A Brooklyn man is suing the New York Police Department (NYPD), claiming that cops planted weed on his friend to justify arresting both men for an alleged drug deal.
The case began in May 2015, when Abdul Pullium met his cousin's friend, Chaka Virgil, on a street in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The conversation between the two men was observed by two NYPD officers, NYPD Sergeant Madho and Officer Alexander, who were sitting in an unmarked vehicle nearby. The two cops claimed that they saw Virgil hand Pullium a pill bottle, and stopped Pullium for questioning before he could get into his car.
Sergeant Madho claimed that she found a pill bottle containing almost an eighth of weed in Pullium's cargo shorts after a search. The police arrested Pullium for cannabis possession, and then busted Virgil for allegedly selling him the weed. The two men were arraigned at Brooklyn Criminal Court the following day, where both pleaded not guilty to the charges.
A phone video recorded by a neighbor casts some doubt on the officers' official narrative, however. In the video, Officer Alexander can be seen holding a plastic pill bottle behind her back. She can then be seen passing the bottle to Madho, who quickly tosses it into Pullium's car through an open window. Both cops then look back at the camera, seemingly realizing that this chain of action was caught on video.
In her deposition, Sergeant Madho said that she “took the drugs out of [Pullium's] pocket.” When asked why she placed the bottle into his car, Madho answered: "I needed my hands free, so I put it in the backseat."
A police source told Gothamist that this action was not unusual behavior for police: “It’s something I would do as a cop. I know I'm going to be going back to [the marijuana] to voucher it for safekeeping. It’s better to drop it into the car rather than on top of the vehicle or on the pavement, where a passerby can easily take it. It’s a split-second decision.”
John Eterno, professor and associate dean of graduate studies in criminal justice at Molloy College and retired NYPD captain, disagreed, arguing that the officer's choice to drop the drugs made it impossible for prosecutors to prove that the contraband was ever in the suspect's custody.
“Since the drugs are evidence, the officers should simply put it in her pocket. Not doing so can affect the chain of custody of the evidence,” said Eterno to Gothamist. “I have no idea why she would throw the evidence into a suspect's car. Safety seems like a stretch since something like that can just be put in a pocket.”
In the end, Eterno's prediction proved to be correct. After five months and multiple court dates, the charges were eventually dropped, with the prosecutors acknowledging that they could not “prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Gallery — Let's Take a Second to Note That Cops Also Smoke Weed
Although the case was dropped, Virgil, who had never been charged with a crime before this arrest, was unwilling to let the matter drop. In 2017, Virgil sued the City of New York and the two officers who arrested him for false arrest, malicious prosecution, and denial of a right to a fair trial. He is seeking $500,000, a repayment of his court costs, and punitive damages. The case will go to trial soon, unless the parties reach a settlement beforehand.
“As long as police believe, correctly or incorrectly, that the more drug arrests they make will lead to them possibly being promoted, there will be some bad officers who will be tempted to plant drugs on people who didn’t have any to further their careers,” said Fred Lichtmacher, Virgil's attorney, to Gothamist.
The NYPD has become notorious for its disproportionate enforcement of cannabis prohibition laws against minorities. Even though twice as many white New Yorkers report smoking weed than minorities, 94 percent of all cannabis arrests in New York City targeted people of color. The NYPD claimed it would stop busting people for weed misdemeanors last summer, and New York state just decriminalized minor pot possession this fall, so hopefully these disproportionate arrests will become a thing of the past.