By Carla Zanoni
MANHATTAN CRIMINAL COURT — A judge threw out the NYPD's case against two men ticketed for playing chess in an Inwood Hill Park playground, saying police wrote the summonses wrong.
Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Mark Whiten decided within minutes of the start of the men's hearing on Tuesday that police issued the tickets based on the incorrect classification.
The summons were written as 103.3, the code for being in the park after stated park hours, but according to the NYPD's own reasoning, they should have been written as 103.1, in which parkgoers have to abide by the stated signs, Whiten said. The summonses were written at 2 p.m., which is within stated park hours.
Yacahudah Harrison and Chris Peralta were playing chess with a group of other adults Oct. 20 in a fenced-in area of Emerson Playground, when police approached the group and handed out a series of tickets.
The NYPD and Parks Department had defended their decision to ticket the men, on the grounds that there are signs clearly stating that adults are not allowed in the playground area without the the company of children. Police also said some of the men had a history of prior arrests.
“It’s over now,” said Harrison, 49. “It doesn’t have to get any uglier than it already has shown itself to be. I’m glad nobody has to continue to appear in court.”
Harrison and Peralta, 29, were the only two men who received a summons who decided to fight their case at trial. The other men accepted an offer from a previous judge on Dec. 28, getting an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, or ACD.
Peralta said he was relieved the case was dismissed.
“It made us feel bad the way they slowly rolled up in a police car, blocking the gate for us not to be able to get out when all we were doing was playing chess,” Peralta said.
Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel and co-counsel Earl Ward represented the men and celebrated the decision.
“This is a quintessential example of police abuse, abuse of discretion,” said Siegel, the former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
"Perhaps the police have a quota that they have to fill in regard to issuing summonses, but it resulted in a tax on time and resources from the court system, for the lawyers, and the people who got the summons."
Siegel said he has advised Harrison and Peralta, and other chess players interested in playing in restricted areas of a park, to stay away from the Emerson Playground chess tables or any other table located near a playground, since police could cite a different Parks provision in future cases.
Siegel said his office plans to address the outstanding issue of hundreds of similarly placed chess tables in playgrounds throughout city with the Parks Department counsel and commissioner.
"I don’t think the Parks Department thought this policy through," he said, adding, "If this is happening in other parks in the city of New York, the Parks Department needs to reverse this policy immediately. People have a right to play chess, and children have a right to play in the park."
The Parks Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
News of the tickets created an uproar in the neighborhood and worldwide, with some residents defending the NYPD's actions and others expressing outrage.
Supporters joined the chess players at court Tuesday, as several people congratulated the chess players after the decision.
"This was just ridiculous," Jeannie Monte, a lifelong New Yorker, told the men. "Everyone should be allowed to use the park and play chess."
Mary Panzer, a four-year resident of Inwood and friend of Harrison and his wife, also wrote a letter of support to be presented to a judge should the case go to trial.
"At a time when New York City can seem forbidding and everyday a struggle, the Harrisons remind us that we all have the ability to create a tolerant, considerate, and truly pleasant place to live, simply by getting to know our neighbors," she wrote. "Their presence is one of the things that makes Inwood — and in fact New York City — a wonderful place to live."