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Suffolk County District Attorney

File photo

A contingent of 21 Latinos from Suffolk County has filed a class-action federal lawsuit suit against the Suffolk County Police Department, claiming several officers robbed them or issued them traffic citations in unfounded, race-based stops over a 10-year period.

Lawyers also charge the department with failing to correct a culture of discriminatory policing that has existed for years within the police force.

The case comes more than a year after Suffolk County Police Sgt. Scott Greene was arrested after a January 2014 sting operation uncovered he was taking money from a Latino driver. The lawsuit, filed in federal court on Wednesday, April 29, lists Suffolk County, its police department, Police Chief Ed Webber, Greene and others as defendants. LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the firm Shearman & Sterling LLP are litigating the case pro bono.

Greene’s arrest sparked the lawsuit, according to the attorneys. LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the nonprofit organization Make the Road New York, which provides services for Latino and working class families, claimed after Greene’s arrest it learned from “dozens of victims who had been too afraid or thought it pointless, to complain about widespread police criminality,” according to a statement by LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

Meanwhile, Bob Clifford, spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota, responded to the suit in a statement last week. He said that after the DA’s office spent hundreds of hours interviewing more than 50 individuals with LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Make the Road New York, two indictments encompassing 81 criminal charges involving 27 Hispanic victims were returned against Greene alone.

“There is no credible evidence that Greene acted with other police officers,” Clifford said.

All the 21 plaintiffs are anonymous and all, except for one, are male, according to the lawsuit. In a phone interview this week, Foster Maer, senior litigation counsel for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, declined to provide details on where in Suffolk the individuals live, nor could he say if they are related to one another. The sting operation involving Greene occurred in the Farmingville, Medford and Coram areas, according to the lawsuit.

In its statement, LatinoJustice PRLDEF alleges that most of its 21 plaintiffs were stopped and robbed while driving, while others were sitting in a parked vehicle or walking down the street.

“The victims claimed that one or more officers would, in clear violation of police rules, get a hold of the victim’s wallet and then return it a few minutes later with one or two hundred dollars missing,” according to the statement.

The firm also stated that it requested the DA expand the investigation beyond Greene and claims the DA “has not replied to the request and in fact has only indicted Sgt. Greene in the robberies.”

Clifford, in his statement, however, said some of the incidents LatinoJustice PRLDEF claims the DA ignored are covered by the indictment against Greene.

“At no time did LatinoJustice provide any information whatsoever that any victims were robbed by police officers,” he said. “At no time did LatinoJustice provide any audio tape to investigators regarding any alleged crime.”

Asked how the firms would prove the alleged crimes occurred by officers other than Greene, Maer said the case would rely on victim testimony as “pretty hard proof.” He also said Suffolk County has access to location data of police cars, something he hopes will help narrow down officers involved in crimes.

Scrutiny of Suffolk County’s police practices toward Latinos is not new. In 2013, the county Legislature ratified a settlement with the federal Department of Justice, culminating a five-year long investigation following the stabbing death of Ecuadorian Marcelo Lucero, labeled a hate crime.

The 2008 case, which ignited tensions in the county over perceived anti-Hispanic bias within the department, also gained national prominence. That settlement outlines a number of reforms within the department, including a minimum of annual training for officers on removing bias from policing and on identifying hate crimes; designating officers who will interface with local communities to hear concerns and work to solve neighborhood problems; meeting with leaders of the Latino community as well as other minority communities for feedback; and sending all allegations, formal or informal, of police misconduct to the SCPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau for investigation, as well as track complaints and analyze trends.

“As we have done continuously since the beginning of this investigation, we continue to urge victims to contact the district attorney’s office,” Clifford said.

District Attorney Tom Spota holds up a jar Brittany Ozarowski used while falsely claiming she had cancer to solicit donations. File photo by Erika Karp

The Selden native who tricked Long Islanders into believing she had cancer and used donations to fund her heroin habit was sentenced to prison on Monday, after she violated the terms of a mandated drug treatment program, Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota said.

Brittany Ozarowski will spend one to three years behind bars after  violating the terms of her drug treatment program. File photo
Brittany Ozarowski will spend one to three years behind bars after violating the terms of her drug treatment program. File photo

In December 2013, Brittany Ozarowski, 24, pleaded guilty to two counts of third-degree larceny; 10 counts of second-degree forgery; 10 counts of first-degree offering a false instrument for filing; one count of first-degree scheming to defraud; and one count of petit larceny. While the District Attorney’s office wanted Ozarowski to serve a maximum seven-year prison term, Judge John Iliou instead required her to enroll in the Suffolk County Judicial Diversion Program, an alternative sentencing program that includes drug addiction treatment instead of jail. Ozarowski’s sentence included one year of inpatient treatment, one year of outpatient treatment and a year of probation.

