Last December, Joseph “Jazz” Hayden, a 71-year-old Harlem resident who has extensively documented the NYPD‘s law enforcement activity in his neighborhood, was pulled over by two officers he had filmed before. The officers claimed he had a broken taillight, but Hayden wasn’t charged with a traffic offense. Instead he faced up to 2-7 years in prison on felony weapons charges for a rusted, broken switchblade knife and a novelty-sized baseball bat. Today, the Manhattan DA‘s office offered Hayden an ACD and five days community service in lieu of the felony charges. “Just think about the amount of public resources spent on trying to prosecute me for a broken knife,” Hayden said in a phone interview. “I’m talking the police, the vehicles, the three days I spent in jail, the lawyers, the court appearances. In these economic times, this money was wasted on absolute bullshit. That’s what you have to call it.”
Gideon Oliver, one of three attorneys on a team defending Hayden that included Sarah Kunstler and Rebecca Heinegg, said that for a defendant to arrive at an ACD after beginning with felony charges was very unusual. “This is a tremendous victory,” Oliver said. “The DA argued that they offered [the ACD] because the knife was inoperable, but regardless of those statements, [the agreement] certainly would not have happened without the enormous amount of community support that was displayed in and out of court.”
“…They charge you with a larger charge, then make you plead to something else. In this case with the knife, it didn’t work.”
More than 2,200 people signed a petition asking that Manhattan DA Cy Vance drop the charges against Hayden, and supporters frequently demonstrated outside his court appearances. “The community support was the deciding factor,” Hayden said. “My case was a routine practice in the criminal process system—I say ‘process’ because it has nothing to do with justice. They charge you with a larger charge, then make you plead to something else. In this case with the knife, it didn’t work.”
Hayden, who has been arrested 22 times over the course of his life and spent 12 years in prison for manslaughter, was forced to plead guilty to a separate charge of disorderly conduct, a lesser offense than initial charge misdemeanor reckless driving. “The stop was bogus, so they had absolutely no case. It was pure retaliation” for filming them, Hayden added.
Asked what those who may not have the overwhelming support of the community behind them should do if they feel they’ve been wrongly accused by the NYPD, Hayden replied, “They have to join this movement to bring about radical change in the system. This could happen to anybody. All those people lined up around the courthouse—they have to see this as their fight.”
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