Roach motel

Busted on a minor charge, I joined the luckless army of minorities who are crammed into jail cells every day by America's surreal war on marijuana.

By Christopher Ketcham

Published October 17, 2002 7:16PM (EDT)

Little wigga Justin, 17, stoned and first time in jail but not scared at all, was entertaining the prisoners with stories of rich girls. There was Diana from New Jersey. Diana had daddy's mansion and her own pool; golden electronic fish swam in the water -- "Yeah, yo, battery-powered fish, all gold and shit, Diana swims with 'em, nigga. Rich, yo, rich bitch, I mean like this girl has diamonds from shoulder to shoulder that say D-I-A-N-A like a big smile, and the trucks yo, the Escalades, the ML430s, and the mansion -- Diana's room has electric sliding doors; you clap, they open like magic. Diana!"

"Diana," murmured Syringe, junkie of name unknown, old soiled longhair, nodding out and toothless and splayed -- "Diana," then he passed out. Justin watched with interest. Syringe looked like Kentucky Appalachia, but talked Brooklyn, old Italian Brooklyn, that is, no niggas or yo or bro, an old junkie-hippie in jean jacket and dirty jeans with a blue bandanna across his forehead; he carried a syringe -- no drugs, just a syringe.

"I wasn't doin' nothin', walkin' along, mindin' my business," he had told us. "I'm not an asshole, I'm not breakin' anybody's balls, I'm walkin' along, they fuckin' stop me --"

Typical. I heard it again and again: Rousted on a spurious charge -- misdemeanor possession -- and now the creep was off the streets of my hometown neighborhood of Red Hook, in Brooklyn, lodged safely here in the cinderblock ugliness that is the 76th Precinct of the NYPD, and toiled over by cops and clerks and DAs who know, if they have a conscience, that driving a man like chattel just because he carries a syringe doesn't make sense.

So it was Syringe and Justin and me and four others in the 6-by-8 cell stuffed at midnight, waiting to be judged. Aside from my own case -- disorderly conduct, too much booze -- everyone in that cell, and almost every single prisoner I spoke with passing from pen to pen that long rotten night of Aug. 21, was in on a drug charge so lite and ludicrous even the jailers admitted "This is bullshit, guys, nothin'; you'll be out by 10 a.m."

The charge, with astonishing consistency, was not dope or coke but marijuana "possession," or at least that's what the authorities term 10 leaf-flakes in the bottom of a pocket, or a roach in the car ashtray rotting among cigarette butts, or a pipe that looks used; "bullshit" indeed, yet prosecuted to the fullest and costliest extent in the paws of a drug enforcement system that's lost all logic.

The cells fill up, spill over: Minor marijuana offenses now comprise 15 percent of all arrests in New York City. Justice here wasn't always like this. Once upon a time, when I was growing up in Brooklyn in the '80s and early '90s, a joint, a dime bag, even a "50 bag" -- basically anything under an ounce -- meant a small fine, issued on the spot, or sometimes a "desk appearance ticket," a DAT, which stipulated a date and time for meeting the judge. You showed up, you waited in the pews until your name was called, you stood with hung head until the judge dismissed the case or fined you a few dozen dollars.

That was tiresome enough, but at the very least it was an attempt to implement, at the street level and in the precincts, the general decriminalization of minor marijuana possession that the New York state Legislature had mandated through the Marijuana Reform Act of 1977. Even then, lawmakers "were concerned over the large amount of criminal justice resources and prison space being used for marijuana offenders," observed the Partnership for Responsible Drug Information, a nonprofit in Manhattan that has been critical of the drug war. The legislators, wrote the PRDI, concluded that "criminal prosecution and incarceration were inappropriate penalties for mere possession and use of marijuana."

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who came into office in 1994, reversed all that. He was the reform mayor, the hero mayor who, with a draconian sweep of his arm, would clean up the crack-and-murder mess into which ghettos like Red Hook had descended by the late '80s. In this regard, Giuliani was more lucky than visionary, the unwitting beneficiary of a skyrocketing stock market and crime rates that fell nationwide in the bubble boom -- rates that had already begun a decline in New York as early as 1990. (By then the crackheads were killing themselves off; the dealers were busy killing each other.)

But Giuliani took credit -- it was "quality-of-life" policing, he would say later, that solved the crime problem in New York. Quality-of-life, or zero-tolerance enforcement, one of Giuliani's pet programs, was simple and easy and sometimes cruel: Nuisance was crushed in all its most trivial forms -- the graffiti taggers on subways, the squeegee bums on roadways, the confused, muttering homeless on benches, and of course the relatively benign bottom-tier of the marijuana trade, the smoker.

