New York City’s 311 hotline is supposed to be one of the city’s customer service breakthroughs. It is the number to call in the city to report non-emergency problems or to get information about how to pay a parking ticket.
Just weeks ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the hotline, and its associated website, had their best year ever in 2014. Last year the service received over 28 million customer contacts, he said. That surpassed 2011— the previous high — by 16 percent, according to CBS-New York.
But using the service got 67-year-old Arles Cepeda arrested. And now she plans to file a federal lawsuit against the New York Police Department for violating her civil and First Amendment rights.
In an exclusive story from the New York Daily News, Cepeda says she called the hotline 44 times over the course of 15 months because she was tired of walking by suspected drug deals in her Bronx apartment building. She said she dialed 911 twice during that time.
“I kept calling, but no one ever did anything,” she said.
The retired medical secretary and widow moved into the apartment run by the New York City Housing Authority in 2011. She started complaining to building management about suspected drug activity shortly after that, but, she says, nothing was ever done. So she turned to 311.
She told the Daily News a few of her calls were about excessive noise and broken elevators, but most had to do with drug deals.
In December 2012, she says,Theodore Stefatos, a narcotics investigator at the time, called on her home to talk about the calls. He was accompanied by two other officers, she says.
According to Stefatos the officers told her they had searched a neighbor’s apartment and found no drugs and then they told her she was being arrested.
“I was handcuffed behind my back,” she said. “And my neighbors saw me. I was so embarrassed.”
She said she was taken to a nearby police station where she was fingerprinted and put in a cell. A few hours later she was released with a warning.
“If you continue calling, I’m gonna take you to the pysch unit at Jacobi Hospital,” she said Stefatos told her. “He was very cruel to me.”
She was given an appearance ticket and charged with offering a false instrument for filing.
But when she appeared in court there was no docket number assigned to her case and it appeared that the police never forwarded her paperwork to the courts. The District Attorney’s office has no record of a charge being filed against her.
Regardless, says her attorney Samuel Cohen, arresting those who call to make complaints can have a chilling effect.
Cepeda says she hasn’t called the hotline since she was arrested.
“The danger is people will be afraid to report conditions to the government,” Cohen said.
Cepeda plans to file her lawsuit Friday. Monetary demands in the suit were not disclosed.
Stefatos, who has been with the city police for 21 years, declined to comment on the case.