Accidental Incarceration

June 30, 2017 by

Two men, two different parts of the country – but they both served jail stays longer than acceptable because of simple “missteps” in the criminal justice system. One has now filed suit, and the other is speaking out and calling for an investigation.

In November of 2014, Aitabdellah Salem was arrested for shoplifting at a Fifth Avenue store in New York City. During the arrest, Salem allegedly attacked an officer, so his initial bail was set at $25,000 and he was sent to Rikers Island.

Four days later was his return court date. However, Rikers Island officials never produced him in court, so he wasn’t there to find out that the charges for the alleged attack were dropped and his bail was reduced to $1.

Two more court dates came and went, and Salem never appeared. His legal aid attorneys waived his appearance, permitting the proceeding to go on, but they never told him the outcome.

Salem sat in jail from November 2014 to April 2015 simply because neither his attorneys nor Rikers Island officials notified him of the bail reduction. Salem was eventually released after a prison chaplain paid the $1 bail.

However, this only came out after Salem filed a lawsuit in Manhattan federal court.

Salem is now suing the Legal Aid Society, former Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Ponte, and Rikers Island, claiming “unlawful incarceration and restraint of liberty,” and for “psychological injuries sustained from imprisonment.”

Further down the East Coast, a Florida man sat in jail because of a roadside error that he had no control over.

Karlos Cashe is a handyman from Oviedo, Florida, a small suburb in the Orlando-Kissimmee area.

In March, Cashe was driving from a job site when he was pulled over for a minor traffic violation. He was driving without his headlights on. But while the officer was speaking with Cashe, he noticed a white substance on the floor of the vehicle.

The officer used a roadside drug test, which are notorious for producing false positives, and the substance tested positive for cocaine. Cashe reassured them that it was drywall, saying that as a handyman he knew that for fact. Nevertheless, he was arrested.

Roadside drug test kits came under fire after an investigation found that 298 guilty pleas for possession in Houston were based on roadside drug tests that produced false positives. The simple kit, which costs about $2, used a chemical that turns blue when it interacts with cocaine – but it also turns blue when it interacts with a number of other chemicals, including run-of-the-mill household cleaners.

Because Cashe was already on probation for previous drug charges, he was denied bond and sat in jail for 90 days knowing that he was innocent.

It wasn’t until those three months were up that lab results were returned and proved that the “cocaine” was in fact drywall and there were no drugs in the car at the time of his arrest. Cashe is now calling for an internal investigation into the Oviedo Police Department, saying, “I don’t want this to happen to anybody else.”

Both of these cases highlight serious lapses in the justice system.

While Salem was lucky, it’s uncertain how many others are sitting in New York prisons simply because they weren’t informed of bail reductions. Salem’s attorneys are sure that there are many more and they are now on a mission to find them.

Cashe, on the other hand, fell victim to a faulty product that has a history of discrepancies. Three months of his life were taken from him for no reason at all.

Instead of moving on and forgetting about it, both men are fighting to see reform in the areas that denied them their freedom.

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.