In 1992, New York City had 742 marijuana possession arrests; by 2000, after six years of Giuliani, that number had risen a mind-boggling 7,000 percent, to more than 52,000, according to FBI statistics. The numbers aren't changing under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, elected last year. New York City's five counties now rank among the top 10 U.S. counties of 250,000 people or more for marijuana arrests -- one city, New York, that cosmopolite center of all things progressive, now accounts for 8 percent of all marijuana possession arrests nationwide.

Enforcement comes down primarily on people of color. According to a 1996 report from the New York state Division of Criminal Justice Services, 71 percent of state residents arrested on misdemeanor marijuana charges were nonwhite; in Red Hook, that's usually a black or Hispanic from a low-income housing project.

"About six years ago, they just stopped giving the DATs for weed," says Santiago Lugo, 24, a Puerto Rican in my cell. "Now they cuff your ass, they take you in, they get your fingerprints, they get your photograph, they work your ass through the system."

"It isn't right," says Lugo. Which is fairly obvious from afar, but not nearly as obvious as when you go through the system yourself, as a defendant, and watch the monumental frittering of law enforcement energies, the Kafkaesque merry-go-round where more often than not the whole dirty, inept, stultifying process ends in the case being dismissed -- as if it never happened.

So I'm in the system: Shoelaces and belt stripped, I slump on the wooden bench with "Jose" and "Fuck this" carved in the wood; we are seven bodies rubbing and despising the closeness. After a short while, I say goodbye to Syringe and Justin; cops call my name, I step out, I'm recuffed, I am to be "processed" and then "lodged" in a precinct somewhere across Brooklyn where a body can slump more easily, in a less congested cell. In the peculiarly ill-starred circumstances of the night of Aug. 21, the "process" was farce.

I was put up against a wall for head shots, photos front and side, and then I was to be fingerprinted, but the computer was broken. "Identix," say the big letters above the screen. The Identix looks old and doomed, cannibalized from a '70s mainframe, but in fact it's the cutting edge of crime-fighting technology. The Identix TouchPrint 600 Live Scan Workstation, "the greatest invention since the two-way radio" (according to the literature), is a digital fingerprint scanner that with the speed of a fart fires off your prints to the Automated Fingerprint Identification System at the FBI, a "system that can race through fingerprints at a rate of 600 per second," and relays your data, the unmistakable soul of your palms, to a central database, uncovering who you really are, if you really are. Gone are those messy inkblot prints on index cards that expert eyes with magnifying glasses required two weeks to sort.

Advanced technology being what it is, tonight the Identix machines are dropping dead all across Brooklyn, going off-line, sending out "ERROR" messages, spontaneously rebooting as the cops sputter and curse and scratch their heads.

Orders come down: Find an Identix that works. Officers Moukazis and Pena, young cops, cuff me and walk me out of the 76th Precinct in my sloppy laceless boots, the beltless hanging pants. Moukazis resembled Radar from "M*A*S*H," quiet and stoop-shouldered with big, gentle, liquid eyes; a two-year rookie. Pena was Hispanic with a black mustache, squat and unspeaking but friendly when spoken to. They dropped me into the hard plastic backseats of the squad car, then sat down and ate pizza.

Thus began a four-hour odyssey, shuttling from precinct to precinct looking for that one Identix that would actually do its job. At the 78th Precinct, there was a drunk Russian in the cell next to mine. He told the officers: "My cock!" No one listened. The officers gathered like a tribe round the Identix, pushing buttons. "Suck my cock!" said the Russian, and the officers said, "This fuckin' machine!"

"I show you my cock, OK?" said the Russian.

The cops pecked dutifully and rebooted, and "You are beautiful -- for my cock!" echoed down the halls. When the Identix at the Seven-Eight decided permanently to shut down for the night and the cops started telling the screen "You fuh! You son-of-a-fuck!" officers Moukazis and Pena walked me out down the line of cells: I saw that the Russian had stripped naked; fat-roll folds hung over his crotch, obscuring his penis. Cops aren't paid enough for all the crap they put up with.

From the Seven-Eight to the streets, looking for that fabled Identix, Moukazis and Pena get lost. They really should know these streets; they are, after all, Brooklyn cops. "We, uh, only really know our precinct," Moukazis says, and you can't blame him; he lives in the suburbs.

