Publisher has close police encounter

February 27, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

John Jacob Oliver Jr., chairman of the board and publisher of the Afro-American newspaper, graduate of Fisk University and the Columbia law school, attorney and past president of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, now can add a new title to his name:

Defendant.

On his way home from a Towson computer store last Tuesday night, he was stopped near North Avenue and Eutaw Street by a city policeman who said he'd run a red light. It was yellow, Oliver said.

"Have you gotten any tickets lately for speeding?" Oliver remembers the officer asking.

"None," said Oliver.

The officer retreated to his car to run a check on Oliver's driving record and, moments later, as he waited in his own car, Oliver saw more police arrive. "They must have thought I was about to run away," Oliver wrote in a first-person, front-page story, headlined "Robotic Cops," in Friday's Afro-American.

He was surrounded by four police, and then handcuffed.

"I didn't want to say to them, 'Hey, guys, I'm the publisher of the Afro-American,' " Oliver said yesterday. He was laughing a little by now, but there still was a kind of stunned exasperation in his voice. "There I was, dressed in a business suit, there was nothing threatening about me, and nothing to be gained by arresting me. And I'm telling them, 'Look, I'm two blocks from my home, I'm not a criminal, and I'm not going to run away. You know where to find me if you need me. This isn't necessary.' "

Then, reluctantly (and futilely), he finally said, "Look, I'm the publisher of the Afro."

Big deal: He was taken in handcuffs to Central District lockup, where he spent the next 8 1/2 hours waiting to see a bail commissioner, still not certain why he'd been arrested, in a cell he described as filthy with human waste.

"In the lockup," Oliver, 50, said yesterday, "there were some young guys who looked at me and said, 'What are you doing here?' I said, 'Traffic violation.' They were there for crack possession. I was on my way in. They were on their way out."

In his cell, Oliver saw "dried blood, partially dried urine" and other waste. In the Afro-American, he wrote that he attempted to "escape these disgusting surroundings. I closed my eyes, tried to be comfortable, and listened. I heard a lot of things."

A man in a nearby cell "vented his outrage by shouting every imaginable four-letter word. His shouts were so loud that the normal background prisoner chatter suddenly stopped. ... He yelled his objections to being in jail. He yelled about loving all his brothers who were there with him. He ranted about coming from a good family and having a loving family. He then shrieked about his innocence and how he did not deserve what he was getting.

"Finally, he cursed the authorities who were responsible for placing him there -- in such a complete and utterly conclusive manner that I suddenly realized that I too experienced every feeling he was sharing."

When he finally got to see a bail commissioner, Oliver says, he asked, "What's the charge?"

"Suspended license."

"What for?"

It was a $25 ticket Oliver had gotten in March, and then forgotten -- for driving without a seat belt. There was an outstanding warrant for his arrest.

In a city staggering from serious crime, questions arise: Is failure to use a seat belt -- or to pay the ticket for it -- a serious enough violation to arrest a person? Is this the best use of police manpower? Was something else behind the arrest?

"I'm trying not to think there was anything racially motivated," Oliver says. "There were two white police and two black. I talked with [City Solicitor] Neal Janey, who said this was not an unusual incident. I've talked with three people I know, who said either they or their kids had been arrested for having a suspended license."

Should he have paid the original ticket, or fought it in court? Absolutely. But, "I had literally forgotten about the seat belt incident," Oliver said, "and I do not remember being notified that my license was suspended. But, does this kind of law make sense?"

Yesterday, police spokesman Rob Weinhold said the arresting officers acted "appropriately," and added, "Yes, this sort of thing happens a lot. It's very common. You have someone stopped on some traffic charge, the officer gets a dispatcher to check motor vehicle records, and the arrest is made on the basis of any outstanding charges. The length of time spent waiting for a bail commissioner, well, that's out of our hands."

Oliver's response: "Can't the officers use their authority with more discretion?"

He is scheduled for trial May 8.

"Being in jail," he wrote in the Afro-American, "is a humiliating experience, which should be reserved for only those extreme situations where it is justified. Getting locked up for an unpaid $25 seat belt ticket is not one of those situations."

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