Caught in the Act

Working Through the Criminal Justice System

It wasn't until they handcuffed her that Annie* realized that she was in real trouble. The undercover narcotics officer carefully sealed her dime bag in an envelope, and led her to the unmarked van.

The 22-year-old appeared before a judge in Manhattan Criminal Court 27 hours later. Within two minutes she pleaded guilty to possession and was sentenced to time served. With a final bang of the gavel, she was free to leave. Hungry and stiff from a sleepless night spent lying on the floor of a holding cell, Annie walked out the double doors with $11 in her pocket. Her house keys, along with most of her belongings, had been sent to the Queens Property Clerk's office.

In post-Giuliani New York, people can spend the night in jail awaiting arraignment for minor offenses despite the fact that the maximum penalty for quality-of-life violations or protest-related charges is usually a fine. If Annie had been caught smoking pot on the streets of New York seven years ago, the cop would have issued her a summons; she would have gotten off with a brief court appearance and a $100 fine. Offenses like public urination, drinking, disorderly conduct, and illegal drug use can be found on virtually every college campus. But now they can result in arrest. When the undercover officer put the cuffs on Annie, she asked why she wasn't just getting a ticket. He replied, "You can thank Mr. Giuliani for this.'"

Justice is not swift. The average time from arrest to arraignment is 21 hours. Arrestees wait in "the Tombs"—as the cells below the Manhattan Criminal Court at 100 Centre Street are aptly nicknamed. The cells are grim, fluorescent-lit, concrete rooms bordered by narrow wooden benches that make sleep impossible. "Women who were there longer staked out the benches," said Annie. "I made friends with this crack whore," she said. "We cuddled up on the floor under this long down jacket I had." At 5 a.m. the only decent food arrives: a small box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes and a carton of warm milk.


Meg Lowry, a slender activist with long brown-and-purple hair, was among the 87-plus people arrested at a February 3 World Economic Forum protest in the East Village. After spending more than 56 hours in police custody, she was released, just two hours before her 20th birthday. All the charges against her, which included parading without a permit, obstruction of government administration, and disorderly conduct, were later dismissed. Few of the protesters arrested that day received Desk Appearance Tickets (DATs), issued to people facing minor charges who have a valid ID and who have no outstanding warrants. Instead, Meg and the other protesters were sent to makeshift holding pens in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, or Schermerhorn—and finally to the Tombs to await arraignment.

Unfortunately for students and activists like Meg, close encounters with the New York justice system are increasingly difficult to avoid. But knowing your rights can help. Carry an ID at all times—it can mean the difference between a DAT and a night in the Tombs. If the police stop you on the street and you're not obviously engaged in any illegal activity, ask if you are free to go. Although the police have a right to frisk you, they don't have the right to search your bag, and don't consent to a search. You don't have to answer any questions or even tell the cops your name unless they suspect you of a crime. Never make a comment about a police officer's attitude. If you are arrested, keep your money, ID, and keys with you. Take quarters for the pay phone in the cell. If possible, leave your belongings behind with a friend so that they won't be sent to Queens.

Both Meg and Jeff*, a student at City University of New York, and an organizer of the upcoming People's Strike in Washington, D.C., said they were questioned by investigators. "They kept asking, 'Are you a Communist?' " said Meg.

"They wanted to know what groups I was with," said Jeff, who spent 24 hours in police custody after the WEF protest. "I told them, 'The Boy Scouts of America.' "

He offers a piece of advice to other students: "If you can take an arrest, make it count. Organize a blockade or an action. Get arrested on your terms." Not, as Meg said, "on theirs."


*Annie and Jeff are pseudonyms.

 
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