Cop-Ed: Treating Minors as Adults has a Lifelong Impact

Since we have expanded to New York City in 2019, The Emerald has heard countless stories of brutality, cruelty and indifference from citizens about the New York City Police Department. Instead of just listening, we’re giving these tales the megaphone. Police misconduct must be documented, shared, and faced head-on—especially as cannabis remains illegal in New York. 

The Emerald invites readers to submit their own accounts of interactions with NYPD officers. Contact us at Info@TheEmeraldMagazine.com

The Emerald’s inaugural Cop-Ed series takes place nearly 20 years ago in New York City. Sheena—whose last name is removed—details her experience with the NYPD, and how the event has affected her since. 

It’s 2001. Sheena is 17, and this is her first experience with the NYPD. This is her story, as told by her to the Emerald. Parts of this interview have been edited for clarity and length. 

I am 17 years old and going into my senior year of high school. I decided to attend the annual Dominican Day Parade with some friends. We made our way from Queens to 5th Avenue in New York City where we catch some of the parade. Then, we decide to meet up with some guys in Washington Heights.  

We hop on the train, and make our way toward 137th, where we get off and meet our friends at a building about a block away from Riverside Park. They mention they have some weed, so we’re like, ‘hey, ya know, teenagers, weed, it’s a great combo.’

We walk over to Riverside Park and begin talking and hanging out. It’s a group of about five of us—all people of color: Latino, African, and Afro-Latino. Together, we make our way to the edge of the park, and onto a ledge where we settle in. We do a preliminary scan around the park and figure it’s safe to light up.

One of my friends pulls out the blunt. Three of us join in on the smoke sesh while my other two friends do not.  

I’m high. 

Next thing I know, we see a guy in the distance walking towards us. Instinct is telling me, ‘this is not good.’ 

Then, I notice another guy on the right—who seems to be fishing in a pond—he’s getting up from where he’s sitting, and starts walking towards us too. 

A group of undercover cops comes up, and start saying, “Hey we saw you smoking weed, you know it’s illegal.” We are being busted. 

They start patting us down. Just then, I remember I have a box of Newport cigarettes in my pocket. In that box is a cigarette and two roaches from the night before that I planned to get rid of at some point today. 

They find the Newport box, open it, empty it, and see the roaches. Now, they say, “Not only did we just observe you smoking. Now we got you for possession.” 

After the pat down and before being placed in cuffs, the officers ask their sergeant—a stereotypical white guy with a blonde buzz cut and glasses—”Do we really need to take her in?” 

The sergeant says, “Yep, she’s gotta go.”

I’ve never been in trouble with the law before, prior to this moment. 

I’m still high, and I almost thought it was a joke. ‘Like, are you kidding me? I have to go home, my mother is in Jersey for the weekend. This is a Sunday, she’s going to freak out.’ This is all I could think of, but sure enough, they put me in the van, which I ride in with them for a few hours.

I guess they didn’t have enough perps to go back to the precinct. If I had to call any part of this process fun, it was this part because I was high and the cops were telling me not to worry, that they weren’t going to show up at my arraignment. “Just keep your nose clean and whatnot,” they say. 

At one point, we go to McDonald’s; the cops have to pick up a homeless person. There was a whole bunch of us in the van, all being arrested for different things, so I remember doing the whole “Oh, what’d you get knocked for?” thing. 

We finally make it to the precinct at E. 119th and 2nd Ave. It was about 10:30 p.m. I was  arrested around 6 p.m.; it’s been hours at this point.

When I get to the precinct, I try to give them a fake name, and fake address. Even now, it still seems so surreal—did they really just arrest me for two roaches?

I ask the cop, who is taking down my information, for a phone call. He tells me “no,” that I have to wait until I go downtown to make my phone call. 

That’s when things start to get stressful. 

I begin to start the process…of being processed. I’m sitting in a cell, grateful for the fact that they are not strip searching me—but I do see women who are. 

I’m no longer high; I’m creeped out. I cannot believe I’m here. I cannot believe my freedom is being restricted in this way. I am being held with people who are being charged with assault in the first degree. I didn’t do anything violent. 

I don’t know how much time has passed—it’s been maybe an hour or so since we were escorted from the van and processed. 

