I Got Myself Arrested So I Could Look Inside the Justice System

I went home and blogged about the incident, publicizing what I’d done and posting pictures, before returning to the guard tower the next day, and the next, to hand over my license and letter. Each time, the guards saw a young professional in a suit, not the suspect they had in mind, and each time they handed me back my license and turned me away. On my fifth day of trying, a reporter from Courthouse News Service tagged along. At first skeptical, he watched in disbelief as the officer took my license, made a phone call, and sent me on my way. 

On Friday May 4, 2012, I turned myself in at Manhattan Criminal Court. Two Intelligence Unit detectives arrived and testily walked me outside to a waiting unmarked police car. Court papers show that they’d staked out my apartment to arrest me, and that I unwittingly kept eluding them. In one dramatic instance, two officers had tailed me as I walked down Eastern Parkway. I’d entered the subway station at the Brooklyn Museum, unaware that I was being followed. One of the officers had followed me through the turnstiles while another guarded the exit. The report states that the officers then inexplicably lost contact with me. 

Now, we drove west on Canal Street during rush hour, inching across Manhattan to the West Side before turning around and crawling back to a precinct in the East Village. Eight hours later, around midnight, the officers drove me to central booking, in the basement of the courthouse where I had surrendered. “The judge just left, man, your timing sucks,” one of my cellmates told me as the iron door clanged shut.

The cell was approximately 20 feet by 30 feet, and a large metal toilet platform occupied a quarter of the room. I stepped over several men lying on the floor and took the open seat adjacent to the platform. The toilet over me had no door and no partition, and the entire room had a view of sitting users. Feces and urine were caked onto the metal and smeared on the concrete next to me, which is why the seat was vacant.

Over the next 24 hours, I watched as men and women came and went, many with cuts, bruises, and welts. I asked several of them how they’d been injured, and they described fierce struggles with the police. One young man cradled what he reported was a broken wrist. Another pulled up his shirt and revealed three Taser burns. Yet another removed his fitted cap and pointed to a swollen knot on his head. I exchanged uncomfortable glances with the few other white men in the cellblock.

“Did they treat you like that?” I whispered.

“No, you?”

“No.” We held out our wrists to compare.

I’m trying man, but they won’t listen to me,” another man implored through the phone,  “Hold on—”

“When will you let me see my attorney? He’s been upstairs waiting to see me for two hours!” another man called out in the direction of a group of corrections officers sitting and talking out of view.

Some time later, around 2:00 a.m., an older man started calling out, pressing himself against the bars.

“CO, I’m diabetic. I need my sugar pills,” he pleaded.

Nothing.

“CO, please,” he begged another CO with thin-rimmed glasses walking by.

“CO, I’m diabetic, I need my sugar—”

“Sir, can’t you see I’m busy here?” he interrupted, without stopping.

Some time later the door swung open and a CO led three more men into our cell. Eighteen men were now sitting and lying feet to head, or feet to feet, along the length of the bench and floor.

“Sir, do you think this is the right way to treat people, piling them on top of one another, when you have an empty cell open all night?” I said indignantly, when morning came, pointing at a vacant cell across the hall.

“I’ve been doing this 22 years,” the officer replied. “So yeah, I do.”

Around midnight, after 34 hours in custody, I was led to a courtroom upstairs to be arraigned. The district attorney’s office, responsible for prosecuting offenders, asked the judge to dismiss my case with three days of community service. This is standard practice for first-time, nonviolent misdemeanor offenders. The judge read through the paperwork and agreed, though he raised the number of community service days to five.

I accepted the sentence and the clerk began reading it into the record.

“Your honor, wait!” the assistant state attorney interrupted. Startled by the outburst, the judge looked up and scowled as the attorney read something written on her file. She blushed and continued, “I’m sorry, I have to withdraw my offer.” As the judge shook his head and set a date to return, I felt an odd pang of empathy for her. Once, as a rookie prosecutor, a judge had humiliated me in open court for being evasive about a file that had an ominous yellow “do not dismiss” sticky note on it.    

Two months later I arrived at Manhattan Criminal Court at 9:00 a.m. and stood in a line of people that stretched out to the street. I found my way to the courtroom and watched cases being called until around noon, when my attorney beckoned me into the hallway and confirmed what had been written on the assistant state attorney's file at arraignment. “The district attorney’s office is playing hardball. They are seeking a guilty plea against you and requesting jail time if you don’t take it.” 

Presented by

Bobby Constantino is the executive director of the Truth Artists Coalition and a former assistant district attorney and public defender in Boston.

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