Wealthy Frenchman

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Presumed Guilty


The death of Sean Bell at the hands of undercover police officers, who also wounded his two companions in their 50-shot barrage in Queens nine days ago, brought to mind a case from a few years back in which undercover cops, acting on bogus information, attacked an innocent group of young people in a car in Manhattan.

The cops in the Manhattan case assumed that the people in the car were lowlifes. They were all Ivy League graduates, and one is currently clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

The incident occurred about 11:30 p.m. on Jan. 10, 2000. Two men and two women who were running their own startup Internet company, MagicBeanStalk.com, were parked outside a subway station on East 14th Street, near Union Square. Without any warning, a plainclothes officer leaped out of a yellow cab with his gun drawn and rushed the car with the four young people in it.

Thinking he was being carjacked, the driver put the vehicle in reverse and tried to get away. He was blocked by an unmarked police car that had pulled up behind him. He ended up hitting both the unmarked car and the cab (which was also a police vehicle) in his unsuccessful effort to flee.

The driver, Jason Rowley, who was 25 at the time, had no idea that the man with the gun was a cop. “I thought he was going to shoot me,” he said in an interview last week. “I was trying to get out of there.”

The passenger in the front seat, Sheldon Gilbert, said, “We thought we were going to die, plain and simple.”

The first cop was joined by two others, also in plain clothes. The officers apparently were enraged by Mr. Rowley’s effort to get away. One smashed the window on the driver’s side of the car and dragged Mr. Rowley through it, ripping his thumb in the process. Mr. Gilbert said his door was yanked open and he was punched in the face and then dragged from the car. The two men were then beaten.

The two women, Lauren Sudeall and Marie Claire Lim, were in the back seat, completely terrified. They were taken from the car at gunpoint and handcuffed. All four occupants were arrested.

It turned out that the cops were acting on a mistaken computer report that Mr. Rowley’s car was stolen. As frightening as the incident was, the four people in the car were lucky that none of the cops opened fire. “I spent that night in jail,” said Mr. Rowley, “and a lot of the officers told me that if this had been elsewhere — for example, if this has been in the Bronx or Harlem — I’d have been dead.”

As the case was processed, the police learned that the car indeed belonged to Mr. Rowley, that all four occupants had recently graduated from college (Mr. Rowley from Brown and the others from Yale), that Ms. Sudeall was carrying an acceptance letter from Harvard Law School, and that they had all been coming home from a long day’s work at their company. None of that protected them from being treated by the police like trash.

Mr. Rowley and Mr. Gilbert are black. Ms. Sudeall is of mixed parentage, black and white, and Ms. Lim is from the Philippines. The officers who rushed their car were white.

Jonathan Abady, a lawyer who represented the four in a subsequent lawsuit (which the city settled), believes that the race of the victims in that case and in the Sean Bell case — in which some of the cops were black — was a major factor in the way the police behaved.

“Our case was a classic example of disproportionate force being used against entirely innocent civilians,” he said. “It was an example of egregiously overaggressive police conduct that I think ultimately is based on stereotypes and perceptions. This case and the shooting of Sean Bell are examples of a very ignominious history of the police taking certain liberties, essentially in communities of color. It’s hard to believe that they would have fired 50 shots into a vehicle on Park Avenue and 57th Street in Manhattan.”

The four people who were in the car in the Manhattan incident have since done extremely well. Ms. Sudeall, for example, graduated from law school and is now a clerk for Justice Stevens. Mr. Gilbert has established a new Internet venture based on a program he invented that predicts people’s buying patterns online. It’s very creepy to think how easily one or more of the four could have been killed in their encounter with the police.

As Ms. Sudeall said yesterday, “It seems like it’s inviting disaster to be not in uniform, not showing identification and attacking people who may or may not have done anything wrong.”


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