I make it to a cell, and am finally able to call my mother. I don’t think she’s ever picked up a phone call so quickly. She’s extremely worried, and asks,  “Where are you? what happened to you?” 

“Uh, yeah mom, I’m in jail and the reason I’m in jail is because of weed,” I tell her. I lie to her and say, “I wasn’t smoking weed.” 

The initial anger starts to fade, and she tells me, “You’re in jail, but you’re alive.” Basically, I take that as, ‘I’m going to handle you when you get out of here, but at least you’re alive. So sit there and think about what you did.’ 

So, I do. I sleep little throughout the night, and eat one meal consisting of mystery meat and milk. For most of the day, I just sit there, waiting for my arraignment. 

“I am never doing this shit again, this is not worth it for me,” I repeat to myself. 

It’s time for my arraignment. I briefly speak with a public defender, who asks, “Did you do it?” I tell her, “Yeah, I did it.” I figured that’s not the person to be lying to. When I step in front of a judge, they tell me, “you have no priors, you’re a minor, just keep your nose clean for six months and we’ll clear your record.”

It just becomes surreal again—like, I really need all that? 

About 28 hours after my arrest, I am released. 

My mom and my step father come to pick me up from the precinct. It’s one of the worst drives home ever. It’s quiet and it’s awkward. 

I found out later from my mom that she went downtown during the day of my arrest. My boyfriend at the time, an intern at a law firm on Wall Street, went too. 

I remember when I got pulled in for processing, the P.O. told me, “You seem like you’re a good kid, I hope you learned your lesson from this.” 

‘Why is this even necessary?’’ I thought, I could’ve walked out not as whole as when I walked in. 

I was only 17. I did not understand the gravity of the situation—not until my arraignment. 

So, I abstained from marijuana for about a year. I was scared, and convinced it wasn’t worth it.

Only two years later did I start to realize the long term ramifications of what happened. I was attending John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, studying forensic psychology, and pursuing a career as an FBI profiler. So I start going down that route and I find the police rangers. 

When you apply for the police rangers, they ask you, “Do you have any priors?” And silly me, I decide that I’ll be honest because they are going to find it anyway, even if it was cleared. I told them that “yes;” I had been arrested as a minor for marijuana, and I was immediately dismissed. I’m just a regular kid, I had no NYPD connections. 

At that time, only my mother knew about my cannabis use. The rest of my family had only become aware of it in 2019 because I opened up to them about my PTSD diagnosis in 2017, and because I am a registered patient here in New York.

I actually changed my career path after that. At the time, I was not going to risk the embarrassment of continuing down the law enforcement path, only to be rejected and have to explain why. 

I’ve been working through the experience I had with the NYPD through my cannabis advocacy work. To be honest, I chalked it up to life. It wasn’t until I became a cannabis advocate that I started to understand the gravity of the event. 

Once I realized I was a minor being treated as an adult, it re-traumatized me. Now 18 years later, it is still relevant today. 

There are still children whose whole lives change. It really gets me that in some places, for some kids, it’s just a youthful indiscretion. They’ll put you in the back of a squad car and take you home to your parents and that’s it. 

What also gets me is how arbitrary it all was. The sergeant in the park that day really could have said, “Nah, let her go.” It really depended on the whim of just one person. 

According to the Sentencing Project “How Tough on Crime Became Tough on Kids: Prosecuting Teenage Drug Charges in Adult Courts” by Josh Rover:

—”Transfer laws in 46 states plus the District of Columbia permit youth to be tried as adults on drug charges.” 

—Only four states, including Connecticut, Kansas, Massachusetts, and New Mexico “have no mechanism under which juveniles can be charged as adults for drug offenses. […]. These four states sharply limit the ability of courts and prosecutors to send drug charges to adult court, which is an important step in limiting the total number of juveniles in adult courts.”

—”Transfer laws have been shown to increase recidivism, particularly violent recidivism, among those convicted in adult courts.”

—”Research shows waiver laws are disproportionately used on youth of color.”

—”In 33 states and the District of Columbia, once a juvenile has been convicted of an offense as an adult, he or she will henceforth always be treated as an adult. These laws are called “once an adult, always an adult,” despite the fact that the defendant is still under 18.”

Emerald contributor since February 2016

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