I was sitting in the corner of the cramped court room at the Durham County Jail when they rolled an inmate wearing orange into the courtroom in a wheel chair. I was waiting my turn to ask for a bond reduction for a client, and had about a lot other things waiting for me at the office. The Assistant District Attorney read the guy’s name and his charges: “On or about October 22, 2010, you unlawfully and willfully did solicit passers-by on Fayetteville Road for money.” I was appalled. So was the judge. A homeless guy in a wheel chair arrested for “soliciting alms/begging for money.” Only in Durham. The District Attorney offered to let him plead guilty and sentence him to time served. Judge Morey saw it differently and felt like someone should fight for him. I volunteered to represent him without cost, and his case was continued. He was released without having to post money for a bond. I showed up at his court date, but he didn’t. I wondered what happened to him.
Months went by, and I became aware that he was back in jail on a new charge. This time he “appeared intoxicated and disruptive in a public place on Fayetteville road and was disruptive in that he was interfering with traffic on a highway by blocking and lying across the highway and begging for money after failing to leave after being told.” He was charged with violating this statute:
N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-444. Intoxicated and disruptive in public
(a) It shall be unlawful for any person in a public place to be intoxicated and disruptive in any of the following ways:
(1) Blocking or otherwise interfering with traffic on a highway or public vehicular area, or
(2) Blocking or lying across or otherwise preventing or interfering with access to or passage across a sidewalk or entrance to a building, or
(3) Grabbing, shoving, pushing or fighting others or challenging others to fight, or
(4) Cursing or shouting at or otherwise rudely insulting others, or
(5) Begging for money or other property.
He had fallen into the road, and couldn’t get up. The officer’s solution was a citation for a crime. By the time I learned he was in jail, he had spent 25 days in jail. He was no longer in a wheel chair, but was using crutches to walk.
I came into court and he was again in orange and chains. He didn’t remember me. I learned his story. He was born and raised in Durham. When I got the chance I gave a sermon to the judge and the court that went something like this:
“Judge, we are all guilty of neglect. I am guilty. You are guilty. The prosecutor is guilty. The police are guilty. Everyone in Durham is guilty of allowing one of our own to be reduced to the point of having to beg for money. And I am ashamed that the solution to this situation for at least two of our City Police officers was to lock him up. We need to say to each other that this is unacceptable. The next time a prosecutor sees this charge, or a judge, or a defense attorney, we should be outraged. This should not happen in our town to one of our own brothers.”
District Court Judge Pat Evans said something like this. “I agree. This is terrible.” Then she looked directly at my client and said, “I am so sorry this happened to you. He needs to be taken back to the jail and released as soon as possible. And Mr. Holmes, every police officer should know that Durham Center Access is open twenty four hours, seven days a week, to deal with this issue. If you want to write a letter to the Chief of Police, I would be glad to co-sign with you, making sure that officers know that they should take people in need to Durham Center Access for mental health, addiction treatment, and help with housing.”
I agreed to write the letter, and it went like this:
Dear Chief Lopez:
I am a defense attorney in Durham, and a longtime resident. I recently represented a client charged on two separate occasions for begging for money. On one occasion he had fallen in the road, and was charged with being intoxicated and disrupting traffic and begging for money. He spent twenty five days in jail before I was able to get him out. I am outraged by the lack of compassion and kindness demonstrated by officers Bonfiglio and Heim on your police force. I have found at least three other instances of persons charged with begging in Durham in the last year. I have also found twenty five instances of persons charged with sleeping in a public park.
It should not be illegal to ask for help, to have an addiction, to have no home. Rather than criminalizing this behavior and dehumanizing our fellow Durham residents in need, we should lift them up and take care of our own.
I respectfully request that you make all the officers on the force aware of Durham Center Access. This is a facility on 309 Crutchfield Street, behind Durham Regional Hospital, designed for people with mental health and substance abuse problems. They can also help arrange social services and housing in the Durham Center network of care. Durham Center Access is equipped to handle all the cases, like this one, where there a people in need. They have shown that it is also less expensive to get treatment in their facility, than to incarcerate a person and have them detox in the hospital. Compassion and cost suggest that police officers first stop with people who are homes, drunk, or disruptive should be Durham Center Access and the last resort should be jail.
I thank of your for your time and consideration, and look forward to hearing what steps, if any, you intend to take.
C. Scott Holmes
Judge Evans signed the letter. Even as I am critical about how this situation was handled by the City Police officers, I am so thankful for the hard working police officers who put their lives on the line to keep me and my family safe each day.
I have also set up and will administer a trust account for my client, to help him out. If you feel led to help him out, send a check made out to Brock, Payne, & Meece Trust Account, and put JWF: Guilty of Neglect in the memo field. You can send the check to 3130 Hope Valley Road, Durham N.C. 27707. We will make sure he gets every penny or we will return it to you.