In light of Ferguson, I was reminded of an experience I had with a couple of local police and a prosecutor back in the 1970s. While there are no comparisons, it's still something that came to mind. Everyone handles situations their own way. This is how I handled mine.
In 1975, I was 23 and the spirit of youth was still in full bloom. It was a great time in my life except for one harrowing experience with the Delaware Township Police Department, located in central New Jersey. I had gone out that night with a friend of mine, Ken [Redacted.] We hit a couple of bars and settled in at a place in New Hope, PA, called John & Peter's. There's a café in front and a small listening room in the back. As small as it was (and still is,) they had some pretty big name bands perform, like Iron Butterfly and The Chambers Brothers. One of the local favorites back then was a group out of Philly called Johnny's Dance Band. Some nights, you just didn't know unless a barmaid let you in on the secret of who it would be. It didn't matter who was playing the night we showed up. We didn't go out for that. We didn't even go out to drink much. We just went out to have a good time until he dropped me off at my apartment...
My place was right in the center of Sergeantsville, a very rural community with one blinking light. You were in and out town before you knew it. Directly across the street was the municipal building and home of the police department. We sat there for a few minutes discussing what the rest of the week was looking like, sort of like planning another night to run around, drink a few, and hit on some babes. Slowly, a police car crept up across the street and parked. Two officers got out and started to walk towards us. I wasn't afraid of anything. Neither of us were drunk and we certainly weren't doing anything wrong. I recognized one of them, Rich [Redacted,] from my high school days. I got out and stood at the front of my friend's Dodge van. Rich and I greeted each other, shook hands and talked about what we had been up to since those earlier times. The other officer went over to the driver's window. Both Rich and I were oblivious to what was transpiring until we both heard, "I smell marijuana. Get out of the van right now! You are under arrest!"
Rich and I looked at each other with surprise. I turned to face the other officer and said, "Hey, what are you doing?"
He stared at me and said, "You are under arrest, too!"
He made my friend get out of the vehicle and ordered us over to the police car, where he demanded that we empty our pockets. I didn't respond in the split second time he wanted, so he thrust me down on to the hood of the car, knocking the wind out of me. In two seconds flat, I was in handcuffs and he was emptying all of my pockets, where he found a frog, a couple of marbles and a secret agent compass. Maybe some pocket change, too, but absolutely nothing illegal. As a matter of fact, nothing of interest was found in my friend's pockets, either. I asked this overzealous cop what we were being arrested for. He hesitated and said, "For being drunk and disorderly!"
I knew right then and there we were being charged with something trumped-up. We weren't drunk and we weren't disorderly. Had we been drunk, this stupid officer, Jack Demeo, should have been smart enough to charge the driver with a DUI (or DWI back then.) The keys were in the ignition.
The cop commandos marched us up the stairs and into the police station.
"Watch them," Demeo said to Rich, giddy with delight, as if he had just apprehended serial rapists or something. He went outside and returned with the ashtray, He dumped it on his desk and went picking through the cigarette butts. Lo and behold, he pulled out a marijuana roach that amounted to...
2/10 of a gram!
Whoa! The biggest bust of the century! "Ha, ha, ha...I gotcha now!!!" An obvious glee and an evil grin had overtaken him, as we were soon to be facing life in prison in his eyes. "So, on top of being drunk and disorderly, I've got you on a CDS charge, too!"
"What's CDS?" I asked.
"Controlled Dangerous Substance," he snapped back, with a sarcastic snarl. That roach could have been in the ashtray for weeks, for all we knew. The ashtray was packed with butts, but had we known it was there, we would have smoked it long before the cops showed up.
After sitting for what seemed like an eternity, I had to pee. I asked Demeo if I could go. "NO!" I asked him several times and got the same commanding response. Finally, I pulled something out of my head...
"As a U.S. citizen and subject to rule number 17 of the U.S. Constitution, Section C, Part 203, I am allowed to use a restroom facility when I consider it necessary, under penalty of law."
