Victor Serra unfolded a stack of five pink tickets, dates smeared and illegible. "One of them was for tapping a hydrant. I was just drinking water, and they wrote me up for that. I didn't have any tools. It was just open," he said. For another, "I'm fixing my belt, they wrote me up that I was urinating in the street."
Serra's tickets range from $25 to $100, and he says he got them all near his home in Brownsville. He hasn't responded to any of the summonses, because he says he hasn't been able to decipher the instructions. "They gave me five tickets in the same week, in the same neighborhood," he said. "They just know my face."
Jerry Walker, Serra's neighbor, has an outstanding open container ticket. "They [the NYPD] need a quota, so they go around harassing people that they recognize," he said.
Walker and Serra were among over 240 New Yorkers who stood in line outside of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Clinton Hill this morning, to participate in Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson's first Begin Again event to adjudicate low-level offenses. From 9:00 until 3:00, a judge presided over a makeshift courtroom, while lawyers from the Legal Aid Society answered questions about specific cases. Even individuals who had lost their summonses were able to present ID and sit down with a lawyer to go over their records.
According to the DA's office, there are about 1.2 million open warrants in New York City, and more than 260,000 in Brooklyn alone. Most are for low-level or "quality-of-life" offenses, like drinking in public, spitting on the sidewalk, and public urination. All of these factor large in Commissioner Bratton's Broken Windows approach to policing, and have a tendency to land New Yorkers—more often than not, men of color—in jail for failure to pay a small fine or respond to a court summons.
Pat Brooks lives in Sheepshead Bay. In April, she got an $125 ticket for failing to produce a transfer slip on a select bus. "I had my transfer, but I couldn't find it [in my bag] and the officer still gave me a ticket," she said. "You get little summonses, and you can't afford to pay half of them, and they keep going up. And by the time you pay, you have to pay like, $500."
Further ahead on the line, a freelance photographer, who preferred to stay anonymous, explained that he's had an outstanding $25 public drinking warrant—for three years. "I'm tired of riding my bike around making sure everything is in check, for fear of getting stopped," he said.
While the DA has yet to announce an official number of summonses vacated this afternoon, a spokesman said that the "vast majority" had been. But one anonymous resident left frustrated, with a $185 summons still in hand for talking on the phone while driving, which she insists is bogus. "They just told me that they don't do DMV [summonses]," she said. "I have to go to DMV court out in Coney Island."
DA press secretary Charisma Troiano clarified that DMV tickets aren't typically handled by summons court. So those who brought traffic violations today got a slip of paper to present to the DMV, in hopes of getting a reduced fine. "We stress that it's never a guarantee," she said. "But it's a good step."
Begin Again will host another adjudication session at Emmanuel Baptist Church tomorrow, at 279 Lafayette Avenue, from 9:00 to 3:00. Moving forward, the event will pop up every few months in churches, mosques, synagogues and schools across the borough. Warrant holders from all five boroughs are eligible to come.