City on Trial
The date is August 5 and police have raided the Hells Angels' clubhouse in search of a stolen motorcycle. It's a Keystone Kop moment, brought to you live by the NYPD:
Cop with video camera: Are we clear to go upstairs yet? To video it upstairs?...Or do you want to wait until we get a warrant?
Detective Nicholas Cinalli: Yeah, because the search warrant's really for the first floor. So unless we get it revised, I don't think we should be up there, because it's going to show that we were up there searching.
Cameraman: OK, so you don't want a videotape?
Cinalli: Right. I don't want to videotape it. I mean, we went up there just to secure the premises.
Cameraman: I was just thinking for the future
Cameraman: Anything in the future you have to do here, it would be good to have a videotape.
Cinalli: Put it this way, if you want to do it, all right...put it on another tape or something.
Cameraman: Put it on a separate tape?
Cinalli: Keep it like that.
Cameraman: Are they getting a search warrant for the upstairs?
Cinalli: We're going to try to get it revised.
Cameraman: OK. That's what we'll do. We'll do a separate tape. We'll do it on a separate tape.
The video's clock shows this exchange took place at 9:49 p.m., and a few minutes later, the recording stops. (While the cops make their bootleg tape?) Filming resumes at 11:26long enough for someone to announce, "I think that's it, man." End of tape.
When detective Cinalli applied for a search warrant a week earlier, on July 31, he claimed the Angels were dangerous. "Because giving notice may endanger the life or safety of the executing officers or others, I request permission to enter the target premises without giving prior notice," Cinalli explained to the judge. "Based on information provided by the [Drug Enforcement Agency], this organization concentrates heavily on the production and distribution of illegal narcotics' [and] with this business of extensive drug trafficking, the Hells Angels have traditionally engaged in various types of criminal activity including robbery, burglary, vehicle theft, rape, assault and firearms violations."
The judge granted Cinalli a warrant to surprise the Hells Angels with a search of the ground floor, the location most likely to yield a stolen motorcycle.
But officers ignored that mandate.
And then forgot that the videotape was rolling and recorded themselves plotting to break the law.
And then forgot that they recorded themselves plotting to break the law and handed over the videotape to Hells Angels' attorney Ron Kuby.
Insisting that the tape is our window on the workings of the NYPD, Kuby is filing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the city, claiming that his clients' civil rights were casually violated.
It all began on that sweltering night back in August. The city's cops, ever-vigilant, responded to a complaint about a stolen motorcycle the way they typically react to news of vehicular theft: they called out 100 FBI agents and police officers, dispatched a helicopter, cordoned off several blocks of the Lower East Side, and stormed a buildingthe Hells Angels headquarters. All because a New Jersey biker, Dennis Jones, said the Angels had lifted his bike.
Eleven bikers were roused from their homes above the clubhouse. "My door was kicked open and the police came in with their assault rifles pointed at us, telling us to get down on the floor," says Steve Bonge, who was hanging out in his apartment with his girlfriend and a friend. Soon, all three were handcuffed, arrested, herded into a paddy wagon, and taken to the 9th Precinct, along with eight others. As one group of officers continued "securing the premises," another busted the storefront window of the adjacent building, Mother's Messengers. Since these neighbors occasionally accepted mail for the Angels, they were swept up in the search warrant, which permitted police to rifle through company files. ("When we came down here that night, they were sitting on our desks, using our phones like this was their command center," complains Stephen Athineos, owner of the messenger service. He's still waiting for a check from the NYPD to cover repairs for the broken window.)
Meanwhile, back inside the clubhouse, the cops began their search. Typically, they use a video camera to record the sequence of events and the location of any evidence they unearth. On this night, the cop operating the video camera got his instructions from a superior officer: "Tape whatever your little heart desires."
And so, it appears, he did.
The U.S. Attorney's office says only that it is "monitoring the state's proceedings." Detective Cinalli and the assistant D.A. who is prosecuting the case have refused to comment on it.
The Hells Angels' attorney has not. "This is just raw
intelligence-gathering," asserts Kuby. "And I suspect in this age of surveillance, in Rudy's New York, it's all too common." Noting that no drugs were found, not a single joint, Kuby insists the cops overreacted to a report of an unarmed robbery, using the occasion to compile information on and harass the Angels. Drugs were clearly high on the agenda, with the Times describing the raid as a "drug bust" and reporting that cops were "working on a tip that narcotics were being sold in the motorcycle club." (The bike club has long been a target of the law. In 1994, the government tried, unsuccessfully, to confiscate the East 3rd Street building, insisting that drugs were being manufactured and sold on the site. And as long ago as 1986, U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani and Senator Al D'Amato used the Angels as a symbol of the seedy underworld of drug dealers, dressing up in the gang's colors to stage an undercover crack buy for the press.)
Kuby's civil suit on behalf of the bikers charges, among other things, that they were falsely arrested and were the victims of an illegal search and seizure by the NYPD, who apparently combed their upstairs apartments in defiance of the warrant. The videotape certainly makes this a strong case.
Kuby is also representing the two Angels who were accused of stealing the bike in a criminal trial; here the case is far murkier. The biker from Jersey claims he had a beer with one of the Angels, then went to the clubhouse, where three Angels beat him up and stole his bike. And indeed, his helmet was found in the Angels' clubhouse along with a pair of unregistered guns.
The criminal case is on hold while attorneys wait for the police to produce the bootleg tape of the upstairs. But given the cops' own damning words, recently introduced in court, it's unlikely it'll ever come to trial. The civil suit, however, is just getting started.
Thanks to the tape, New Yorkers are privy to the consequences of police misconduct. One, arguably meritorious cases get dismissed. Two, jaded citizens have their worst fears confirmed. "What is caught on this tape is the real world of police work, which bends all the rules," says Michael Spiegel, an attorney who has pursued a number of police brutality and police misconduct suits against the city. "From the very casual way this conversation takes place, you can imagine that it's a common occurrence. That is a very troubling thought."
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