"Hey," I finally speak up, "you guys want New York Ave. and Empire Boulevard, right? Turn around, this is wrong, you're going to Flatbush. About 10 blocks back you'll hit Empire ..." Then it's left here, right there, turn around, big dead-end sign, they ignore it; turn around once more, confusion, there's the precinct, wait make the right, MAKE THE RIGHT, Moukazis bottoms out the cruiser parking it on the sidewalk, we get out, again the long, slow slog with the laceless boots; the cop holds me firmly by the tricep.

Here the Identix was working (for the moment), but a bigger problem loomed: No one seemed to know how to use the machine. Officers gathered like clouds, stood around, sat in chairs, my fingers were grabbed, placed on a glass sheet that glowed red, the prints were scanned, all 10 fingers. But the prints could not be read; the Identix rejected the file.

"Christ," said Moukazis, who moved aside as others played with my fingers on the glass screen and others yawned. "Gettin' late," someone said. "Off in 27 minutes, and you guys can go fuck yourselves." It wasn't long until the Identix at the 71st -- it too sensing dawn -- went to sleep.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I was at long last fingerprinted and lodged in a cell that had a toilet, a sink, a bench. Wet sleep on the bench, the night hot; took off my shirt and folded it to make a pillow; slept in twitches, a dreamless dead sleep; woke 20 minutes later. Then time began its long, slow, unbelievably long miniaturization, sitting in the shapes of flecked paint and riding around on cockroaches. Hours passed. There are kicks on the wall in the cell next door.

"Fuckin' let me out! Man, I fuckin' wasn't doin nothin' ... "

"Hey, asshole, I'm sleeping," another voice cries out. It's Syringe. I hear someone rapping Biggie Smalls -- Justin, the unbreakable wigga; no sleep till Jersey. So we all made it to the same hole. And the guy kicking the wall, I recognized his voice too: It was the Irish Guido. Back at the 76th, the Guido, a tall, good-looking construction foreman in his 20s, kept cornering himself in the 6-by-8 cell, unbuttoning his jeans and looking down his pants. "Jesus, aw God," he would whisper, dumping his hand into the pants to scratch like a cat.

The Guido had told us his story. "I was in my car, fuckin' just smokin' a joint and these two DTs [detectives] rolled up on me ... and they bring me in for this shit. It's not the blue and whites [squad cars à la Moukazis and Pena] -- them I don't mind, they don't bother you. It's narcotics, the undercovers, that's the problem. Narcotics just wanna make their quotas, make that overtime."

Overtime. In December 2000, the New York Daily News investigated the NYPD's quality-of-life crusade, singling out what by then had become something of a key zero-tolerance program, the much ballyhooed Operation Condor. Condor funds overtime for detectives pursuing small-time drug buy-and-busts and quality-of-life offenders like evil types who pee on trees.

The NYPD spent a record $247 million on overtime during fiscal year 2000 -- some $39 million of which went to Condor, according to the News. Not all the officers in narcotics, the News also noted, were happy about the program.

"Cops are flooding the system with minor stuff just for the overtime," a high-ranking narcotics officer told the paper. "But we are ignoring the big investigations for the little fish at the bottom.

"That's all Condor-detail cops are catching," the officer added. "The little fish."

The Condor program made the papers in a big way earlier that year, in March 2000, after two Condor undercovers looking to make a marijuana bust shot and killed 22-year-old Patrick Dorismond, an off-duty security guard. The detectives had asked Dorismond, who was standing outside a cocktail lounge in Manhattan, where they could find some dope. Dorismond, in what were later hotly debated circumstances, essentially told them to step off. A scuffle ensued, and shots were fired.

(Calls to the NYPD central public relations office regarding the Condor program were not returned.)

- - - - - - - - - - - -

At 9:45 a.m., we get an egg sandwich, soggy in grease paper; the jailers yell, "Moving to the court soon. Wake up." Hot orange juice; voices in the cell: "Yo, they microwave this juice?" Echoes of plastic bottles on floors. We are led, feeling tall and happy; we're moving, we're out, we're out of here.

We go by van, chained three together, to a court in Red Hook, the Red Hook Community Justice Center. We're divided up, Syringe disappears, still nameless -- I never found out what happened to him -- and then new faces and old: Santiago Lugo; a scowling 16-year-old; a midget with wine-stain knife scars on his cheeks; Justin; the Guido. We land in a 20-by-20 windowless basement pen; payphone in one corner, toilet. The elation of air, movement, progress, process now very gone. Now we wait to see the judge, and who knows if he'll get to all the cases by 5 p.m. If he doesn't, then it's night court and Central Booking.

