Last summer, then-17-year-old New Yorker Winnifred Bonjean-Alpert was arrested and detained for 18 hours for telling her friends—other teens at a party— that they didn’t have to show police officers their IDs. Now, her mother, a civil rights attorney, is attempting to sue the city over the alleged police misconduct. Tabloid coverage of the story has been especially charming.
The New York Daily News headlined its writeup of the suit “Former star of ‘SLUT: The Play’ wants to sue city for $2 million over wrongful arrest.” The ever-slack-jawed Daily Mail gave Winnifred the Daily Mail headline treatment, proclaiming, “Private school educated Brooklyn actress, 18, and her defense attorney mom sue NYPD for $2 MILLION over ‘mistreatment’ during underage drinking bust.” The New York Post really went for it, covering the pending litigation with a headline that reads, “OMG, the cops busted me for drinking and I’m totally having my mommy sue.” Most aggregations of the story I’ve seen today feature photos of Winnifred in a bikini skimmed from her Facebook page. The Daily News has a photo of Winnifred with a portion of her nipple exposed (they’ve done the classy thing and pixellated it, which is a good thing because Winnifred was underage in the photos).
To include images that Winnifred published to social media is annoying, but within their rights as the best newspapers upon which to wipe one’s ass in the absence of Charmin. But for Winnifred and Jeni, who have now found themselves caricatured and maligned as a spoiled teen harlot and her enabling opportunist mother, respectively, witnessing the obtuse disinterest in facts in favor of a sexist narrative is frustrating at best and enraging at worst.
Winifred is used to being in the public eye; in 2006, she was among the women and girls featured in the documentary Sexy Baby, and for that she was honored at Jezebel’s 5th anniversary celebration as one of the Jezebel 25. Since then, she starred in the critically acclaimed SLUT! The Play, a production about a girl who is raped at a party and has her reputation maligned as a result. Winnifred is also a mouthy, staunch feminist: qualities that her mother is proud she exhibits.
Jennifer Bonjean has a noteworthy resume in her own right; as a civil rights attorney, she was awarded the Humanitarian of the Year Award by the Chicago Innocence Project in 2014 after working tirelessly to free a man who had been tortured by police and incarcerated for 30 years. She frequently tackles tough cases that pit her against the police and on the side of the brutalized or wrongfully imprisoned.
This is how the New York Post describes them,
The snobby teen’s wealthy mom just so happens to be rabble-rousing defense attorney Jennifer Bonjean—and as quick as you can say “trial lawyer,” she filed a wrongful-arrest case against the city on her wise-apple kid’s behalf.
It’s clear where young Bonjean-Alpart gets her feelings about cops. Her mom sports a “Not Guilty” tattoo and boasts on her law firm’s Web site, “We aggressively pursue justice for victims of police misconduct.”
And when that victim is her own daughter, Bonjean seems to really become a legal pit bull, claiming her kid suffered “physical and emotional injuries” in the arrest.
Speaking to Jezebel today, Bonjean scoffs, “I’m a civil rights lawyer. Of course I’m going to sue. If the police violate your rights, I’ll sue for you too. I’ll sue for anybody.”
She noted with frustration that not only did only one of the news outlets covering the story speak to her, their stories were riddled with factual misrepresentation she says seem geared to furthering a narrative.
Contrary to news reports, Winnifred wasn’t arrested for underage drinking; she was arrested for “breach of the peace” that arose after Winnifred yelled to her friends that they did not have to give the police officers their IDs (they were at a party that received a noise complaint). After Winnifred was arrested and “roughed up,” police took her into custody, and at that point they say they discovered a fake ID and empty bottles of liquor in her purse (Bonjean says the latter allegation is untrue, and that because Winnifred didn’t attempt to use her fake ID, simply having one on her wasn’t a crime, either). A judge later dismissed the disorderly conduct charges against Winnifred, as it’s not technically illegal to annoy a police officer. Bonjean argues that because the circumstances under which the police obtained the contents of Winnifred’s purse were thrown out as bogus, the city had no right to detain the 17-year-old for as long as they did, in quarters with adult male detainees.
“I don’t care who you are,” she says, “You’re my fucking daughter, you’re anybody. If the police violate your rights, you sue. It’s the only way to hold them responsible.”
“The only remedy [to police misconduct] we have is civil litigation. It’s not about the money. Nobody gets rich being a civil rights lawyer.”
“I believe that everybody should be accountable for their actions. But that doesn’t mean that everything should be dealt with in the criminal justice system, particularly if something isn’t a crime,” says Bonjean, adding that not a single person was charged with alcohol consumption-related offenses that night. She believes that the $2 million suit is getting attention because it fits the tabloid mold of a good “loudmouthed girl gets slapped down and put in her place” story a certain strain of idiot seems to enjoy. “White, privileged, pretty, and outspoken.” Bonjean noted. “Ultimately those trappings are about anti-woman and sadly anti-girl. This broke on her 18th birthday. All of the pictures are of her underage. It’s like, welcome to being a woman.”
Winnifred gave the following statement to Jezebel:
People do not like assertive, informed women who believe they are entitled to their rights. Essentially that is why I was arrested and that is why the media has responded in the way that it has. If you read the articles you can clearly see how they decimate my character and my “virtue” as a means to invalidate and delegitimize me. I firmly believe that if you have the privilege and the means to pursue legal action, you should. Far too often police get away with abusing their power and I’m taking this opportunity to show them that their actions are inexcusable and not without consequence.
Bonjean added, “You better fucking believe I’ll take action if somebody violates the rights of my child. And I’d do the same for anybody’s child.”
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images via Jennifer Bonjean.