Locked Up For A Straw

STORY BY Brooklyn Defender Services

Tyrone’s RAP sheet is a catalogue of all the worst things he’s ever been accused of doing in his 53 years of life. It is almost a quarter pound and half inch thick.

It’s full of numbers, charges, and convictions, dates, arrests, and address. It's boring. But it weaves a complicated story. A story of a life long-trapped in the criminal justice system. 45 total arrests. 41 convictions. 39 of them for low-level misdemeanor crimes of poverty. All guilty pleas. Not a single case of his went to trial.


Tyrone got locked up in 2015 for possession of a straw. Yes, a straw.

He bought a diet coke from the corner store with the few bucks he had in his pocket, and they gave him a straw to go along with his brown paper bag. He walked out of the store and the police were on him. Rifling their hands through his pockets. They pushed him up against the wall. He didn’t have anything on him and he told them so. He’d been through this so many times. A black man. Living in Crown Heights. He’d been stopped and frisked hundreds of times. A fraction of the time he actually did have something on him. This time he had nothing. He gave them attitude. May have cursed. That’s when they pulled out the straw. “Look what we found.” The police assumed he was using it to snort heroin. 

Hands pulled behind his back. Cuffed. Stuffed into the back of a police car. Taken to the precinct. Booked, fingerprinted, treated like shit. Taken to central bookings. Spent the night in squalid conditions. Marched underground to criminal court and stuffed in the pens behind the judge’s bench waiting for a public defender to call out his name.


His public defender told him he was being charged with misdemeanor possession of heroin. “They’re claiming they found heroin residue on the straw.” In New York, possession of a controlled substance could net you a max of a year in jail no matter the amount. Even just residue. “It was just a damn straw.” He was right, after all. Even if he was using drugs, the police didn’t need to arrest him for it. And once the case came across the prosecution’s desk, they  didn’t need to charge him with it. “Tell them to test it,” he pleads. “They will eventually,” his attorney tells him. “But they don’t need to yet in order to ask the judge to set bail and send you to Rikers.” Although prosecutors need a drug lab to take you to trial, New York law also allows police officers to claim that alleged substances are certain drugs based on their “training and experience” no more. And allows judges to set bail whether or not the substance is confirmed.


number of times Tyrone has been arrested, between 2001 and 2015. He pled guilty to each one of these.
Percentage of Tyrone's guilty please that happened on the same day as arrest, facing the prospect of bail being set.

Between 2001 and 2015, Tyrone was arrested 33 times, all for crimes of poverty: trespass, jumping the turnstile, petit larceny, marijuana, possession of a crack pipe.


His attorney told Tyrone that the prosecution was making him an offer of a guilty plea with 15 days in jail. He’d already served two. With good time, he’d only have to serve 8 more days. With his record, the judge was sure to set bail. He’d likely serve that time anyway before his next court date. Most accused at this point would give up. Guilty or innocent. Victims of a bad stop and frisk or not. Facing the prospect of bail, a significant percentage of arrestees plead guilty at arraignments, before the case even begins, before anyone, prosecution included, knows what really happened, knows what the evidence shows. There is nothing more powerful than wanting to go home, avoid spending any more time than necessary on Rikers Island.

Not only did the prosecution decide to charge this man with a crime for a straw, they asked the judge for thousands of dollars of bail because of his record and past failures to come back to court. Even though his lawyer pleaded with the judge that Tyrone had no money, that bail would be the equivalent of remand, and that he was adamant both of his innocence and the fact that the stop and search was illegal, the judge (a former a defense attorney by the way), set bail in the amount of $1500 bond or $750 cash. Far beyond that which he’d be able to make. He was on the next bus to Rikers Island.


He spent weeks locked up on Rikers in the freezing cold where he got badly beaten up by younger pre-trial detainees who wanted to use the phone.


The longer he stayed on Rikers, the stronger the pressure to plead guilty to something he didn’t do grew. He was missing work (he likely had already lost his job), he was missing his family and he was terrified. At $475/day, NYC taxpayers spent appx $10,000 to incarcerate him. He was no longer the young man who could defend himself that he once was. But he held firm.

He wanted to see that drug lab. Meanwhile, his attorney was keeping the pressure on the DA to disclose the results of the drug lab that should have only taken a couple of minutes to no avail. Weeks passed, until the prosecution finally disclosed to the Court and me that weeks earlier, the drug lab had come back negative.

An innocent man sat on Rikers Island for weeks because the Prosecution failed to turn over discovery to the defense. It might not have been purposeful. But because the discovery laws are so lax in New York, prosecutors can afford to be lax too. The prosecution should be required to present a drug lab at arraignments, let alone weeks later.


The defense attorney was not allowed to make any comments on the next court date to complain about what had happened.


The judge simply told Tyrone, “Today is your lucky day.” But it wasn’t luck. It was a trap from the beginning. The shackles were removed, but as he walked out of the court house, he was barely more free. He walked down the street, beat down, tired, jobless, further marginalized. Wondering when he’d be stopped next.

"Sure, yeah, I’m mad about it. But that’s the way it is. I’ve got to accept it. It’s not right, but it’s the way it is. What are you going to do?"