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Mom Arrested for Selling $1 Candy Bars for Son's School Trip, Lawsuit Says

By James Fanelli | September 22, 2015 6:51am
 Bernadette Roberts was arrested for selling $1 candy bars near Bryant Park as part of a school fundraiser for her son, a lawsuit says.
Bernadette Roberts was arrested for selling $1 candy bars near Bryant Park as part of a school fundraiser for her son, a lawsuit says.
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DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg

MIDTOWN — A Bronx mother was forced to abandon her learning-disabled son when an NYPD officer arrested her last year near Bryant Park for selling $1 chocolate bars as part of a school fundraiser, a new lawsuit charges.

Bernadette Roberts is suing the police officer and the NYPD, accusing the officer of breaking department rules by letting her 15-year-old son wander Midtown alone for hours in frigid weather after her arrest for selling the candy — a common method parents use to raise school funds.

Roberts, 49, said her son — whose name is being withheld because of his age — was using the bathroom at a nearby Duane Reade pharmacy when officer Stephanie Hlapatsos arrested her for selling candy without a license and hauled her away before he returned.

Roberts’ son suffers from an anxiety disorder, attention-deficit disorder and learning disabilities. His mental and emotional capacities in many areas are of a child half his age, the lawsuit says.

Not knowing what happened to his mom, the teen walked city streets in search of her until police at the Midtown South Precinct stationhouse allowed his mom to phone him.

When Roberts finally reached her son by cellphone, he was sobbing.

“He was hysterical, crying, “Where are you? What happened? I can’t find you. I’m looking all over the place for you,” Roberts told city lawyers during a preliminary hearing in 2014 after she filed a notice of her intent to sue the NYPD.

Roberts and her son filed the actual lawsuit last week in Manhattan Supreme Court. 

Roberts’ lawyers likened her son roaming city streets to Avonte Oquendo, the autistic teenager whose body was found in the East River after he went missing from a Queens school in 2013.

“The plaintiff did not suffer the fate of Avonte Oquendo,” the lawsuit says.

“That he owes to good fortune rather than any care or diligence on the part of the New York City Police Department.”

Roberts lawyers say Hlapatsos and her superiors broke NYPD rules by not taking measures to secure the care of a dependent child of a parent who was arrested, the lawsuit says.

Department rules require an officer to ascertain whether a relative or friend can care for a dependent child, but Hlapatsos didn’t do that, according to the lawsuit.

Roberts and her son, a special-needs student at a Bronx school, were at Bryant Park on Feb. 1, 2014, to sell World’s Finest Chocolate bars to raise money for him to be an exchange student in Korea through the nonprofit Youth for Understanding.

The teen left his mother at one point to use a bathroom at a nearby Duane Reade on 42nd Street. The lawsuit says that Roberts gave her son explicit instructions on how to return to the same spot, including pointing out landmarks to help orient him.

While the teen was gone, Hlapatsos, dressed in plain clothes, approached Roberts and inquired about buying one of the sweets. When Roberts told her the price, she was arrested, according to court records.

Roberts asked Hlapatsos to let her wait for her son to return, but the officer dismissed her request, according to the lawsuit.

“Officer Hlapatsos responded that if [her son] too had been selling candy on the street, he had probably also been arrested,” the lawsuit said.

Roberts was taken to a barricaded section in the middle of the street where other officers were. After about eight minutes, she was driven to Midtown South Precinct stationhouse, according to court records. She was gone before her son returned.

After a few hours in a holding cell, Roberts was allowed to call her son, who came to the stationhouse. She said the experience left them both shaken.

“I have never been booked, fingerprinted, handcuffed or anything like that ever in my entire 47 at the time going on 48 years,” Roberts said at her preliminary hearing.

“So it was quite traumatic for myself and for my son.”

The charge against Roberts was eventually dismissed, according to her lawyers, Jeffrey Vanacore and Paul Cohen. The lawyers declined to comment on the case.

The NYPD declined to comment on pending litigation. The city Law Department said it will review the allegations but declined to comment on the case.

Roberts, who lives in Morris Park, did not respond to a request for comment.

Hlapatsos has been previously accused of making a bad bust.

In 2014, the city paid $13,000 to settle another lawsuit against the officer.

In that lawsuit, Marie-Rose Goba, a street vendor selling mangos, sued the city after Hlapatsos arrested her for not being licensed. The vendor was licensed, according to court records.