"I don't wanna even consider that shit," says Eric, in for a joint, 27, dark-faced and lid-eyed and wary; a caricaturist would make him a panther. Eric grew up in the Red Hook projects, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants; he's done the process many times. "Drug charges, mostly," he told me. "Assault, once."

He stretched on the floor and closed his eyes and tried to sleep but couldn't. "Yo, this shit is sticky." He shifted two empty, plastic pint water bottles under his neck. "Not near as sticky as Central Booking, I'll tell you that," he answers himself. "That's 300 niggas, 50 to a room, and those rooms no bigger than this one. Central Booking! Cockroaches big as fingers, that's a dungeon, yo. We go to booking, we start all over, right at the bottom."

"Start over?" someone said.

"You got three levels in Central Booking," Eric went on. "It's like a fucked-up cake. You got night court up top, but you waitin' 20 hours to get there. They bring you in that first room, the sub-basement, you wait six hours. Then you go up one floor, little cages, rats over your head rattling the metal, you think they gonna drop right down on you. Six more hours. Then you got the cells on the third floor, even smaller, you all tight in there, elbows and no layin' down. Night court means what it says: You stayin' the night. This judge here, I say he'll do five cases an hour. And we got 15 in this room, about 20 in the other room, more coming in throughout the day. What time is it?"

"Eleven fifteen."

"Yo, 11:15. That's not good. That means we got 35 niggas who need to be processed by 5 p.m. Five an hour, we need six hours, a little bit more, and we not gonna have six hours, not by a long shot. That judge goes to lunch at 1 for an hour and a half, court doesn't reopen till 2:30. So from now until 5, that makes four hours of court time. Now it's all how the cards come out; now you just wait for your name, and you hope."

There were groans throughout the room; slouches, spit, socks being smelled. Minutes later, as if out of cruel contradiction, a name was called: The Irish Guido stood up -- bounded up -- and went to the bars, where a man in a suit said, "They're giving you an ACD."

"I'll take it, I'll fuckin' take it, yes," and with that the door was unlatched; the Guido was gone.

"ACD!" said Eric, sitting up.

"ACD, yo," said Santiago.

"What's an ACD?" said Justin.

"That"s Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal," Eric said. He enunciated, slowly and contemptuously. "That shit means your case be dismissed 'cause it was bullshit in the first place."

"ACD," said Santiago. "That's what we all looking for here."

So there were mutters of ACD all around, people said, "We movin' now," and indeed, soon we were moved out of the cell and down a hall to be photographed again -- for what reason I couldn't figure out -- standing in line with our arms behind our backs, flash-bulbed front and side.

Then they brought us back to the cell. And for hours, there was no movement.

Eric watched Justin bounce around the room cracking jokes, rapping: the white boy who talked street. Turned out that Justin, true to wigga style, was a more or less well-to-do kid from Jersey; had parked his SUV near the commuter train terminal across the Hudson River to come first to Manhattan in search of bongs and pipes, and then to Brooklyn for weed, all of which he would then resell, in parts or as a package, to his hometown "bitches" and "losers" too timid to buy these items themselves. There would, of course, be a stiff markup -- the budding entrepreneur. But his plans were cut short when the cops caught him smoking a bowl on the corner.

Justin pulled out his Dr. Scholl's inner soles from his tennis shoes. "I'm makin' a phat pillow," he said, laying the soles neatly down, side by side like Eric with his bottles; Justin crumpled a T-shirt over the soles and said, "Yeah, baby."

Eric laughed and shot a glance at Santiago. "Yo, you think this fun and games," Santiago told Justin softly. Santiago was big, with tattooed arms and a belly. "You havin' a good time. This your first time in, no doubt. You go through this 10 times, then it's no fun and games. Then you be feelin' aggro over this shit; you just feelin' this cage."

Justin was unimpressed, didn't miss a beat, kept jiving and rapping and riding out jail, and this in turn impressed Santiago and Eric, who gradually warmed up to the kid. They started talking weed, shot back and forth in a brogue of the latest names and highs; I not being a smoker anymore, the deep and hallowed significance of Silver Haze and Orange Chronic and Sticky Hicky and White Widow went over my head.

