If you or a loved have ever been a victim of injustice, I invite you to read this very personal story. At times, fear and intimidation make us waiver in our attempt to stand up for what is right. I invite you to read on and join the fight to make our nation and our world a better place.
In the winter of 2014, I was arrested by the Orlando Police Department and charged with a “Fleeing to Elude a Police Officer” felony. As a law student, I immediately thought about my career and my dreams going all down the drain. Although I was undecided as to what area of law I wanted to practice, the study of law and my aspiration to become an attorney was my lifelong dream.
I thought I was doomed.
Although the alleged “pursuit” lasted a total of 51 seconds, in which I was driving at a speed of 15 mph, it did not matter to the police officers that night. According to them, I had not “stopped my vehicle in time,” and in the great State of Florida, as opposed to the majority of the states of the Union, not stopping in time is a felony, almost as bad as attempted murder.
I was playing music in my vehicle at a high volume that night and was accompanied by a female friend, and I had not heard the patrol car’s police siren behind me. When I finally realized I was being followed by police officers, I noticed there was no place to pull up on the side of the road we were on, so I proceeded to head toward the police station located at the lower level of the garage of my last place of work in downtown Orlando so I could speak with police and verify why I was being followed.
After stopping right in front of the police station and asking the officer repeatedly why I was being detained, one of the police officers yelled to his partner, “Just go ahead and arrest him.”
I also remember that same officer saying, “Oh, he’s Puerto Rican, no wonder he didn’t stop,” after seeing my Puerto Rican flag miniature boxing gloves dangling from my car’s rearview mirror. I was forcefully pulled out of my vehicle, arrested and taken into the police station just steps away. Along my walk to the police station entrance, I asked the officer why I was being arrested.
He never answered.
I had no drug possession, no driving under the influence of alcohol, no weapon possession, nothing, NADA. The girl I was with was let go and was told to leave the scene.
I was then put into a holding cell all by myself, with my hands handcuffed behind my back while I just sat there. I was devastated.
All I could think of was my career and how all my long years of hard work in law school and civic engagement throughout my life was probably now in jeopardy due to an incident which happened in a matter of 51 seconds.
I remember sitting there handcuffed and looking around the entire holding cell thinking about what my family would say. The walls were completely white and the room was very cold. I got up on my feet and proceeded to walk to the door of the cell and knock on it with my handcuffed hands in order to summon an officer. The door opened and the police officer who was ordered to arrest me asked me what I wanted. I told him that I was not a criminal, that the entire situation was a huge misunderstanding and that I respectfully requested to be let go.
The officer kindly told me:
Man, I’d love to give you a break, I spoke to my supervisor, but I was told that he had already filed the charges, this really sucks.
He seemed genuine about what he was saying and then proceeded to close the door. I sat back down and just let out a deep sigh.
At that moment, the door of the holding cell all of a sudden cringed open again and what seemed to be another Hispanic man was escorted into the cell by the police officer who ordered my arrest and forced to sit down immediately across from me.
The police officer yelled, “Now you sit right there and do not move!” before leaving the cell and closing the door behind him. The man now sitting in front of me was poorly groomed, with long black hair and tanned skin. He also had his hands handcuffed behind his back, and was leaning forward with a very sad look on his face.
Suspecting he was a Spanish speaker, I asked him if he spoke Spanish, “Hablas español, mi hermano?” (Do you speak Spanish, my brother?)
“Sí. Wow. Pareces gringo, no esperaba que me hablaras en español.” (Yes. Wow. You look like a gringo. I did not expect you to speak to me in Spanish.)
We immediately asked each other the number one jailhouse question of all time: “So, what are you in for?” We both started laughing, because we asked each other the same question at exactly the same time.
After telling him why I was in jail, he proceeded to tell me that he was homeless, and was arrested for “illegally camping” under a highway crossway on I-4.
“You’re kidding right?” I asked him.
He became dead serious and said, “No.”
I proceeded to ask my cellmate from where he was from. He told me he was Mexican, an undocumented immigrant, and that he was afraid he would now be deported. I looked at him while grinning, and told him, “Todo estará bien mi hermano, tranquilo, todo estará bien. Dios esta contigo.” (Everything is going to be ok my brother. Everything is going to be ok. God is with you.)
He never responded back, but smiled. My cellmate and I are were held in that holding cell for at least four hours, before we were removed from the holding cell and put into the back of a police car. I can still feel the 50 degree cold weather of that early morning and the sound of the police officer inserting his key into the ignition and revving up the engine. I looked over to the man with whom I shared the holding cell and noticed he had fallen asleep. I imagined how scared he must have felt when a cop woke him up while he slept under a bridge and arrested him.
