Yesterday in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, Michael Mineo took the stand to describe in detail his claims of a harrowing experience on a Brooklyn subway station in 2008: being held down by three New York City police officers and sodomized with a foreign object.
Mr. Mineo's crime? Smoking marijuana.
The Brooklyn cops chased Mr. Mineo into the station after they spotted him smoking marijuana. Mr. Mineo claims that the cops tackled him and that one of the officers sodomized him with a baton. The cops then gave him a summons, and threatened that they would go to his house and serve him with a felony charge if he went to the hospital for treatment or the police station to report what happened.
Mr. Mineo's story is corroborated by eyewitnesses--including a transit police officer. The three officers charged in the attack are now on trial in a case that recalls that of Abner Louima, who was brutally sodomized by police in 1997.
The NYPD's obsession with marijuana possession has led to tens of thousands of New Yorkers a year getting caught up in the criminal justice system. Most spend a few days in jail. Some, like Mr. Mineo, suffer more horrific experiences. While New York has a reputation as a tolerant and open-minded city, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Gotham makes so many pot busts that the city now has the unfortunate distinction of being the marijuana arrest capital of the world.
According to a report released by the New York Civil Liberties Union in 2008, New York City police have arrested more than 300,000 people for low-level, misdemeanor marijuana possession since 1997. In 2008 alone, the number of arrests for possessing a small amount of marijuana in New York City soared to 40,300 people, most of them teenagers and young adults under 26 years old.
New York City's marijuana arrests also show stark racial disparities. In 2008, 87% of those charged with pot possession were black or Latino. These groups represent only about half of the city's population, and U.S. government surveys consistently find that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than blacks and Latinos. Yet blacks and Latinos are arrested for pot at much higher rates, in part because officers make stop-and-frisk searches disproportionately in black, Latino, and low-income neighborhoods. Mr. Mineo was assaulted in Lefferts Garden, Brooklyn--a predominantly black and Caribbean neighborhood.
What makes these marijuana arrests all the more troublesome is that New York State decriminalized simple possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana more than 30 years ago in 1977. Smoking in public remains a misdemeanor, but personal possession is not a criminal offense.
While Mayor Bloomberg has admitted to smoking marijuana and even said he enjoyed it, tens of thousands of other New Yorkers are being arrested and jailed in a shameful example of a destructive and ineffective policy.
While the jury is still out on what actually happened with Mr. Mineo and the NYPD, there is another similarity with the Louima case worth noting. One of the lawyers for the cops charged with sodomizing Mr. Mineo is John Patton, the lawyer who represented the police in the 1997 torture of Abner Louima. The defense strategy for the police officers was revealed yesterday in court: the defense plans to paint Mr. Mineo as a lying, marijuana using criminal with no credibility and who is suing the city only to make money. "This is your payday, isn't it?" asked Stuart London, another lawyer for the officers. Mr. Mineo countered that he would never make up this story. "I don't want to be here right now," he said later. "Do you know how embarrassing this is for me?"
The defense strategy to discredit Mr. Mineo because he smoked marijuana is ironic and hollow, considering that Mayor Bloomberg, President Obama, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and many others public leaders have admitted smoking marijuana and are no less credible for it.
It is not Mr. Mineo but New York City and Mayor Bloomberg who should be embarrassed by this trial. Nothing can turn back the clock on what happened to Mr. Mineo on the subway that day, but moving forward we can decide if we want to waste police resources arresting people for small amounts of marijuana.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)