The jailer, a fat, unhappy woman, brought us bologna sandwiches in vacuum-sealed bags -- more groans throughout the pen, hunger and fear for the meat; rustling of wrapping; the judgment: "This bologna be alien" and indeed it's two unfresh slices of darkened something on white bread. Thing can also be used, if the vacuum-seal remains unbroken, as a comfy little pillow to catch a nap on the floor; some of the prisoners make use.

"Yo, no water?" Santiago yells out the bars.

Jailer raises her eyebrows. "You got all the water you can drink right there!" She points to a faucet and basin in the corner, next to a toilet shielded by a short stall, over which you can watch your fellows shit. The faucet dispenses a hot, foggy, rotten-smelling liquid; the inmates psych themselves to drink by letting the water run a long, long time.

A serious case came in: boy of 20 looking 40, drug-sick; long, thick keloid scars, the track marks, the collapsed veins. He spoke to his mother on the phone. "Mami," he said. He was whimpering. "Mami." The cage stopped eating, sleeping. He said something in Spanish, there was silence, his mom talking, he started to cry, choked it back.

"Mami, I don't know what to do, Mami. I didn't --" and then he burst, he wept hysterically, curled into himself, throwing his arm over his head like an ape, ashamed of the room; the men and boys watched. The jailers came for him, opening the door, they stood, three of them in white shirts, "Time to go," they said; they'd let him in for that one call, the judge had already seen him and now he was going to prison. He screeched, "I'm fucking talking with my mother!" and they saw how desperate he was and turned away and out of respect closed the door. He put the wet phone to his mouth and tolled his head on the wall. "Four years, Mami ..." He wept and no one in the cell moved or spoke.

"No ACD for him," said Justin after Mami was taken away. There was snickering.

People paced, walking in circles and then in lines, back and forth, chewing the meat in silence. Eric stood up, wiped his mouth with a flick, and looked up and down his clothes, the Timberland boots, the gray Tommy Hil sweats, appraised them. "Gonna be burning these clothes when I'm outta here. The whole shit goes."

"Bad luck clothes now," said Santiago. "Once burned my Timberlands, a hundred and twenty dollars."

Justin was aghast. "You guys really burn your clothes? I ain't burning my clothes."

"You be burnin' them," said Eric. "You be burnin' them eventually."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The fates smile at 3:45 p.m. Eric is called out, and Justin, and the cell empties as the names widen, and I am not called; this produces a sinking feeling, a wanting to kick someone; Santiago isn't called either, and we're left alone. "You and me," I croak. Santiago says nothing.

At 4, Lord have mercy -- my brain, supine in the system, now equates the call of my name with all meaning, all reason: So I am called, and perversely I feel almost like I've bested Santiago, last in the cell. Moral sense is being warped.

Estajo Koslow, who works for the Legal Aid Society, is one of the two attorneys who will defend you in court at the Red Hook Community Justice Center. She's a large woman, 47, freckled and pale and strangely cheerful; she's spent 14 years with Legal Aid in Brooklyn, 12 in family court working with delinquents and abused children, the last two at the Red Hook Justice Center, which was opened in 2000 to take some of the burden off Central Booking. Red Hook, she will tell you, is "a Taj Mahal" compared to Central Booking, where the bugs used to skitter on her papers during arraignments.

I meet her in a tiny interview room, across a sealed glass-and-wood partition that has a chair and a table, really a ledge, to lean your elbows; on my side, the room is full of voices, people packed together, waiting to tell their story, milling like trapped pigeons, and I can't hear a word Ms. Koslow is saying.

"You are charged with [inaudible]," she begins, reading from the complaint. I stick my nose up against the glass, still sitting but bent forward with the ledge poking my gut. She goes on: "The ... poli ... saying ... you ... night ... Aug ... twenty-fir-"

"Miss, I can't hear, I ca--" I say; I turn to the barking prisoners: "Would you guys shut the fuck up?" Finally I climb up on the chair, get a finger-hold on the wall, place a foot on the ledge, and perch my face up above the glass, where there are 3-inch-wide slits in the frame of the partition.