At that moment, the police officer in the passenger side of the patrol car asked me, “Is everything ok back there?”
I responded, “Not really. This really sucks. What is my family going to think? What am I going to tell the dean of my law school?”
At that point, the officer turned over and told me, “Ah, it’s not the end of the world. Who knows, maybe we’ll see you on a billboard in the near future and remember the day we arrested you.”
Both police officers started laughing. I, however, was not laughing at all. All I could think about was getting back home as soon as possible.
We then arrived at the Orange County Corrections jail, where I was stripped, put into jail clothing and processed. The female corrections officer who took my fingerprints and mugshot, asked me, “You don’t look like a guy that should be here. What did you do?”
I proceeded to explain to her. She then looked at the officer who brought me to the jail and asked, “Did he have drugs on him? Weapons? Driving under the influence?” The officer said “Nope.”
The female corrections officer then stared at the officer and responded, “ REALLY?”
I still didn’t know what I was being charged for and I therefore asked her. She told me I was charged with “Fleeing to Elude a Police Officer.”
I was in shock. I was never fleeing from the police and much less eluding them. If I was, why the hell would I drive TO the police station and stop my vehicle there? If I was truly looking to escape the cops, I would haven drove towards I-4 and sped off, and I did not. She then proceeded to get my last fingerprint while shaking her head.
After that I was told to sit down in what seemed to be a type of waiting room for incoming inmates. There were telephones near the seats, available for inmates to make calls, almost all of which did not function properly. When I finally found a phone that worked, I attempted to call my brother, but I was unable to do so because I encountered a voice message saying “ Only local calls are permissible.”
I was so frustrated. All of my close family members had Puerto Rican area codes and I did not know any of my friends’ numbers by memory.
So the notion of everyone having a right to make a phone call is not entirely true. If you have no local contacts, you are out of luck in Orlando. At that point I asked a jail guard if he can help me make a call to my brother in order to contact an attorney and he responded, “You are out of luck my friend, that’s not my problem.
I must have sat there for an additional four to five hours before getting evaluated by an in-jail nurse who checked my vitals. She was very nice with me throughout the evaluation. At one moment, I noticed she had a landline phone on her desk. I politely explained to her about my inability to make a call and asked her if she would be nice enough to let me call my family who must have been worried.
The nurse responded, “I’m not supposed to do this, but I will make the call for you, what is your sister’s number?”
After calling my sister and alerting my family, I was taken to a general population cell along with around 20 other inmates, where there were bunk beds across the entire cell. The Mexican man with whom I rode to jail with must have been placed in a separate general population cell, because I never saw him again.
I was very exhausted so decided to lay down in my bunk bed. The mattress was hard and it was very cold. While I laid there stretching and rubbing my eyes, I began to observe the other inmates. I was shocked to notice that almost all were African Americans and Latinos. One of the African American men laying in the bunk next to me said, “Hey man, what are you in for? You don’t look like someone who should be here.” The man had tattoos all over his arms. He kind of reminded me of the rapper Master P. After I explained to him why I was locked up he responded “Man, that is some bullshit! You are in here because you didn’t stop in time?” When I asked him why he was in he said, “Man, I was accused of battery. But whatever.”
I told the African American man I was worried about what my friends and family will think and most importantly I was afraid I would never be able to practice law after telling him that I attend Florida A&M College of Law. When the man heard I was a law student, he got up from his bunk and started asking me tons of questions. In a matter of seconds the entire cell found out I was a law student and all of them started asking me questions. I politely told them I was not yet an attorney and could not provide them legal advice, for it was unethical. It was kind of funny, here I was surrounded by a bunch of tough guys who were huddled around me asking all sorts of questions.
My experience in that cell was nothing like what I had seen in the movies. Don’t get me wrong, the guys were clearly tough guys and not the type of people you would want to mess with, but they were actually kind to me. I remember thinking to myself, “Regardless of the crimes that they were charged of, these are human beings.”
After a while, I walked back to my bed, laid down, closed my eyes and fell asleep.
After an unknown number of hours of sleep (there were no clocks in the jail cell), I opened my eyes. After rubbing my eyes and squinching, I got up from my bunk and noticed that around half the jail cell was now empty. Most of the inmates were either released on bond or brought to a higher security cell to be processed to prison.
At that moment, a guard yelled, “Chow time!” I was served jail food and to be quite honest, it tasted horrible. However, I ate it anyways because I was very hungry. Later that day I was brought before a judge inside the jail to determine bond. The judge, after reading the police report the police officer wrote up (most of which contained totally inaccurate information), went on to say, “ I don’t think this should have been a three-count felony. This will most probably be dropped to one later.” He then set my bond and I was sent back to my cell where I would remain the entire day. I was bored out of my mind and was anxious to speak to an attorney. I finally dozed off and fell asleep again.