"Take him into the men's room," he ordered Rich, "but watch him."
As I was peeing, he was apologetic. "Hey, Dave, I had nothing to do with this."
Demeo was filling out paper work interrogating my friend when we returned. He looked at me and attacked like a junk yard dog. "Where'd you get this stuff?"
"I don't know."
You're going to bust us with that? You're a joke."
After about a half hour of brutal questioning, he realized he wasn't going to get anywhere, so they loaded us into the back of the squad car and drove us to the Hunterdon County Jail. The entire ride consisted of Demeo making wise cracks and telling us we were the lowest and vilest sub-humans of the community. We laughed. Oh, how it angered him more.
Finally, we arrived to the fanfare of the hungry jailers. They took our mug shots and fingerprints. One of the guards was a high school teacher who moonlighted at the jail and remembered us. He took us upstairs and put us in a holding cell, It was just me and Ken.
"I'll come back and put you in a better cell as soon as we get rid of these asshole cops," he said, and he did. When we awoke the next morning, the TV was showing an old science fiction movie. Yes, it was high-class. Color, too. There was another guy who was already there. We introduced ourselves, shook hands and I asked him what he was in for.
"Oh." I didn't want to pursue that conversation, so we just settled in. At one point, he got up and switched the channel to American Bandstand. I wasn't about to say, "TURN IT BACK! I WAS WATCHING THAT MOVIE!"
Later that morning, the jail doors were opened to freedom, fresh air and sunlight, and our nightmare was temporarily over. $50 later.
THE PLOT THICKENS
We knew we had to get legal representation. My friend got a lawyer and I talked to an attorney friend of mine, Jay Thatcher. We were in the JAYCEES together. I told him I didn't have money to hire a lawyer. He asked me to tell him what transpired that evening. I told him. He said, "Dave, this is the most ridiculous injustice I've ever heard. I'm going to represent you for free."
Jay was a great guy and a very good friend. I was so glad he decided to help out someone in need. He got in touch with the other attorney and they both agreed to file a Motion to Suppress Evidence, a request to a judge to keep out evidence at a trial or hearing, often made when a party believes the evidence was unlawfully obtained.
The judge at our arraignment hearing was Thomas Beetel. Years earlier, my Aunt Bertie worked for him when he was in private practice before being appointed to the bench. We shared the same last name and they didn't get along. I think he might have fired her. I wasn't aware of any connection at that time - I was told later - but he should have recused himself on grounds of prejudice. He did not. Our respective attorneys requested that both officers not be present in the courtroom together when each was to give their own testimony. The judge did allow that. Both cops gave conflicting reports of what transpired that fateful night. I assumed my old high school "friend" would set the record straight. He did not. He lied through his teeth even more than the arresting officer did. I could not believe what I was hearing. Then, Demeo told the judge he was trained by the Marines to smell marijuana better than a dog. When I took the stand, I noticed the judge was doodling stupid little pictures, as if he wasn't paying attention, and had already made up his mind. I guess he did because he sent it on to trial. Motion to Suppress Evidence denied!
On the morning after our arrest, the judge we were going to be facing, Jacob Chantz, was attending a funeral with my grandfather, Reverend George W. Landis. They were very close friends. He should have recused himself, too, because of that friendship, but he didn't, and I guess I am thankful for it. The evening we went to trial, it was one big family; the two officers, the prosecutor, our respective attorneys and us. My close friend, Frank Foran was sitting in the gallery, along with my parents. Our trials were to be handled separately, but together, if that makes sense. Our attorneys approached the prosecutor to work out plea deals.
After minutes of whispering, Jay came back to me and said, "Dave, this is what the prosecutor wants. He's willing to drop the drunk and disorderly charge if you plead to the CDS charge. It means that after a year, you can apply to have your record expunged and it's completely erased. It's as if you were never arrested. You pay a fine now and there is no jail time. What do you want to do?"
