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June 15, 2020

Tyrell Sutton: Questioning the future of injustice

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

In 2014, Katie had just received her masters degree from Kent State University in Ohio. She was celebrating her distinguished accolade at a nearby restaurant with her family, while I was with our common group of friends from high school waiting for her to arrive at the bar. Ashley, my girlfriend at the time, was there also, as this was her first time officially meeting my friends.

Around 10 p.m., in true celebratory fashion, Katie showed up to the bar ready to drink away her anguished days of studying. The family accompanied her so that meant more drinks at a faster pace. Every turn, every new conversation there was someone asking, “What are you drinking?” or “Do you want a shot?” Ahh, friendships manifested in the form of alcohol. Katie and Ashley were no exception as they spent most of the night going shot for shot with each other.

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Some time later, most of the older family has left, leaving us among old high school friends. Some of us, including myself, have slowed down on the drinking, understanding that we have to drive to our common destination (our friends Gino and Mario lived not too far away). Everyone is having a good time until the security guard tells us that we have to take Katie out of the bar. She was too intoxicated and wasn’t allowed inside anymore. As we’re leaving, my friend Brian pulls up in his black SUV. I pick Katie up, throw her across my shoulder and put her in the backseat of the car so she can get home safely.

As I return inside to get Ashley, I notice that she is pretty drunk as well. Not to the level of Katie, but certainly puking in my car level. We stop at a gas station to get her some water for the ride and, as I predicted, she throws up. Thankfully, outside the car. Before starting the car, I ask if she can make it to our destination, which is about 10 minutes away, without being sick again. I’ve been drunk plenty of times and I know 10 minutes can be a long time in those circumstances.

Although she was determined to hold it in, she couldn’t. I pulled into an empty lot to let her empty her stomach. As she is puking, she notices police lights behind us. I told her, “I don’t care. We haven’t done anything. You’re just throwing up.” The two officers step up to the car windows with their flashlights pointed inside and, obviously, say they smell alcohol. “Yes, my girlfriend is throwing up,” I reply before proceeding to explain how we were celebrating a friend’s accomplishment and that even though I had been drinking, I had stopped long enough before taking the wheel. Needless to say my story didn’t matter.

As I get out to prepare for the sobriety tests, I overhear the officer ask Ashley to open the compartments in my car because I didn’t show my license and registration. What they didn’t know was that both Ashley and I are kids of cops. In fact, our dads worked together. She realized what’s happening and doesn’t open anything. It was simply an attempt to search my car illegally. He then asked her if she needed to go to the hospital, if she has been drugged. You guessed it: Ashley was white.

The first sobriety test of three I had to perform was the eye test. Waving a finger across my eyes to see if they follow smoothly. I passed. The second was the walk and turn test. I was instructed to take ten steps in a straight line, heel to toe, turn around and do it again.  As soon as the officer finished giving me instructions, I asked, “Can I use the lights being illuminated from our headlights because it pitch black out here?” Of course he refused; naturally I begin the test. I went ahead and started walking. “You didn’t wait for my go,” he said. I failed. Not because I couldn’t walk straight, but because I started too quickly. His final test was to stand on one leg and count to 20-1 thousand (one one thousand, two one thousand, etc.). I counted with such conceit in my tone as if I was saying I could do this all day or moreover, “can you even do it?” I passed. It didn’t matter. I hadn’t waited for his go.

So, there I was, failing a sobriety test on a technicality. The officers then decided to ask me to take a breathalyzer. I refused and I was automatically put into handcuffs and taken to jail. But, of course, I got hauled off, they let me call my buddy Gino to come and pick up Ashley.

As I’m sitting in the backseat of the police car, the officer had the audacity to begin talking to me as if he knows me. “Do you still play football? Where at?,” he asks. The whole situation is so surreal that I keep telling myself, “there is no point in being hostile, and this will be all cleared up once you get to the jail.” So I carry the conversation, explaining how I miss the camaraderie of college and high school versus the pros. “He will surely realize I’m not drunk,” I thought. But, once we get to our destination, I recognized it looked eerily strange. My mom had worked at the exact same jail.

Let me take you back to when my mom was a corrections officer for the Sherrif’s Department in Ravenna, Ohio. She had been working there since 2006 and had only a handful of black colleagues, let alone black women. In 2012, my mom was the only officer working in an overcrowded pod – something that should never happen in jails. She encountered an inmate who had been in and out of jail for domestic violence against her own mother. After repeatedly refusing direction, the inmate spit on my mom. I don’t know where you come from but, in my book, being spit at, or even worse spit ON, is the ultimate disrespect. My mom attempted to slow her down by using pepper spray, but the adrenaline of the inmate turned this altercation into a fight.