“Wake up! You’re on your way out of here buddy, you made bond!”
I woke up startled. I then realized that the man speaking me to me was a corrections facility guard. This time, the entire cell was empty, except for me and the African American man who had asked me for legal advice. We were both brought to an out processing area of the jail, where they gave back our original clothing. I put my clothes back on and was escorted to the jail exit where I could finally see outside through a window. It was dark, around 10:00pm, and I was able to see my brother outside in the cold waiting for me.
I was so glad to see him. I remember the guard opening the jail release door and the winter cold hitting me in the face. My brother hugged me for a while and said that he was there for me. We hopped into his car and rode off.
Man, it’s so good to see you, here, I brought you some chips and a Coke. I talked to your attorney friend and he said he specializes in personal injury, but he has a very good friend who can help represent you, someone by the name of Jacob, or something like that. I called him up and told him you needed an attorney. I just texted him your cell number.
Right in the middle of the conversation, my cell phone rang, and an unkown number popped up on my screen. When I picked up, I heard a voice say, “Hi Phillip , this is Jacob. Are you ok?”
Seven Months Later
After seven long and excruciating months of uncertainty and concern about my future and months of communication between my attorney and the state tttorney’s office, my layer called me.
He had great news: the State of Florida had failed to bring me to trial within the 175 days outlined in the “Speedy Trial” provision of the Rules of Criminal Procedure. It was clear the State had very weak evidence, therefore they never proceeded forward with my case.
However, the Assistant State Attorney, approached my attorney and made an offer to drop my three-count felony to a second degree reckless driving misdemeanor or they would proceed to take me to trial. It seemed like a bluff to avoid the embarrassment of having to dismiss the charges brought towards me.
I had to make a tough decision. Should I accept the offer and put all of this behind me, move on with my life and focus on my law career or instead, keep fighting to clear my name and take it to trial?
A misdemeanor would not automatically prohibit me from taking the Florida Bar and becoming an attorney. However, a felony record would make it almost impossible for me to become an attorney. All I thought about was my daughter and her future. As a law student, who is currently taking advanced trial practice, I knew that in trial anything can happen and the risk of going to trial and rolling the dice on my daughter’s future by putting it in the hands of a jury was not worth it. I decided to not think about myself or my reputation and in turn thought about my daughter’s future.
I accepted the offer and plead no contest to a 15mph reckless driving misdemeanor charge.
Two days after pleading no contest, I was leaving work in my vehicle and passing by Florida A&M College of Law, when all of a sudden I saw a white pickup truck with a huge Confederate flag in the back.
I could not stop staring at it, considering all that was going on in weeks past regarding the whole flag situation in South Carolina. As I approached the red light, I saw the white pickup truck stopping next to me and a man sitting in its passenger side signals me to roll down my window. After I roll down my window, the man yells, “What the fuck are you looking at?”
I don’t appreciate your language and now that you mention it, I don’t appreciate that flag either. It represents hate and racism.
At that moment the light switched and I continued onto I-4 when suddenly the white pickup truck swerved violently in front of my vehicle and came to a screeching halt. I hit the brakes (Thank God I did not rear end them). The two men immediately exited their truck and one of them proceeded to punch me through my driver’s side window. I was able to roll up my window and the man continued to punch away at my window while yelling that he was going to kill me and demanded that I respect their flag.
At that point, I heard police sirens, and the white pickup truck was told to pull over. After being interviewed by one of the Florida Highway patrol officers who told me he was a trainee and new on the job, I was told this:
You’re lucky to be alive, I’ve seen similar cases like this and guys like them are usually carrying guns. You could have been a dead man. We are calling in Orlando Police Department to take over.
Initially, I thought this was odd, considering Florida Highway Patrol were the direct witnesses of what had happened. An OPD officer walked towards me after interviewing the men that attacked me and the first words that left his mouth were, “Is it true you were criticizing the Confederate flag?”
I proceeded to tell the police officer that I had told them I did not approve of that flag considering it was racist and I was fully aware of their 1st Amendment right to display the flag, however, the issue at matter was the fact these men attacked me, created a traffic jam on I-4 and also had their license plate totally obstructed from plain view.
The officer told me nothing had happened and urged me to respect the Confederate flag even though I had a clear red mark on my chest. The issue at hand had nothing to do about the Confederate flag. Those men have the constitutional right to wave that flag, and it is a right I will always defend, so I was surprised to hear the police officer’s determination. In our nation, if you feel like waving a German Nazi swastika flag, that is your right. It is not your right, however, to use violence against someone.
