J’Ouvert steel band players sue NYPD for ‘unconstitutional arrests’

Four Trinidadian-born steel band players in the Caribbean J’Ouvert festival in Brooklyn have filed a federal lawsuit against the City of New York and the New York Police Department (NYPD) officers who made their “unconstitutional arrests” during the J’Ouvert weekend on Sept. 1, 2018.

Michael Demas, Catherine Nunes, Gwynn Glasgow and Jennifer Frederick, members of the Heart of Steel Band, filed the lawsuit on Tuesday through their civil rights attorneys at the Manhattan law firm of Lord & Schewel PLLC. Demas is also the leader of the Heart of Steel Band.

The lawsuit claimed that members of Heart of Steel Band and their guests were “unconstitutionally rounded up and arrested at a Pan Yard celebration in Flatbush, Brooklyn.”

The lawsuit highlighted Sergeant Alan Chau, an NYPD officer, “who has been sued seven times in the last year alone for illegal arrests related to alleged alcohol offenses in the 67th precinct” in East Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Abraham Rubert-Schewel, a lawyer from Lord & Schewel PLLC told Caribbean Life on Tuesday that the prior lawsuits, like the one filed on behalf of his clients, claimed that Sergeant Chau, who is responsible for enforcing all alcohol-related laws in the 67th Police Precinct, “unconstitutionally targeted and arrested guests at Caribbean and West Indian celebrations in Flatbush.”

“The Heart of Steel plaintiffs seek to hold Sergeant Chau and the City of New York accountable, through a Monell claim, for the persistent and unconstitutional harassment continuously suffered by the Caribbean community in Flatbush,” Rubert-Schewel said.

He said the J’Ouvert steel band players and their guests were arrested for the administrative code violation, ABC 64-B, of “operating an unlicensed bottle club.”

ABC 64-B states: “[i]t shall be unlawful for any person, partnership or corporation operating a place for profit or pecuniary gain, with a capacity for the assemblage of 21 or more persons to permit a person or persons to come to the place of assembly for the purpose of consuming alcoholic beverages on said premises, which alcoholic beverages are either provided by the operator of the place of assembly, his agents, servants or employees, or are brought onto said premises by the person or persons assembling at such place, unless an appropriate license has first been obtained from the state liquor authority by the operator of said place of assembly. . . Nothing contained herein shall prohibit or restrict the leasing or use of such place of assemblage as defined herein by any organization or club enumerated in subdivision seven hereof.”

Rubert-Schewel said his clients, including Nunes, 71, and Frederick, 65, “deny ever serving, consuming or selling alcohol.”

“Ms. Nunes and Ms. Frederick brought food to the celebration to share with their friends,” he said. “Instead of a joyous start to J’Ouvert, the plaintiffs spent 24 hours in custody for charges that were all eventually dismissed and sealed.”

The lawyers said in the civil complaint that members of Heart of Steel Bank were “arrested, without probable cause, and charged with operating an unlicensed bottle club, pursuant to ABC law 64-b.”

They said that ABC law 64-b only applies “if a person or corporation is operating a place for profit or pecuniary gain and permitting the consumption of alcohol,” and that the arrest of all of the plaintiffs were “made by officers in the 67th precinct at the instruction of Sergeant Chau.”

Rubert-Schewel also told Caribbean Life that the 67th Precinct “contains large Caribbean and West Indian communities who are routinely and consistently harassed and arrested without probable cause and charged with petty or administrative offenses, such as operating a bottle club without a license.”

He said that data gathered from a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request from the NYPD shows that on the Saturday and Sunday prior to J’Ouvert (Sept. 1 and 2, 2018, respectively) officers in the 67th Police Precinct made 34 arrests.

Rubert-Schewel said seven of these arrests were sealed, and the charges could not be determined; 11 of the arrests were for operating an unlicensed bottle club, under ABC 64-b; and all unlicensed bottle club charges from Sept. 1 to Sept. 2, 2018 were eventually dismissed.

“Sergeant Chau, as conditions Sergeant for the 67th precinct, was responsible for verifying each of these arrests,” the lawyer said. “Officers in the 67th precinct, such as Sergeant Chau, routinely arrest people who are not operating a place for profit or pecuniary gain, and charge them under ABC law 64-b.”

He also claimed officers in the 67th precinct, such as Sergeant Chau, “routinely arrest people who are not owners, operators or employees of the locations (but are merely present at the locations) they believe are illegally serving alcohol, and charge them under ABC law 64-b.”

In addition, Rubert-Schewel claimed that officers in the 67th precinct, such as Sergeant Chau, “routinely arrest people who are members of a religious, non-profit or charitable organization and exempt from ABC 64-b.”

The complaint said that “the NYPD provides no specific training or supervision on when to make arrests pursuant to ABC 64-b,” and that “the NYPD, although aware of his misconduct for years, has never reprimanded or punished Sergeant Chau for his unconstitutional actions.

“The NYPD has failed to properly supervise Sergeant Chau, and other officers in the 67th precinct, who consistently violate the constitutional rights of persons in their precinct,” the complaint said.

Prior to the annual J’Ouvert festival — which precedes, in the wee hours, the massive West Indian American Day Carnival Parade on Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway on Labor Day, the first Monday in September — Rubert-Schewel said that steel bands, in the Caribbean community in Brooklyn, such as Heart of Steel, practice their routine and songs at meetings called Pan Yards.

“These Pan Yards are approved by the NYPD and the 67th precinct, and planned in conjunction with them at community meetings,” he said. “Heart of Steel Band held a daily Pan Yard, to practice for the J’Ouvert celebration, in the months leading up to J’Ouvert, at 1020 E. 48th Street (in Brooklyn).

“The NYPD was aware of and approved this area as a practice location for Heart of Steel,” he added. “1020 E. 48th Street is a private commercial lot, located in a commercial area.”

Rubert-Schewel said that, on Aug. 31, 2018 and extending into the morning of Sept. 1, 2018, Heart of Steel Band was holding a Pan Yard event at 1020 E. 48th Street, and that admission to the Pan Yard was free.

He said his clients sought no profit or pecuniary gain for this event, and that some plaintiffs brought food to the Pan Yard and shared the food for free.

At about 1:50 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2018, Rubert-Schewel said “numerous NYPD officers and police vehicles arrived at the Pan Yard.

“Sergeant Chau instructed Officers Fernandez, Vanbrakle and ‘John and Jane Doe Officers 1-10’ to arrest all plaintiffs,” he said. “Sergeant Chau, and Officers Fernandez, Vanbrakle and ‘Jane and John Doe Officers 1-10’ gathered all plaintiffs together near an area of the Pan Yard where food was being served.”

Rubert-Schewel said he hopes the lawsuit will “put an end to the pattern and practice of reckless and unconstitutional policing by Sergeant Chau and other officers of the 67th precinct.

“J’Ouvert is an incredibly important cultural event for the Caribbean community, and the vast majority of participants are non-criminal and non-violent,” he told Caribbean Life. “The arrests in this case of a 40-year-old, 58-year-old, 65- and 71-year- old, while watching a steel band perform, are perfect examples of the over-policing that can accompany J’Ouvert.”

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