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This is how police and courts steal from poor people

Originally published: Re/Creation on March 16, 2023 by John Proctor (more by Re/Creation) (Posted Mar 17, 2023)

I need to report a theft. Nassau County law enforcement stole $500 from my friend, Sylvester “Sonny” Jackson.

Sonny is currently Writer-in-Residence at Re/Creation, which means he gets a $1,875 stipend for the months of January-March, 2023. No bank will open an account for him because of his criminal history, so we’ve set Sonny up with a Venmo debit card connected to Re/Creation’s account that we add money to.

Last weekend, with some spare cash for the first time in months, he made a trip from the Housing Works temporary housing facility where he lives in Queens to his hometown of West Hempstead to see his ex-wife and catch up with some old friends. As my friend has Stage 4 cancer and has to travel across three buses, I’m always nervous when he makes these trips. But his debit card notifies me when he uses it, and I saw Sonny went to his favorite bodega around midnight. This let me know he was around the corner from his ex-wife’s house, where he would be staying the night. I went to sleep relieved.

When I woke up the next morning, I had a voicemail his ex-wife had left around 7am. Sonny was in jail. By the end of the day, after having committed no crime or violation whatsoever,  Sonny had to pay the Nassau County court a $500 ransom for his freedom.

What happened was this. Sonny’s ex-wife got him up very early, and they went to a friend’s house to help him with some odd job.

At one point during the visit, Sonny and his ex-wife went to the store to grab something to drink. They left their son at the friend’s apartment. When they returned, the front door was open and the police were there.

The police had just been knocking aggressively on the friend’s front door, yelling that they had an open warrant. After confirming with everyone there that the police did in fact have an open warrant on him, Sonny’s friend let the cops in and identified himself. The police’s original plan was to take the man in. But after Sonny returned, and with no cause for doing so, the cops told Sonny and his ex-wife to give them their IDs and proceeded to run unwarranted background checks on them.

The police came back quickly with Sonny’s ex-wife’s ID, but they took a while with Sonny’s. After some time, one of the cops came back and told Sonny he had two open warrants from 2019.

“What?!” Sonny said.

I was in prison in 2019, and they wouldn’tna let me out with an open warrant, not to mention I didn’t do anything to get a warrant! What’s it for?

 “I don’t know,” the officer said.

I can’t read it. And by the way, what’s a guy from Queens doing out here?

Sonny told the officer he grew up in West Hempstead, that it was his home as much as any place.

When Sonny was telling us this story at Workshop the following Tuesday, one of our members noted,

That’s how Nassau County works. I’ve been there plenty of times. They don’t like people, especially Black people, coming out from the city, and they’ll make you pay if you do.

And he’d identified you as a criminal when you mentioned being in prison,” I added.

The cop loaded Sonny along with his friend and took both of them to the jail.

You’ll see the judge later today. You can explain it to him.

Surprisingly, the judge asked Sonny, “How much money can you pay today?”

Sonny spent most of that Saturday in a Mineola holding cell, before coming before a judge at around 5 p.m. The first thing the judge said to the arresting officer was,

What is this? These warrants are from 1999!

“Oh, I thought they said 2019,” the cop responded.

I must have read it backwards.

Instead of digging deeper into how an officer could read 1999 backwards and see 2019, the judge said,

Well, these warrants must be for something. Do you remember what they’re for, Mr. Jackson?

“That was 24 years ago, Your Honor,” Sonny said.

But you have ‘em in front of you. What do they say?

“They don’t say anything,” the judge said.

They’re so old, all the relevant information is no longer on the record. I’ll tell you what I’ll do.

This is the point when the only logical, humane thing to do with a warrant that’s almost a quarter century old, with no relevant information on what it was originally for, is to dismiss it and the person out of hand.

Surprisingly, the judge asked Sonny,

How much money can you pay today?

With his health issues, Sonny couldn’t stay in jail. He told the officer that if he could go to an ATM, he could withdraw $500.

“OK,” the judge said.

That will be $250 for each warrant then.

On the one hand, it infuriates me to no end that the $500 we raised to help pay for our writers’ living expenses while they do their work went to one of the most racist systems of their oppression. On the other, if he hadn’t had any money to buy his freedom, Sonny would likely be in the Nassau County Jail with the other poor people of color who couldn’t pay their own ransoms.

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