I felt like my rights as a victim were violated by the Orlando Police Department and I was disgusted when I saw the man that attacked me drive off and wave at me while smiling. I got a flashback to the night of when I was arrested by the Orlando Police Department for “not stopping in time.” Here I was once again in a situation with the police, this time as a victim of a much more serious crime and the police did NOT arrest anybody. It took the Orlando Police Department four days to file a simple incident report (it usually takes less than 24 hours), and it was not until I contacted and alerted the media that the police then decided to file charges against the man, but they NEVER arrested him. The case is now pending before the State Attorney’s office.
I have decided to step forward and tell this very personal story in order to denounce injustice and contribute my grain of salt to improve our justice system. After researching into central Florida’s jail inmate statistics, I discovered some very frightening and shocking data. Over 70% of inmates and arrests effectuated in Central Florida are African Americans and Latinos. However, you will never find this percentage on any document because there is no HISPANIC column in the Department of Corrections’ statistics. Yes, Hispanics are curiously counted under the WHITES column in order to dilute the 70% of minority arrests to therefore even up the disparity between whites and minorities.
On the flip side, if you look into electoral registration statistics, there is a HISPANIC column. Why does the Florida count Hispanics under the WHITES column in its crime statistics? Why do they do, however, count Hispanics for voting purposes? Why is the Stateinterested in keeping an eye on voter participation of Hispanics, and on the other hand cover up percentage of Hispanics being arrested or put in jail? I was disgusted. Something doesn’t smell right and I can stand here today and humbly say that I strongly believe I was the victim of a broken system that must be changed, in the name of equal justice under the law for ALL.
In the past months, the police in Central Florida have been under heavy public scrutiny after it was discovered that Klu Klux Klan members have infiltrated the ranks.
Another controversy arose from within the State Attorney’s office as well. One of the Assistant State Prosecutors in Orange County posted racial slurs against United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor by hinting she would be working at McDonald’s if it wasn’t because of Affirmative Action. He was not fired and is still prosecuting at the office of State Attorney Jeff Ashton. I urge the entire Latino population in Orange and Osceola counties to remember this when going to the voting booth in 2016.
One of my professors at Florida A&M College of Law, attorney John Paul Jones, who has litigated hundreds of cases, including various before the Supreme Court told me and my classmates something I will never forget:
As future attorneys, I urge all of you to become the element of change in our society. These unfortunate shootings, police brutality and misconduct by some, not all, police officers in our nation has to be stopped. As future practicing attorneys, never forget what your purpose is. Your purpose is to stand up and advocate against injustice and make this world a better place.
Professor Jones’ words still remain in my mind and deep within my heart. I shall not waiver in my vocation to stand up to injustice and fight for what is right. I do this not to clear my name but to prevent other victims from suffering what I went through—many of whom prefer to stay in the shadows and not speak up due to fear. I will speak up and fight for those people when I, God willing, go on to graduate next year, take the bar and become an attorney.
In addition, I will not pay the $500 mugshot websites charge for taking down my mugshot because I will not in good faith and conscience contribute monetarily to “legalized extortion.” I call on all members of the Florida State Legislature to take on this matter aggressively to regulate and put an end to the dirty business of destroying personal reputations online for a profit through legalized extortion (many states have done so, and so can Florida.)
As for the members of the Orlando Police Department, I want to make myself very clear that I respect and admire the work and dedication of our police officers who day in and day out keep us safe. However, there is a minority within their ranks that are giving the entire department a bad reputation and must be held accountable. To the majority of the decent and responsible police officers at the Orlando Police Department, I salute you.
I would like to personally thank my attorney and my Florida A&M College of Law professors James Smith, Trizia Eaverson and John Paul Jones for their support and inspiration.
As for me? I will continue to fight even harder for a comprehensive immigration reform in our country and equal political rights for the people of my homeland, the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. I will also get more involved in my community and help protect my fellow citizens from injustice. To those who have attempted to slander my reputation, I say this: I forgive you, but I shall NOT be intimidated and much less be silenced.
I will stay strong and keep the dream alive.
And one more thing: I am no longer undecided as to what area of law I will practice.
I want to become a defense attorney.
Phillip Arroyo is currently a Juris Doctor student at Florida A&M College of Law in Orlando, Florida. Phillip was selected as the only Puerto Rican to serve in the 2012 White House Internship, having worked in the office of the Vice President Joe Biden, where he analyzed domestic and economics issues while at the White House. You can follow him on Twitter @PhillipArroyo.