Thirty years ago, when I was 23, I had a harrowing experience with the Delaware Township Police Department in Sergeantsville, NJ.
I had gone out that night with a friend of mine. We hit a couple of bars and settled in at a place in New Hope, PA, called John & Peter's Place. There was a cafe in front and a small listening room in the back. As small as it was, they had some pretty big name bands perform. One of the local favorites was a band out of Philly called Johnny's Dance Band. They were very good. Once in a while, Bruce Springsteen might be there doing acoustic sets. These nights were never announced, when big name people were there. It doesn't matter who was playing that night. We were having a good time until he dropped me off at my apartment.
My place was right in the center of one of those blinking light towns. In and out, just like that. Directly across the street was the municipal building and also home to 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 toward 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 Sands, from my high school days. I got out and stood at the front of my friend's Dodge van. Rich and I started to talk. We first greeted each other and shook hands and progressed to simple talk about what we had been up to since the old high school days. The other officer went over to the driver's window. Both Rich and I were oblivious to what was transpiring there until we both heard, "I smell marijuana. You are under arrest!"
Rich and I looked at each other with surprise. I turned to face the other officer and said, "Hey, what's this all about?"
He said to me," You are under arrest, too!"
He made my friend get out of the car and ordered us over to the police car, where he told us to empty our pockets. I didn't respond in the split second time he wanted, so he thrust me down onto the hood of the car, knocking the wind out of me. He immediately cuffed me and emptied all my pockets, where he found a frog, a couple of marbles and not much else. Nothing illegal, as a matter of fact, and nothing was found in my friend's pockets either. I asked him 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.)
They marched us up the stairs and into the police station. "Watch them," Demeo said to Rich, as if we were escaped murderers he had just apprehended. 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!!!" I think he was thinking we were facing life in prison. "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 an arrogant glee. That roach could have been in the ashtray for weeks, for all we knew. Had we known it was there, back then, we would have smoked it long before the cops showed up.
I had to pee. I asked him if I could go. "NO!" I asked him several times and got the same dictatorial 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 whenever I deem it necessary, under penalty of law."
"Take him into the men's room, but watch him."
As I was peeing, Rich was apologetic. "Hey, Dave, I had nothing to do with this."
After all the paperwork and all that crap was done, 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.
Finally, we arrived to the fanfare of the hungry jailers. They took mugshots and our fingerprints. One of the jailers was a high school teacher and he remembered us, although neither of us had him for a teacher. He took us upstairs and put us in a cell. He said, "I'll come back and put you in a better cell as soon as we get rid of these asshole cops." He did.
When we awoke in the morning, the TV was on an old science fiction movie. There was another guy in with us. We introduced ourselves and I asked him what he was in for. "Murder." I didn't want to pursue that conversation, so, we all just settled in. At one point, he got up and switched the TV to American Bandstand. I wasn't about to tell him to TURN IT BACK! I WAS WATCHING THAT MOVIE! Later that morning, we were released to freedom, fresh air and sunlight. Whew.
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." 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 this hearing was Thomas Beetel. My aunt used to work for him. We shared the same last name. They did not get along and I think he might have fired her. This fact alone should have caused him to recuse himself, on grounds of prejudice, but, he did not. We requested that both officers not be present in the courtroom when each was to give separate testimony. The judge did allow that. Both cops gave conflicting reports of what happened 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 trial judge, Jacob Chantz, was attending a funeral with my grandfather, the Reverend George W. Landis. They were very close friends. He should have also recused himself, but, he didn't either. The night we went to trial, the judge was there, along with the police officers involved, the prosecutor, and our respective attorneys. They were to be separate trials, but, lumped together. The attorneys for both of us approached the prosecutor. Before the onset of a trial, lawyers and prosecutors will try to work out plea arrangements. This is what my lawyer was doing. He came back to me and said, "Dave, here's what the prosecutor wants. He's willing to drop the drunk and disorderly charge if you plead to the CDS charge. This means that after a year, you apply to have your record expunged, and it is 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 am innocent of all charges."
"That's what I was hoping to hear you say." He went back to the prosecutor and said so.
"Oh no," the prosecutor told him.
"What do you mean?" my lawyer asked.
"My wife is 99.9% pregnant. I came up from south Jersey tonight. I'm just filling in. She can have the baby any minute. I want to 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." Here's where it got very interesting.
"You're kidding. This isn't 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 someone had to take the rap for the 2/10 of a gram. It was his vehicle, so he did, and later had 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 level and he would have dismissed the charges against me anyway.
AFTER ALL THIS
Oh, yeah, good old Jack Demeo. He got himself into a little trouble after that. He was accused, on several occasions, of flashing his badge out of jurisdiction and trying to pick up women he'd pull over. I guess it was up to certain authorities to deal with it, but, it's my understanding nothing much was done. Good ol' boy syndrome. I'd heard of him planting pot in cars, although, had he done that to us, I'm sure more than 2/10 of a gram would have been found. The clincher was when he was in Atlantic City, at a casino, where he flashed his badge to the wrong people. He told them he was with the Alcoholic and Beverage Commission and was doing an investigation. What kind of favors can you do for me? The manager promptly called his brother-in-law, who worked for the ABC, and asked what this was all about. That guy sent some big nasty officers over and arrested him on the spot. He could never be a police officer again. He did try, years later, but his old police chief put the screws to that. He's probably head of security at some Dollar General store somewhere in Podunk, Arkansas. I ran into Rich Sands many years later. He wanted to make peace with me. I told him that, "as an officer of the law, you were there to tell the truth. You didn't. I don't want to have anything to do with you again." I must say that years later he approached me at the restaurant where I worked and did get me a really good deal on a Jaguar XKE, so, time kind of softened things a bit and I guess I kind of, sort of did forgive him after all.
The guy we spent the night in jail with who was charged with murder? He was found innocent. I'm sure the prosecutor's wife wasn't pregnant when he went to trial.