You want to make your case, this is the moment you need to make your case, and it's sad, you up against the wall like a broken Spider-Man, this is the only moment you'll have to say what really happened, what you think happened, before the judge looks you down -- but it's not working, there's no communication, the system is failing. Ms. Koslow leans forward herself, staring up at you, and red-faced starts to yell: "YOU'RE CHARGED WITH DISORDERLY CONDUCT --"

I tell her my side of the story (essentially guilty as charged: had a beer too many, no fists or bloodshed, but I baited some cops) and move into the corner and listen as the other prisoners come. Koslow will see 40 to 50 on a busy day. Aug. 22 would end up slow: Twenty-six arraignments by 5 p.m., nine for minor marijuana offenses -- a really slow day. On average, marijuana arrests are the court's No. 1 load, making up almost a quarter of all cases.

A wild-eyed guy named Camillo Negron shouts to Koslow, then takes me aside. Camillo claims he was driving through Red Hook in his souped-up Mazda when the cops popped their lights and sounded the siren. He says he committed no violation. "Cops see a Puerto Rican in a phat Mazda, they pull you over," he tells me. "Simple as that."

According to Camillo, the police told him he matched the description of a wanted criminal. They poked their flashlights into the car; they noticed Camillo had a roach of marijuana in the ashtray of the Mazda. Camillo, 34, was arrested on the spot and booked. He was never dropped into a lineup -- though this would have been standard procedure in a wanted case.

"I'll make you a bet Mr. Negron didn't even resemble the guy they were looking for," attorney Koslow later tells me. She sounds pissed. "I'll even make you a bet there was no 'guy' they were looking for.

"Let me tell you, for the record," she says. "Community policing in places like Red Hook consists of little more than rousting the residents on a day-in, day-out basis. How come they're not busting people with glasses of Chablis in the park after the Philharmonic? Open containers! Why stick with the 40s in the projects?"

In came Santiago, who had told us his story in the cell, twice, because I asked him to: It was a story that seemed so infernally unjust you wondered if he wasn't, at the very least, embellishing his account. And yet his tale is common in Red Hook. As Koslow put it: "The police would like me to believe that 100 percent of my clients are lying. I cannot believe that when so many of my clients are saying the same thing over and over."

Santiago, who is a janitor at a medical clinic, says he was picked up around 8 p.m. on Aug. 21. "I was waiting for a cab on the corner, with six others. Narcotics roll up, random -- I'm just waiting for my cab -- they roll up in two cars, a black van and a Ford Explorer, four-door, green, tinted windows. They jumped out, they start yelling at us. I stood there in shock.

"The first thing they said to me was 'Get against the car.' I got against the car. They asked me, 'Do you have any drugs on you?' I told them I had a half-ounce of weed in my pocket. I told them it was personal use, yo, I'm a smoker, I smoke marijuana."

I was skeptical. "There's no reason they stopped you? No probable cause?"

"No probable cause," he said. "I was standing on the corner and they just came up."

Koslow tells me this is routine, which should be news to no one. The NYPD's stop-and-frisk policies have long been a source of furious complaint in the ghetto. "There's a good chance the story he's telling you is exactly the way it played out. Mr. Lugo is a large Hispanic male. That he was stopped on a corner for doing nothing does not surprise me."

The officers cuffed Santiago, placed him in the back of the Explorer. "The driver was alright, he was cool," Santiago told me. "But the cop who cuffed me, he was in the passenger seat, this guy was so thirsty he was out to get whatever he could that night. He was calling to girls on the street, blowing kisses to little girls, calling them over to the car, 'Are you working?' The girls looked at him like he was stupid. 'She's a hooker,' he kept saying. 'She's definitely a hooker.'

"I was in the back of that car for two hours. They started asking me questions if I know of anybody with drugs or with guns, then they'll let me go. They telling me if I rat on somebody, gang shit, they'll let me walk out of the car scot-free. I told 'em I don't know nothing. I told 'em I got locked up in 1997, for attempted assault, I got wrote down outside the gangs, wrote down as 'neutral.' I was in prison for two and a half weeks, and then I copped out to five years probation. I been going to my probation, I work, I been doing everything the legit way."

This is true: I looked up Santiago Lugo's record. Attempted assault, '97, nothing on record since. "Most I been in for since is drinking beer on the street or smoking weed. This zero-tolerance shit they fuckin' enforcing.

"Listen to me, the narcotics who locked me up that night, these motherfuckers told me straight out, 'We gotta drive around for awhile. This is our overtime right now. We got two hours to kill. We don't want to bring you to the precinct yet.'"

They said that openly?

"They said this openly and proud."

