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."

"People are becoming felons for minuscule amounts of cocaine," Kitson continued, citing Scott-Heron's situation as only one of many questionable searches and arrests that bring tough sentences under the Rockefeller Drug Laws.


Kitson faced another, unexpected force in court, Scott-Heron's ex-girlfriend Monique de Latour, 37, who now teaches art to kids in Harlem. The day of Scott-Heron's last hearing, de Latour made calls to the D.A. and faxed a private letter to Judge Berkman, alleging intimate details of Scott-Heron's drug addiction, and begged the judge not to send him to prison. "I have heard drugs are easy to get in jail," she wrote in the letter, obtained by the Voice. "If he could be put in a drug program in a place where he cannot leave for at least a year or more, this may save his life." She also stated that Scott-Heron "spends around $2000 a week on cocaine, he does not have a home, he's been living in a crack house for a year," and owes $20,000 for his mother's funeral.

The two met in Australia, and four years ago she flew to New York with her two children to move in with him."We were soul mates," she said, "when he was sober." They lived together until the fall of 1999, when she filed a restraining order and sued Scott-Heron for throwing a drafting table at her, bruising her hand. He plead guilty.

De Latour told the Voice she didn't want to get involved in this case. "But if you had seen what I saw," she said, openly describing a time when she gave Scott-Heron mouth-to-mouth resuscitation because he stopped breathing. She also described coming home to find Scott-Heron "buck naked with a bunch of $2 crack whores," and fits of paranoia, such as when he thought the lightbulbs in the apartment were spying on him and took them all out. "Gil won't admit to having a problem," she said. "But he needs help, before it's too late."

Scott-Heron told the Voice that he hasn't seen de Latour in 18 months and that her comments are outdated and untrue. "She'd have to be one of those ladies reading Tarot cards," he said. "But be careful the way she deals."

He also thought Judge Berkman would have made a different decision if he was given a chance to defend himself, and when he returns from Europe he will try to balance the judge's opinion before his sentencing date in September. He's not addicted to cocaine, he said, and too poor to afford it. When asked if he felt, upon arrest, that his privacy rights were being violated, Scott-Heron said, "I always feel like my privacy rights are being violated."

Click here to read Geoffrey Gray's interview with Gil Scott-Heron.

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