Go Directly to Jail

Photo: Jeremy Liebman for New York Magazine

Is the NYPD aggressively cracking down on well-heeled Manhattanites caught driving with a suspended license near Central Park and sending them to jail? Pediatrician Laura Popper (pictured) was recently pulled over for driving her scooter in Central Park after 10 a.m. When cops discovered her suspended license, they tossed her in the “Tombs” for nearly nine hours. Pierre Hauser, a foundation executive, was caught making a U-turn near his Central Park West home. His suspended license got him thrown in the clink overnight. Philippe Soule, a landscape designer, got pulled over on the Upper East Side, arrested, and sent to jail for twelve hours. His license had been suspended for failing to pay a $25 ticket he’d gotten in New Jersey a year ago.

“There has to be some kind of crackdown,” Popper says. “Every time I tell my story, someone says, ‘That just happened to somebody I know.’ ” Even celebrity spouses aren’t safe: Last year, Jon Stewart’s wife, Tracey McShane, was arrested and jailed for five hours after being pulled over in the park.

In some cases, the license was wrongly suspended in the first place. Stewart’s wife had paid her ticket, but the check hadn’t been processed. Popper had paid hers, too, but had forgotten to pay a surcharge. So she shared a cell with some rather tough women: “One actually said, ‘Don’t fuck with me, and I won’t fuck with you,’ ” she says. Hauser’s night in jail in Harlem featured cellmates “doing crack in the corner,” he says.

Why throw people with suspended licenses in jail? Police spokesman Walter Burnes denies a crackdown. Until the early nineties, a suspended license got people a mere summons the first time. Then state law changed, mandating arrest. Isn’t that excessive in cases where licenses were wrongly suspended? “Mistakes do happen,” Burnes concedes, “though in those cases the DMV would be responsible. Still, the system works.” Not always: The DMV couldn’t find a record of Popper’s ticket, and her case was dismissed. “It feels like the police are very uncivilized people,” Soule says. “To be treated this way for something like this—it’s shocking.”

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Go Directly to Jail