Gil Scott-Heron’s Rap

Probable Cause and a Poet’s Problems

On a rainy Sunday night last fall, Detective William Velasquez and Michael Pardo, two undercover cops from the Northern Manhattan Initiative, a special NYPD narcotics task force, were making 'observation arrests' from an unmarked, green Ford Windstar van. They were driving down Amsterdam Avenue, at about five miles an hour, when Velasquez saw 'an older black male, gray hair and beard, not dressed too well," walk up to a younger black man near the corner of 147th Street, chat for a few minutes, and "do a little handshake thing." Then the older man placed something in his pocket.

The object was shiny, the detective said, reflective, something that "looked like a piece of tinfoil." He saw no exchange of money, but said the packaging for most of the of cocaine sold on the street is tinfoil. Both officers approached the older man. They asked him what he was doing, where he was coming from. The man said he was coming from the bodega down the street.

"Did you do anything between that store and here?" Velasquez asked. "No," the man replied, and said he was going home. The detective asked if he had stopped and had a conversation with someone on the block. The man said nothing. "What do you have in your pocket?" Velasquez asked. Again, the man did not reply.

Gil Scott-Heron after a guilty plea to a felony charge of possession of a controlled substance
photo: Geoffrey Gray
Gil Scott-Heron after a guilty plea to a felony charge of possession of a controlled substance

Then Velasquez, acting on what he believed to be enough information to warrant probable cause, searched the man's pockets. He found 1.2 grams of powder cocaine and two crack pipes.

The "older black male" was recording artist Gil Scott-Heron.

You might know him as the man who warned us 30 years ago that "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." Dubbed the "God Pop to Hip-Hop," Scott-Heron was a no-nonsense poet-prodigy from the projects with a private school education. At 52, he is an author and musician with two novels, three books of poetry, and 20 recordings to his credit. He is an inspiring, stinging, and downright funny voice of political dissension. The 1971 poem "Pieces of a Man," rings eerily prophetic:"And now I hear the sound of sirens/Come knifing through the gloom/But they don't know what they're doing/They could hardly understand/That they're only arresting/Pieces of a man."

On July 2, after spending 10 days in the lower Manhattan jail known as the "Tombs," Scott-Heron pleaded guilty to a class (D) felony for possession of a controlled substance in Manhattan Criminal Court. Facing a maximum sentence of seven years in state prison, he reluctantly accepted a plea deal of 18 to 24 months of inpatient drug rehab, which State Supreme Court Justice Carol Berkman has postponed to accommodate a scheduled European music tour. Scott-Heron, now a felon, is expected to return from Europe for another court date on September 12. Scott-Heron promises to be there, and missing it would mean going straight to a state penitentiary from the airport gate.

A free man, for the moment, Scott-Heron stepped outside 100 Centre Street after his hearing recently, dug his fingers into a shirt pocket, and fished out a bent cigarette from a crushed pack of Kools. His mood was delirious. He's tall, six-three, with lanky limbs, and moves in gawky steps. The voluminous black hair that was once his trademark has thinned, and everything about him seems wrinkled—his shirt, his pants, his face. His back teeth are missing, noticeable only because of his ecstatic smile.

"It's no fun being in jail," he said. "No fun. There's some people that you believe shouldn't be there, and then there's some people that you believe should always be there. But my whole situation was that I needed to go on tour, and I got band members, people that hired us. . . . I said what I had to say, now I gotta go where I gotta go."

But Scott-Heron's case raises questions about how much information police officers need to establish a "probable cause" to search private citizens; how much protection citizens have under the Fourth Amendment when questioned by police officers; and whether special narcotics units, like the Northern Manhattan Initiative, practice racial profiling and violate equal protection clauses.

Scott-Heron told the Voice he wanted to plead not guilty. He thought the undercover cops who busted him had no probable cause or right to search him and violated his privacy rights.

"He wanted to fight the case," said Scott-Heron's lawyer, Robert Kitson, a public defender from the nonprofit Legal Aid Society who picked his case "right out of the bin." Scott-Heron could not afford an attorney. "The police stopping him, he thought, was outrageous," said Kitson. "But Gil couldn't sacrifice his entire life for a gram of cocaine."

Kitson, in a previous hearing, argued that spotting no exchange of money, only "a little handshake thing," could not objectively be called a drug deal, and seeing someone pocket an object as innocuous as tinfoil shouldn't always mean cocaine.

"It was racial profiling," he said, "a suspicionless stop. It happens all the time. In fact, the whole Northern Manhattan Initiative is racial profiling." False arrests and gathering poor evidence are nothing new to the NMI. In a 1999 study of low-quality arrests that often lead to dismissed cases, The New York Times found that in the two precincts covering Washington Heights, Inwood, and northern Harlem, prosecutors threw out twice as many cases in that period based on poor evidence compared to the rest of Manhattan. Nearly half those cases were made by the Northern Manhattan Initiative. "Everybody pleads guilty," Kitson said of these uptown arrests, "because they don't have enough money for a good defense. And rehab, it's an easy way out of a sentence."

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