On Monday, Spota announced in a press release that she had violated the program’s terms and had thus been sentenced to one to three years in prison.

George Duncan, a Central Islip-based attorney representing Ozarowski, said while Ozarowski received “technical violations” that resulted in her prison sentence, her time spent in the treatment program “literally saved her life,” and she is aware and thankful for that.

Duncan and the DA’s office were unable to specify how exactly Ozarowski broke program rules, as doing so would violate the federal health care privacy laws.

Ozarowski was indicted on 24 counts and arrested in April 2013. According to the DA’s office, she claimed she had bone and brain cancer to solicit donations from customers at supermarkets and shops throughout Long Island, including in Terryville, Miller Place and Sayville. In addition, she got local businesses to hold fundraisers to benefit her alleged treatments and created a website with a PayPal account where people could donate. In reality, she was using the money to fuel her heroin addiction.

At the time of her arrest, investigators discovered more than $317 in a donation bucket. More than 20 locations with donation jars were later found and the DA’s office estimated Ozarowski defrauded more than $6,000.

The 2013 arrest wasn’t Ozarowski’s first. She has other heroin-related charges against her, including a driving under the influence charge from 2011, which is still pending. The DA’s office said the Newfield High School graduate tampered with letters from doctors to say she had cancer and submitted them to her attorney in order to postpone court hearings on the charges.

James Murphy mugshot from the DA's office

A Huntington man who admitted to huffing an aerosol cleaner before getting behind the wheel on New Year’s eve in 2013 and broadsiding a 63-year-old Commack woman’s car, killing her, was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison on Friday, according to the Suffolk County DA’s office.

State Supreme Court Justice John Collins sentenced James Murphy, 20, in Riverhead this morning after what DA spokesman Bob Clifford described in an email as an emotional courtroom scene. Family members of victim Herta Palma attended the sentencing.

Murphy pleaded guilty on Feb. 26 to second-degree manslaughter, second-degree reckless endangerment, reckless driving and leaving the scene of a fatal accident. He was remanded to the county jail following his February plea.

On the day of the fatal crash, Murphy was driving a Chevy Blazer north on Commack Road when he sideswiped one car and ran a red light at the intersection with Hauppauge Road, according to a Thursday statement from the DA’s office. Murphy’s SUV broadsided the Hyundai sedan Palma was driving. Palma died soon after at Huntington Hospital.

District Attorney Thomas Spota said Murphy told cops at the scene of the crash in 2013, “I was driving the white Blazer. I’m not going to lie to you officer. I just inhaled a can of Dust Off and threw it in the back of my truck.”

He also told officers he took Xanax and smoked hash a couple of days earlier.

Clifford said Murphy told the court today that he made “bad choices.”

Murphy’s attorney didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment on Friday afternoon.

According to Clifford, Palma’s son, Joe Palma Jr., spoke to the court as well, saying, “As a family we have already been given our sentence. A life sentence of pain and grief from the loss of a mother taken much too soon for no good reason.

“All of our lives have been forever altered. We will never be the same.”

Clifford said Herta Palma’s daughter-in-law, Mary, also spoke, saying that the victim had visited her Commack home that afternoon, reminding the family to be safe on New Year’s Eve. Palma was staying home on New Year’s Eve because she lost a friend years ago in a drunk-driving crash.

“We actually spoke of it, obviously not knowing as she drove away that her life was going to be taken within nine minutes of her leaving my home,” she said, according to Clifford. “As she was pulling away, she was waving with her big smile at me, blowing kisses. … I hold on to that memory every day.”

In his statement, Spota called on the New York State Legislature to include intoxicative inhalants to current statutes that make driving under the influence of a drug illegal.

“It is well-established science that people who abuse inhalants experience intoxication, muscle spasms, a loss of coordination, hallucinations and impaired judgment — and it is also a fact that for many teenagers, inhalants provide a cheap and accessible alternative to alcohol,” he said. “It is time New York State treats inhalants as intoxicating substances so prosecutors can charge offenders with driving while impaired by drugs in the first degree.”