A New Jersey woman has accused several NYPD officers of race-based discrimination and excessive force, after they allegedly arrested her violently for no apparent reason after a traffic stop in Staten Island.
Sheena Stewart, 28, was driving to work in Staten Island last March when police pulled her over—though she wasn't violating any traffic laws, according to her suit. As she was looking for her registration at the cops' behest, one of the officers allegedly demanded, "what the fuck is taking you so long?"
Stewart says she told the officer that if he continued to speak to her that way, she would record their interaction. At that point, an officer identified as Matthew Castellano told her that she was under arrest, forcibly removed her from her vehicle, and threw her to the ground, causing her to land on her stomach, the suit alleges. Stewart was seven months pregnant.
Despite Stewart's visible pregnancy, and the fact that she informed her arresting officers of her state, they continued to treat her with force, the suit claims: they allegedly shoved her in the back of a police car and continued to push her as she struggled to exit the car at the 121st Precinct stationhouse. Throughout, they allegedly called her a "fat bastard" and threatened to have her fired from her job caring for disabled adults.
Upon being placed in a cell at the stationhouse, Stewart asked for medical treatment, as she was experiencing stomach cramps and back pain after the alleged attack outside her car. It was an hour before an ambulance arrived to take her to the hospital, according to the suit, and she remained handcuffed the entire time. At no point that day was it made clear to her why she was under arrest in the first place, according to her complaint.
Stewart spent the night in jail. The next day, she was taken to Richmond County Criminal Court, where she found out that she had been charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and obstructed governmental administration. Those charges were all baseless, and likely an attempt to cover up the officers' brutality and abuse of authority, her suit alleges.
Over the next four months, as Stewart progressed into the final months of her pregnancy and eventually gave birth to a healthy baby girl, she had to return to court on multiple occasions to fight the charges, until they were dismissed on July 31st, 2015. Stewart has since enlisted the services of a civil rights attorney, and is accusing Castellano, the other officers involved in her alleged assault, and the city itself of race-based discrimination, excessive force, and unlawful imprisonment.
Citing other legal action and complaints filed with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent city agency tasked with assessing claims of police misconduct, the suit argues that the use of excessive force is endemic in the NYPD, as are officers' habits of pulling over drivers and discriminating against them because of their race or nationality.
"We've seen many cases where police officers are lawfully questioned about the reason for a stop in urban areas, often with motorists who are black or Hispanic, and the police officers seem to have a pattern of flying into a rage when their authority is questioned," said Brett Klein, Stewart's attorney. "Here, asking an officer to take it easy verbally or asking why one's being pulled over—those are legitimate questions for someone to ask, and even in the case where someone says something inappropriate, which didn't happen here, the police should be trained to show restraint."
Stewart's case bears some resemblance to that of Benjamin Farias, who sued the city and a number of NYPD officers after he was falsely arrested after a traffic stop last April. Farias managed to record his arrest and capture an officer admitting that there was no real reason to pull him over, but while Stewart did tell her arresting officers that she would record them, she wasn't able to do so before they wrenched her out of the vehicle, her lawyer said.
Klein also successfully sued the city in 2014 on behalf of Robert Graham, who was similarly pulled over and violently arrested in Brooklyn when it wasn't clear he'd broken any traffic laws. Graham won $150,000 from the city in that settlement; between 2009 and 2014, NYC paid out nearly half a billion in NYPD-related settlements.
According to the NYPD, the officer named in the suit, Castellano, resigned in May 2015, just two months after the alleged incident. The city has said that it will review Stewart's complaint.