The man walked over to the patrol car and opened the back door. Holding a clipboard, he asked Sanchez if he knew why he was stopped. When Sanchez answered no, the man told him that “a couple of people” in the neighborhood said he “fit the description of the Strangler.”
“What do you mean?” asked Sanchez. “Everybody out here has hoodies and hats on and goatees. Everybody out here fits the description.”
Not to mention, police have repeatedly emphasized that the sketch depicts a person of interest, someone who they’d like to talk to and swab, but they are not sure he’s the killer.
Sanchez says the man told him to submit to a swab “‘or get locked up for three or four days.”
“You can take a swab right here on the street with me … all you have to do is sign this paper.’”
Sanchez tried to explain that he’d just come from a mayoral press conference about the Strangler. “I was like … I just heard the mayor talking about this guy, saying … we need to get him off the street and now you’re interrogating me like I’m doing something wrong,” Sanchez says. “But [the man] was like, ‘Yeah, take this swab or you’re going to spend the holidays in jail.’”
So Sanchez signed the papers and opened wide.
The man in the suit stuck a plastic stick that looked like a nail file into his mouth, scraped it against the inside of his cheek, dropped the stick into a plastic bag and told Sanchez he was “free to go.”
But Sanchez isn’t feeling very free and the incident is far from over.
Attorney David Rudovsky, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, is an authority on civil-rights search issues. He says there is not a lot of precedent for “stop and swabs.” After all, DNA has only recently become an investigative tool.
“The tough question is, if they have a right to stop him in the first place,” says Rudovsky, who is unfamiliar with the specific case and speaking hypothetically, “but even if they did, the swab is plainly illegal.”
As for the “stop,” Rudovsky says the legal requirement is reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. “If the guy’s got a scar, or something unique [matching the sketch], you’re fine, but if it’s simply race, age, location? I don’t think so,” he says.
If Sanchez was any other guy from the hood, the tale would likely end here. But Sanchez isn’t just any guy. Shortly before the stop-and-swab incident, Sanchez was indeed attending a press conference on the Strangler at the invitation of Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and Mayor Nutter. Sanchez works with Crime Victim Services/Youth At Risk Program, a volunteer activist group that works to reduce crime and assist victims in the East division, which encompasses the 24th, 25th and 26th police districts.
The groups’ members do everything from identifying broken lights and filling out city forms to have them fixed to sitting in the courtroom for moral support when nervous neighborhood residents testify. Sanchez often provides Spanish-to-English translations as needed.
Since the Strangler hit Kensington in early November, the group has been passing out flyers outside El stops and encouraging residents—who are often mistrustful of police—to come forward with tips.
Now, Sanchez continues to work the neighborhood urging residents to come forward with tips while defending himself from the police.
For Sanchez, it’s more than an issue of civil rights violations—that’s nothing new—he’s particularly upset because he takes the Strangler’s threat personally. As the brother of eight sisters, and no father around, he goes out of his way to look out for the women in his family.
“I … stay away from the negativity for them. I don’t want no male to come and hurt my family,” he says. “So for the authorities to come hurt me, it’s like, damn.”
“I’ve tried my best to stay out of trouble. Music is my outlet,” says Sanchez who records as a hip-hop artist known as Don Chino (not to be confused with Don Chino’s Infamous Thug Syndicate, based in Houston) and works a full-time job repairing vending machines.
Letters to the Editor