Without batting an eye, and before the investigation got under way, my mom was already fired. Unlike other officers who get the benefit of the doubt and luxury of administrative leave with pay. Months later, at fifty years old, she would become a convicted felon charged with assault against an inmate –  infected with Hepatitis B at that – who had spit on her. Why did none of her colleagues help? Why was the lawyer more concerned about getting more money from me than defending my mom? Why did her character witnesses come from outside of her job? Why didn’t the lawyer prep her better? Why didn’t he mention the assault with a potentially deadly weapon by the inmate? So many questions that will never be answered, but the system got what it wanted; another black person with a felony record who now has limitations on what she can and cannot do.

My mom was sentenced to serve three months in a halfway house with probation for five years, in which she only served one. But the damage was done. How could a black woman of her age with a felony, that is now expunged, get a job? Pension gone, healthcare gone. Almost as if she had worked her butt off for the past six years for nothing.

And now two years later, they got me. I had visited the jail multiple times as I would go and visit my mom so the officers knew me. I’ll never forget the moment I walked in that day I was arrested. My mom’s friend Silas was the first to see me. We locked eyes as if we both said, “this is some bullshit.” After I entered, I was asked for the last time if I wanted to take the breathalyzer test. “Yes.” Had I refused, it would have been an automatic admission.

As per guidelines of Ohio and all states, the blood-alcohol content limit is .08 percent. I blew under the limit. So I get to go home home, right? Case closed? Nope, guess again. I was kept in holding for more than six hours as they had “computer problems.” Throughout the night, I was blowing up my dad’s phone, but he was never able to answer. So I called the one person I didn’t want to: my mom. She and my older brother put together enough money to bail me out. But why did I need to get bailed out if I didn’t commit a crime? I was fingerprinted, had my mugshot taken because of an under the legal limit BAC level? How is that possible?

Well, the city of Ravenna decided to take my case to court. As they put it, they were “cracking down on OVI” (operating a vehicle impaired) and decided to make me an example. This now takes place of DUI (driving under the influence) and DWI (driving while intoxicated) and encompasses the broad spectrum of being under the influence of any drug behind the wheel. Due to the city handpicking my case to go to trial, my license was automatically suspended. All of this for being under the legal limit? Really?

There I was, about to get ready for my second season in the CFL with the Montreal Alouettes, hiring a lawyer to defend a case that had no reason to be one in the first place. Throughout the process, I had to fly back and forth from Montreal to Ohio on three occasions, wasting money to talk to my lawyer for a total of five minutes each time. But, what else was I supposed to do? If I failed to attend those meetings, the court would put out an arrest warrant for me and send me straight to jail the next time I landed on American soil.

I was never a big fan of courtroom TV shows or movies, but I was placed in one real fast. It was some scary s***. To see two lawyers playing with your life, trying to persuade 12 strangers that their argument is more plausible is frightening to say the least. While they were picking the jurors, I noticed not a single one of them was black. One even came with a Confederate Flag t-shirt on. “Am I about to play pick up basketball?” I thought. It’s like the lawyers were captains choosing arbitrary teammates based on which individuals looked like they could play. How am I supposed to be judged fairly by a group of my peers when not only do they look nothing like me, but aren’t even close to being in the same age demographic as me?

“How do you plead?” the judge asked.

“Not guilty, your honor.”

I didn’t take the plea deal they offered me – admit to OVI, suspended license, points on my license, register as a drunk driver and pay a fine – because I simply wasn’t guilty. I felt the judge scolding me as she explained, in an overbearing tone, that my punishment would be determined by her and not the jury and, if I lost, I would have to pay all of the jurors court costs. It was as if she was trying to scare me into taking the deal… and admitting to a crime I didn’t commit.

An entire day was spent at court for being legally under the BAC level that was put in place by authorities. Is 0.8 then a whimsical number? Can they just pick and choose who they make examples out of despite going against their own laws? How is this a just and fair system? Even after I was found not guilty, I, somehow, still had to pay fees to have my license reinstated. This is more than coincidental. It felt strategic. Purposeful.

My grandma was thirteen when Emmitt Till was murdered for whistling at a white woman. My parents, who were born in the 60s, grew up in the Civil Rights Era. In 2020, I am still witnessing the same inequalities and discrimination as they were 65 years ago. I saw the video of George Floyd with a knee on the back of his neck for almost nine minutes. I saw Eric Garner get put in a chokehold until he couldn’t breath anymore. Till’s accuser admitted she lied on her deathbed. George Floyd, as it turns out, worked with the cop who killed him. In every case, including my mom’s and my own, three things that remained consistent were the lies made to protect the system at all costs, the types of people willing to protect said system and innocent lives being harmed in the process.

Like most parents, my sole objective is to make sure my kids don’t experience the same negativity I went through. As I stood in solidarity with the rest of the peaceful protesters in the streets of Montreal, I couldn’t help but realize I was seeing what two generations before me had already seen; my version felt like the second sequel to a horror movie nobody wanted remade. While holding my son in my arms at the protest in Montreal, I thought to myself, “I wonder which timeline he will see? Will history keep repeating itself or is the next generation of leaders the ones who will make the necessary changes for people to feel as valued and important as the next person?” I couldn’t answer those questions, so I just held my son even tighter.