When Santiago finally arrived at the precinct, he was strip-searched. He took off his laces and his belt and handed them to the officers, who surrounded him along the line of cells where the prisoners watched. Then he took off his shoes and stripped his pants, emptying the pockets to the floor. Coins clattered and his wallet thumped; the wallet had $180. The police checked the pants again, each pocket, as Santiago stood in his underwear; the cops then told him to drop his boxers to his ankles and squat. An officer peered up into his asshole and around his balls and told him to cough. Santiago described this for me in a quick, embarrassed voice.

In 1986, a federal appeals court declared it unconstitutional to strip-search misdemeanor suspects without probable cause. Did the police have probable cause with Santiago Lugo? Probable cause, Estajo Koslow tells me, is whatever the cops decide.

The police took Santiago Lugo's cash: they "vouchered" into the precinct bowels $140 of his $180 -- "drug gains" -- and returned the remaining $40 for Lugo to spend upon his release. Santiago had a fifty, six $20 bills and a ten; hardly a dealer's roll, but that didn't matter. The cop who took his money told him to come back with proof of income, pay stubs from the medical office where Lugo hauls trash for $10 an hour.

A week after we met in the cell, Santiago Lugo told me he won't be getting his money back. "Now they tellin' me I'm gonna have to hire an attorney -- go through the whole procedure. Alright: 'So you want me to spend hundreds of dollars to get my money?'"

"His only recourse," says Estajo Koslow, "is to sue the police department in civil court."

So they robbed him?

"Basically, yes," she says. "It's forfeiture. That's the system."

The medical lab considered firing Santiago after he missed work on Aug. 22. "I'm in deep shit," Santiago told me. He has a 4-year-old son he supports. "I couldn't tell the job I was locked up. I told 'em that I had a little family problem. They told me, 'You fuck up again, you fired.'"

- - - - - - - - - - - -

From the hot afternoon cells we climb up gray stairs, into the hall outside the courtroom. We're handed off to the white-shirted bailiff, who smiles and sits us on the bench; our case files pile on the table before him. I'm called, and Camillo, and Justin, and Santiago -- we're squeaking in at 4:45.

In the courtroom sits Judge Alex Calabrese, known as "fair" (it's said) and aided by clerks and the court reporter and more bailiffs shuffling papers and murmuring, and the T-shirted perps before him sweat, keep stiff, itch. The assistant district attorney, a woman in grim suit-pants, pecks a glance at me, and Koslow, looking florid, shakes her head in disgust.

Koslow would love to argue a case like Santiago's, get the cop who busted him up on the stand, demand why exactly Santiago was stopped, what indeed was the "probable cause," but Santiago cops a plea. And therein lies a minute and terrible failure of the system, a failure so rotely endemic it's ignored: By the time the defendant stands before the judge, he is limp as laundry, exhausted, humiliated; sweat unwashed and stomach tight, he wants out, ACD. He's had a day and a night stolen from him for no good reason, he is conspired against or so he thinks. He certainly doesn't want to come back for rounds 2 through 10 for a trial.

Koslow turns to Santiago, offers to fight the case, explains that he could win it. "This case smells," she tells him.

Santiago pleads guilty.

"The officer has to have a reason to stop you," Koslow tells me later. "Does the officer have articulable facts? Unfortunately, the onus is upon the defendant to say, 'My rights were violated.' Most people don't have the time to do that. Red Hook is a court of the working poor. How many days of work can they miss?

"I would like to know whether Mr. Lugo's Fourth Amendment rights were violated," she says, "but we'll never know, we'll never get it on the record in the court, unless he is willing to challenge and plead not guilty and take the case to trial -- then and only then do I have a right to question the basis under which my client was searched and the marijuana recovered.

"The most frustrating part," adds Koslow, "is that I'm the only person standing up there looking at a shitty case like this who actually thinks it's a shitty case, and everybody else, the ADA, the judge, they have to, you know, suspend all disbelief."

All nine marijuana defendants on Aug. 22 received ACDs, or variants thereof -- case dismissed. Adjournment in contemplation of dismissal has one notable caveat: It's a "contemplated" dismissal, and requires the defendant to keep his nose clean for six months after the day of adjudication. If the defendant gets busted again in that six-month period, the case remains on record; the defendant now has a rap sheet. Otherwise, it's wiped -- never happened. Hallelujah.

An ACD usually comes with a day or two or 20 of community service, too: Eight hours per diem of free labor, cleaning up garbage in parks, scraping the scum off toilets at the court, painting dirty walls in the offices of a local politico. Santiago Lugo got six days of community service and a "conditional discharge." More serious than an ACD, a conditional discharge has a yearlong probationary period.

