Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Nelson Warren may now sit in the D.C. Jail, ready to plead guilty to drug-conspiracy charges, but there’s one law he says he follows religiously: The 43-year-old has been adamant about buckling his seat belt ever since he got a $50 ticket on the Beltway six years ago. “I was just too tired to buckle up after work,” he says.
Since then he’s followed the click-it-or-ticket decree—at least as long as his hands aren’t cuffed. On June 23, the Capitol Heights, Md., native, in shackles, was being taken to court in a D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) van when it crashed into a courthouse security bollard. The driver, he says, had refused to buckle him in, and now Warren’s planning to sue the department over a neck injury he sustained in the crash.
Buckling up a suspect in handcuffs isn’t always easy. Reach over a perp to strap him in and you’re vulnerable to all sorts of antisocial behavior. A 6th District D.C. police lieutenant says he’s seen and heard of prisoners’ spitting, head-butting, and biting while being secured in cruisers. “Especially if you have someone that’s violent. Sometimes we have to pull up their shirts over their heads,” says the lieutenant, who wishes to remain anonymous.
But, the lieutenant says, every suspect who goes for a cruiser ride gets belted in one way or another. Metropolitan Police Department rules state that “all prisoners shall be secured by seat belts before transported when available.” (“When available” exempts police wagons, which don’t have seat belts.) And that’s only a repetition of the District’s seat-belt law, which demands that all passengers in a moving vehicle be buckled in.
A D.C. police officer, also speaking on condition of anonymity, says the rule is not quite that hard and fast for violent criminals: “It all depends on the context of the arrest; there’s a reason we put seat belts on some people and not on others.”
But even under a lax interpretation of the rules, there was no reason Warren shouldn’t have been strapped in: Warren, who has been incarcerated for 10 months, is a nonviolent offender housed in the jail’s least restrictive block, and the vehicle he rode in wasn’t a wagon but a 12-passenger van with belts.
And under normal circumstances, because Warren is being prosecuted in federal court, U.S. marshals would transport him, starting with a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call. But on the day of the accident, Warren wasn’t told about his hearing until 9:15 a.m. And he was escorted by a DOC guard. “It was a rush, rush, rush– type situation,” he says.
When he got into the white DOC van, Warren requested a little bit of help with his belt. He had been handcuffed and chained, with a security box attaching his wrists to his waist. “‘Hey man, can you buckle me up?’” Warren remembers asking the guard.
“‘Nah, you don’t need it,’” the guard replied, according to Warren. He then hopped in the front seat and strapped himself in. Warren says he objected again, but the guard wasn’t having it: “‘This is how we do it. This is DOC. This is how we operate.’”
During the three-mile trip, Warren alleges, the van veered and swerved through traffic, running lights and stop signs. Warren—the only inmate in the van—slid and shifted around on the bench seat during the hard turns.
But the accident didn’t take place on the road. After the van arrived at the federal courthouse, the driver took a sharp left turn into the driveway, which dives into an underground garage and is usually protected by several retractable bollards. But one of the bollards didn’t retract.
The van hit the pole at what Warren estimates was 20 mph. His chest slammed into the seat in front of him, and his head whipped forward. Immediately after the accident, Warren didn’t think he was injured, but he requested to see a doctor just to be safe.
The driver refused. “‘You gotta go to court,’” Warren remembers him saying.
The medical ward, notoriously overcrowded and understaffed, examined Warren only perfunctorily. He placed a sick call—a jail request to see a doctor—on June 27 but wasn’t granted a visit until July 7. After he was diagnosed with whiplash more than 20 days after the accident, the jail refused him a neck brace, citing contraband rules.
Then, Warren says, the doctors changed his diagnosis. “First they told me I had whiplash from the accident,” he says. “Then they told me I’ve had arthritis all along, before the accident. And I’ve never had neck pain in my life until this.” His requests for sufficient pain medication went ignored; instead he was given light doses of over-the-counter-type drugs.
The DOC refused to comment on the case, citing an ongoing investigation, apart from spokesperson Bill Meeks’ comment, “I find that hard to believe” that Warren would be refused a seat belt.
Warren’s criminal lawyer, Thomas Heslep, alleges this wasn’t the first time a DOC employee failed to secure an inmate in transit. Another client, Andre Gray, filed a complaint last year claiming his wheelchair wasn’t clamped down as he was being transported from the D.C. Jail to Greater Southeast Community Hospital. “They didn’t fasten him down, so he flew all over the place,” says Heslep.
In his lawsuit, Warren alleges his rights were violated, but legalities aren’t his main concern at the moment. His injuries, he says, have made it hard to do his jail job, as part of a team of four plumbers. “I have to let [the others] do the work. It’s just too painful,” he says. “Some days it hurts too bad. I just say, ‘Forget it.’”
He’s also worried about how the pain in his neck and back will affect his job—as a MetroAccess driver—when he leaves the jail.
In pain or not, Warren says, he’ll be sure to keep his passengers, often in wheelchairs, buckled. “We have to double-restrain them, four small seat belts for each wheel and one shoulder restraint,” he says. “Always.” CP