Police officers are given extraordinary powers in our society. They are charged with enforcing the law, carrying deadly weapons, and depriving citizens of their liberty. While many officers honor this sacred trust, others do not. Much attention lately has been focused of the use of deadly force. There has been little attention devoted to police misuse of their right to charge and detain citizens on trumped up or simply bogus charges.
A recent event in Long Island demonstrates the misuse of the right to charge and detain a citizen by utilizing pretext. On June 12, 2020, at a peaceful civil rights protest, a protestor, Terrel Tuosto, was manhandled and arrested by the police and charged with disorderly conduct. Why was he deprived of his liberty, charged with a crime and treated in a completely unnecessary and very rough manner? Because he bumped into a police officer.
Now to be charged with a crime for something like this seems crazy. But what is more shocking is the way the events unraveled, all of which were caught on camera. Mr. Tuosto was peacefully exercising his constitutional right to protest. In a classic set up, an officer walking in front of him intentionally stopped short and caused Mr. Tuosto to bump into him. This was obviously a set up to give the police the pretext to manhandle and arrest a peaceful protestor and that is exactly what occurred. It is shocking for many that the police would so callously deprive a citizen of their liberty for such nonsense, but that is exactly what happened.
Unfortunately, despite being innocent of anything other than exercising his constitutional rights, Mr. Tuosto will now have to deal with the headache of defending himself against this bogus charge. This will require him to go to court, hire a lawyer and be completely inconvenienced clearing his name. It is very likely that the District Attorney would decline to prosecute. But the police will have succeeded in “sending a message” to him, by manhandling him, handcuffing him and throwing him in a jail cell and running him through the indignity of being processed as a criminal when he was innocent.
Sadly, when asked by CNN whether he believes extreme force was used by his officers, Nassau County Police Commissioner Ryder said his officers "have acted extremely professional and this is evident by the peaceful outcomes of these protests." Change can never occur unless the rank and file officers are made aware that their bosses will no longer tolerate abuse of their authority. Without this, there will be no change. The video depicting the arrest appears in the following link.
As attorneys, we have seen abuses of police authority many times. We represented a man from Brooklyn, who spent close to two years in jail due to police abuse of their right to charge citizens with a crime.
The night prior to our client’s arrest, a person had been assaulted with a 2x4. The following day, our client was sitting in front of his home enjoying nice weather. Unbeknownst to him, a police detective was cruising the neighborhood with a witness to the assault. The police officer “pointed out” our client and basically told the witness to identify our client as the assailant. Our client was charged with several violent felonies and was facing a lot of jail time. He was unable to make bail and remained in Riker’s Island until his trial. The District Attorney wanted him to take a plea to a charge which would have put him in jail for several years. Our client refused to take a plea because he was innocent.
At his trial, the witness said that our client was not the person who assaulted the victim and that he only identified him as the perpetrator because the police officer said he was. Our client was immediately freed, and the charges dropped based on this testimony. Our client had lost almost two years of his life in jail for something he did not do.
We pursued a claim for false arrest and wrongful imprisonment on his behalf and were able to obtain a sizeable recovery for him. However, the officer who was responsible for his incarceration had no consequences because of his behavior. That is part of the problem, if police officers can feel empowered to misuse their authority at the expense of their fellow citizens without consequence, there is the very real fear that some bad officers will abuse this power. There needs to be consequences that impact the individual officers if they misuse their power and they must suffer the consequences professionally. This change must come from the top.