"No way am I going to plead guilty to anything. I didn't do anything wrong."
"Great! That's exactly what I was hoping to hear you say." He went back to the prosecutor with my response.
"Oh no," the prosecutor told him, and there came a very special AHA! moment. You see, prosecutors can be moved around to different jurisdictions if the need ever arises. The need arose that particular evening.
"What do you mean?" my lawyer asked.
"My wife is 99.9% pregnant. I came up from south Jersey. I'm filling in for the regular prosecutor, who's on vacation. She could have the baby any minute. I just want to get this over with and go home. How long is this going to take?"
"At least seven hours as far as I'm concerned. I'm going to pick every legal trick out of my hat on this one."
"You're kidding, right?"
"No, I am not. My client is 100% innocent of these charges and I intend to fight it all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary."
"This isn't all that important of a case to me. Let's just drop the charges."
That was it. It had absolutely nothing to do with my guilt or innocence. Case dismissed. All on account of the prosecutor's wife being pregnant. Now that was justice.
My friend had the drunk and disorderly charge dropped but the prosecutor said someone had to take the rap for the 2/10 gram of Mary Jane. It was his vehicle, so he did and a year later he did have his record expunged.
So went my first foray into the legal system. The judge later told my grandfather it never should have reached his courtroom. It should have been dropped at the Motion to Suppress stage and, if not, he had planned on dismissing the charges against me anyway.
AFTER ALL THIS
Oh, yeah. Good old Jack Demeo. He got himself into a little trouble about a year or so after our trial. He was accused - on several occasions - of flashing his badge out of his territory and for trying to pick up women he pulled over. He should have been dealt with for breaking the law but he wasn't. Cop. Good old boy syndrome, I guess. I also heard he had been planting pot in cars to make busts, but had he done that to us, I'm sure more than 2/10 of a gram would have been found. The clincher that finally sealed his fate and brought his law enforcement career to a screeching halt was when he was in Atlantic City inside a casino, Unfortunately for him but lucky for the rest of the country, he flashed his badge at the wrong people at the wrong time. He told a dealer he was with the NJ Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control and he was doing an investigation. What kind of favors can you do for me? The manager of the casino got involved and promptly called his brother-in-law, who worked for the ABC. Why is one of your guys trying to bribe me?
The agency launched an investigation faster than a poker player folds on a five high hand, and dispatched agents to the scene immediately. Jack Demeo was arrested on the spot. Because of that, his credentials were stripped and he was told he could never be a police officer again. The former police chief of Delaware Township, where I was arrested with my friend, told me he did try years later, but the retired chief, the late Warren Peterson, put the screws to that. My guess is that he's probably assistant head of security at a Dollar General store somewhere in Podunk, Arkansas. I did run into Rich a couple of years later and he wanted to extend an apology for what had transpired. I told him that, "as an officer of the law, you were there to tell the truth. You didn't. I'm having a tough time with what you put me through."
Quite obviously, that experience was still on my mind. One day, he approached me at the Weiner King in Flemington, where I was the manager, to tell me he could get me a really good deal on a Jaguar XKE. He had hung up his gun and went to work for a car dealer. The car had just come in and it wasn't even prepped yet. I took him up on the offer, it was a great deal, and I forgave Rich after all. I think he just got caught up in the cop ego trip thing and eventually let it go. All was well between us and I know it ate at him all those years. He really wanted to make things right, and he did. I don't hold a grudge.
I learned my lesson that you can't always trust a man with a badge and prosecutors don't always work for true justice. I've known a lot of police officers and a few prosecutors over the years and most of them are honest and hard-working. Never again have I run into a bad cop like Jack Demeo, but that one time was all it took to keep me on my toes. Fortunately, most guys like him are eventually weeded out of police departments, but not always.
Oh yes, one more thing. The guy we spent the night in jail with who was charged with murder? He was found not guilty. He had a different prosecutor, too.