Vol. 17, No. 13 June 17- 30, 2004


Local Teacher Shaken by Arrest and Strip Search


For PS 46 teacher Odamis Fernandez, his day at work on May 11 ended like most other days. After finishing classes, Fernandez recounted, he said goodbye to some of his fourth grade students, got into his blue Honda parked near the North Fordham school, and began driving to Mercy College where he takes graduate classes. 

But he never made it. Instead, Fernandez began a harrowing five-hour odyssey that landed him at the 52nd Precinct for suspected marijuana possession. The mild-mannered and bespectacled 30-year-old claims that he was wrongfully accused and inappropriately treated.

"It was very scary," said Fernandez, who says he has never smoked pot in his life. "I think I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

The place was Briggs Avenue, where the precinct's Street Narcotics Unit has been investigating drug activity in buildings near the school. When he was pulled over on Bedford Park Boulevard, Fernandez said that the police insisted that they had seen him on a building's surveillance camera purchasing marijuana. 

"I've never been in the building," said Fernandez, who has lived in Queens since leaving the Dominican Republic as a child. "Their response was to repeatedly call me a liar."

Two officers asked Fernandez to get out of his car and then handcuffed him and searched his vehicle, according to his account. "I didn't know what was going on," he said. "I asked for my Miranda rights, but they said in this case I didn't need to be read them." 

Miranda rights are Constitutionally guaranteed liberties for those who are arrested, and they include the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. But though Fernandez says he asked to be read them twice, the officers refused. 

Fernandez says he was then taken to the precinct, but not formally arrested. A Police Department spokesperson would not comment if it was unusual protocol for a suspect to be handcuffed, but not arrested.

Afterward, Fernandez was escorted to the bathroom by one of the officers. The cop closed the door, and proceeded to conduct a strip search, according to Fernandez. "He searched every item of clothing as I took it off," including his underwear, Fernandez said. 

With the 10-minute ordeal over, Fernandez says he put his clothes back on, was 
fingerprinted, and then led to the holding cell, where he waited for hours.

Around 9 p.m., his wife, Mindy Fernandez-Sheinbaum, arrived and spoke with a lawyer on her cell phone. "Once they were clued in I was on the phone with a lawyer, very quickly the police said that he was going to be released," said Fernandez-Sheinbaum, 30, who works for a children's advocacy organization.

Fernandez was released with a Desk Appearance Ticket (DAT) for criminal trespassing, and an overwhelming sense of disbelief. "If I was just pulled over, I would have understood," said Fernandez, who's never been arrested before. "But it was just constant ... coercion. At what point are you innocent until proven guilty? I guess for me, never."

Deputy Inspector Joseph Hoch, the 52nd precinct's commander, would not discuss the case in detail, because an investigation is pending. But he did say the precinct acted properly. "There were no problems with legality, contrary to what he [Fernandez] says," Hoch said. 

A Police Department spokesperson said that a suspect does not need to be read their Miranda rights if they are being brought to the precinct for questioning, which usually results in being issued a summons or DAT. But police do need to read a suspect his rights if he is held in custody.

Donna Lieberman, president of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), said the denial of Miranda seemed suspect. "The police can't change the rules as they go along," she said. "Every arrestee is entitled to [their rights]."

The issue of strip searches made headlines just a day after Fernandez' arrest when the city Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) released a report finding that city police officers have used strip searches when they were not fully warranted. In half the 2003 cases examined, "officers described strip searches as routine for those brought to the police facility in their custody," stated a CCRB letter to Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. The Police Department has admitted that officers need more training in this area, according to the letter. 

Fernandez has retained a lawyer for his June 28 arraignment, and he plans to file a civil suit for damages. Two weeks ago, he reported the incident to the CCRB, which investigates charges of police misconduct. 

Since his arrest, Fernandez says he's gotten a lot of backing from his friends and the local community, including Msgr. John Jenik, the pastor of Our Lady of Refuge Church, which is across the street from the school. "Initially, I had a lot of anger, but the outpouring of support has been really helpful," he said. 

The Fernandezes have spent the last few weeks focusing on the impending court hearing, and while mostly confident, they still worry about what's at stake. "It's really scary that a mistake has caused all this inconvenience and trauma in our lives, and it could impact us to come," said Fernandez-Sheinbaum, who is especially concerned about her husband's ability to keep teaching. "For someone who plays by the rules and is a good, nice guy, this is really frightening." 

Fernandez is again immersed in teaching his bilingual class and pursuing his master's, but May 11 still haunts him. "I haven't driven on the block since," he said. "I park as far away as possible."

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