everyone else) and started the booking process. They didn’t even cuff me for this part, like they did everyone else.
As he was gathering my finger prints he said to me “Hey man, why didn’t you tell me that you were a veteran? We would have just let all of this slide and you could’ve gone home.”
Why was that an option? Didn’t I commit a crime? One that you would normally arrest any other citizen for? Just because I “served” my country for five years doesn’t give me exclusive rights that make me a better person or exonerated from the law. I firmly believe that, even if other people disagree.
I would be transported to the downtown Brooklyn jail for processing and trial. Until then, I had to wait.
Another young black man was brought into the holding cell. He told me that he had just gotten out of Rikers but that the cops were “always on the lookout for him. They hate me for some reason.” He told me about how he was picked up for robbing a lady but swore up and down that she was just a “crazy bitch” who lied to the cops and was “being fucked over.” He asked me for advice on what to do. I told him what I thought he should be doing, under the laws as I understood them. He just kinda laughed. I honestly couldn’t tell you if the guy did it or not. I just knew he was calculating how to work the system.
As the night wore on and more men were brought into the station, it became increasingly apparent that this was a way of life for these guys. A surprising number of them had known the cops who had arrested them.
By 3:30AM I was being lead out to the transport van to central booking. There were 6 of us who were all handcuffed together, like a chain gang. We all had to situate ourselves in a van while simultaneously remaining handcuffed to one another. It was jailhouse Twister.
We were all lead into central booking. We all had to be searched yet again, finger printed and another mug shot be taken. All the various precincts were delivering their arrestees to downtown. By about 5-6AM, there were easily 50-75 of us in holding. Aside from the scuzzy, hipster that had too much to drink, I was the only white guy still.
As all these guys were being brought in, I was astonished to see how many of them knew each other. They high fived, dapped and gave hugs. Some of them talked about being brought in on guns and kidnapping. They laughed about it. One guy said “5 years in Rikers makes no difference to me.”
It was so sad to hear that. To think that life between the outside world and prison was so indistinguishable for them. Listening to a night of these conversations, you get the idea that is how many of them felt.
By 7AM we were all in a main holding cell, waiting to talk to public defenders about our crimes. At this point a lot of the guys were having a debate about who would win the next NBA championship. It sounded like a conversation I can have with my neighbor Carl. It still sounded normal — even in jail.
The young guy who was asking me about what to do for his case got the first call to see a judge. If you were gone longer than 5 minutes for your hearing, you were fucked. He was gone 15 before coming back and telling everyone that he was charged with robbery. His bail was set at $5000 but he only had to post 10% of it. He said he didn’t have $500 but hoped his girl would float him. If not, he would probably have to go back to Rikers for 3 months as a result of it. He was hoping to get out earlier for being a good prisoner.
I would have lost it. I can handle a night in jail. Or even a couple, probably. It wasn’t much different from being in boot camp. But to be gone for that much time? I would’ve been beside myself.
Not this guy. He just stared ahead. Dead to the world, before arguing the merits of Steph Curry versus LeBron James with the other guys.
My public defender just told me to plead guilty. I would get credit for time served and the judge would tell me to keep my nose clean for 6 months or else I would get a fine next time. That is exactly what happened and I was released.
By this point, it was 10AM and I had to hail a taxi to get back to the 73rd precinct to get my belongings and car, then head to work. I had to convince a cop to please come back from lunch a couple minutes early to get the stuff that they took from me. He was really pissed and let me know it.
My fiance was very upset that this whole ordeal happened to me — sympathetic really. I even got a letter from a law firm who wanted to represent me and sue the city for “an arrest of excessive nature.” In all reality, they were probably ambulance chasers.
I declined. I was totally in the wrong and for once, I felt like the police had done their jobs. In fact, if anything, they hadn’t done them properly. I either had the dumbest cops in the world or the most generous. Neither scenario was up to the public standard.
I was told by some people familiar with the the law that the cops driving my car to a precinct was highly irregular and more than likely a favor they did for me, for whatever reason. Furthermore, they turned a blind eye to the obvious law that I was breaking and even insinuated special treatment because of my veteran status.
When I was 16 I was justly pulled over for reckless operation but then unjustly threatened by a cop wherein he pulled his baton on me and intimated he would beat me with it. When I was 19 I was pulled over at my friends dad’s warehouse because it looked like we were completing a drug deal when really I was just dropping him off at his place of work. When the cop couldn’t find drugs after an illegal search, he arrested me for having a broken grill on the front end of my car. That cop had never told me why he pulled me over until he couldn’t find drugs. This past year I witnessed a cop punch a guy in front of my laundromat and arrest him for nothing and, after reporting it to my local precinct, nothing came of it.
I have had a shaky opinion and relationship with cops for quite some time. I might have a bias — even despite having a couple really great cops in my family. But then again, I am the black sheep.
But all of this just begs the question: What if I were black? Would I have been treated the same way?
I honestly don’t think so. I think that I would have become another member of the system that these other guys were accustomed to. Maybe then my life wouldn’t be as distinguishable from prison and freedom either.
After I got my keys to the car and my stuff back, I called my fiance and walked over to the car. She felt so bad for me. I still didn’t think that she should.
As I opened the door, I looked down and saw the pipe — situated right next to the gas pedal on the floor for anyone to see, 3 feet from where I had wedged it earlier.
Still no one said anything.