Already on full probation for his '97 attempted assault charge, Lugo, if caught again for anything, no matter how minor, will have problems. I got a day of community service for drunk and disorderly. Justin got a marijuana "education" and "life-mapping" class, which consists of a finger-wagging movie and a woman with a doctorate and a pointer stick explaining the sorrows of reefer madness.

And then it's over in a whimper; judgment in six minutes, you cop a plea and sign the papers and the case is filed and they're done with you and each of your comrades of 18 hours is filed away into separateness, out the door.

The rest of the world, it seems, is learning the pointlessness of demonizing marijuana. On Sept. 4, the Canadian Parliament, after many months of study, issued a report stating that marijuana use is not a proven "gateway" to harder drugs; is unlikely to lead to addiction; and does not "induce users to commit other forms of crime." The report recommended, without qualification, that Canada "adopt a system that regulates marijuana the same way as alcohol, and expunge criminal records for marijuana possession." Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Ireland and Spain no longer prosecute people found with small amounts of marijuana. Luxembourg and Portugal enacted policies last year decriminalizing pot -- possession of any amount is no longer an arrestable offense -- while Great Britain announced in July that it would downgrade marijuana from a Class B to a Class C drug, putting it in the same group as steroids and antidepressants. The French are debating similar moves.

America's war on marijuana leaves it almost alone among civilized nations. And it's incredibly expensive. State and federal governments spend as much as $10 billion arresting and prosecuting marijuana defendants, according to Keith Stroup, founder and executive director of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws. (Stroup calculated this total by using data from the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the FBI Uniform Crime REPORTS.) Nationwide last year, 734,000 people were arrested on marijuana charges, and of this number, 88 percent -- 646,000 -- were brought in for "simple possession" (that is, they weren't selling, growing or distributing). Since 1965, says Stroup, more than 11 million Americans have been busted on marijuana-related charges.

It's clear from what Santiago and Eric and so many others described that a lot of these busts are gratuitous. In New York City, at least, they're driven by cops chasing overtime and a quota system that demands bodies behind bars. In 1998, a New York Post exposé cited a leaked memo indicating that NYPD cops are pushed to make quotas of drug busts. "A Queens precinct commander says he will punish cops who don't make enough arrests by denying them days off, even in an emergency," the Post reported. "Although the Police Department denies there are arrest quotas in any of the precincts, the memo proves that cops who don't bring in enough bad guys face repercussions."

"So they have their own motivation," says Koslow. "Judge Calabrese laughs when I say, 'Judge, they needed another body.' But that's pretty much the way it works.

"I had a guy who was arrested for possession of Xanax, a prescription drug, and the guy had a bottle with his name on the prescription. They arrested him anyway," she says. "I've had too many clients tell me an undercover walks up to them, and tells them to pick up that empty nickel bag there on the ground. My client picks it up, because they're afraid, and then the undercover arrests them for possession. I have clients routinely stopped and arrested for 'trespass' simply because they 'might' have been buying drugs or selling drugs, walking from the bodega to their apartments or crossing the green.

"Isn't anybody embarrassed -- isn't anybody really embarrassed by this? I mean, what is the point?"

NORML's Stroup believes he has an answer to that question. "When you think about the thousands of law officers assigned to drug enforcement and you think about those billions of dollars to be had, when you think about all those drug treatment specialists and counselors and psychologists and psychiatrists and drug court judges and drug court attorneys -- my God! There is a drug abuse industrial complex that's been built up in this country and created so many jobs and become such a large industry that it has warped, if not monopolized, public decision-making."

Whether the United States is continuing its war on marijuana for mercantile or moral reasons, one thing is undeniable: The campaign has blighted millions of lives.

In New York City, it also has a tendency to tear up the stomach. You get your ACD, walk out alone from the jail, and you see the light of the street -- what a sense of giant order and happiness. You want to run down the block, you feel sick, you need a bathroom -- the bologna.

Santiago went to get cigarettes and Justin went to buy more weed. I bought a beer and walked home and thought about the jailers, the judges, the bailiffs, prosecutors, and cops across America blowing their hard thankless effort down the toilet. Chances are they are not very fond of their jobs in the drug war economy. For them, however, it's a living. For the rest of us, it's a bad joke.

Christopher Ketcham

Christopher Ketcham is a freelance writer living near Moab, Utah. You can find more of his work at

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