Skip to content
Know Your Rights
Source: New York Times
Subject: Immigration
Type: Media Coverage

Latino Drivers Report Thefts by Officers

The story unfolds roughly the same way each time: A Latino immigrant is driving a car with out-of-state license plates, and a police officer pulls him over and asks for his driver’s license.

The driver, because he is an illegal immigrant, does not have a license, so the officer tells him to step out of the car and face the other way. The officer may ask to see the driver’s wallet; then he starts to search the car. After a few minutes, he hands the wallet back to the driver, tells him that everything is fine and sends him on his way.

Soon afterward, the driver discovers that money is missing from his wallet.

In recent weeks, at least a dozen men, all undocumented immigrants from Latin America, have told immigrants’ advocates and the Suffolk County district attorney’s office that they were robbed by a police officer during a traffic stop in or near this Long Island hamlet.

Most, if not all, of the incidents occurred even as the county’s police department was under scrutiny by the Justice Department, advocates said.

Some of the incidents, the men have said, occurred as much as two years ago. The men said they had remained quiet until now because they feared reprisals by the police, or even deportation.

The surge of accusations commenced after the arrest of a Suffolk County police officer who, officials said, was caught on camera during a sting operation in late January stealing $100 from a Latino undercover detective.

According to a statement by the district attorney, Thomas J. Spota, the officer pulled alongside the sting vehicle “to establish the ethnicity of the driver,” pulled the car over, told the undercover detective to stand outside the vehicle, then checked the car. Hidden surveillance cameras caught the officer, a 25-year veteran of the department, taking a $100 bill from an envelope of cash on a seat and slipping it into the cuff of his shirt, officials said.

The officer, Sgt. Scott A. Greene, 50, has pleaded not guilty to charges of official misconduct and petty larceny. His lawyer did not reply to a request seeking comment.

The arrest has given other immigrants the confidence to step forward and make their own allegations, advocates said. The authorities have not released a photo of Sergeant Greene, so it remained unclear whether he matched the description provided by the other accusers; officials from the district attorney’s office did not reply to requests for comment on the investigation.

Immigrants’ advocates said the accusations were particularly alarming because most of the incidents would have occurred after the Justice Department had begun investigating allegations of discriminatory policing by the Suffolk authorities. The allegations included claims that the police not only discouraged Latino crime victims from filing complaints but also failed to investigate crimes involving Latinos.

The inquiry, which began in 2009, was spurred by the killing in November 2008 of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant who was assaulted by a group of teenagers and stabbed to death. After that incident, other Latino residents said they, too, had been victims of racially motivated attacks but that the police had failed to thoroughly investigate many of their claims.

The Justice Department and Suffolk County’s police department signed an accord in December that settled the investigation and mandated the implementation of new policies to ensure nondiscriminatory policing among the Latino population and more community outreach by the police department.

Yet this scrutiny has apparently provided only a modicum of comfort to many Latino immigrants, who say they are still intensely wary and mistrustful of the police.

A Mexican worker said in an interview last week that he had been pulled over many times by the police while driving through the county. Though most stops have resulted in a ticket for driving without a license, he said, he has rarely been told what prompted the stops and he suspects he was being racially profiled.

In one of the stops, he said, he may have encountered Sergeant Greene. While driving with a friend through Coram one morning in January 2013, an officer pulled him over, the man recalled. After asking for his registration and wallet — the driver had no license — the officer made him step out of the car and place his hands on the trunk.

“And don’t turn around,” the officer said, according to the man, an employee of a Long Island construction company who has lived in the area for 15 years. The officer, standing out of view behind the driver, proceeded to rifle through the wallet. Then he handed back the wallet and told the man he could leave.

The man discovered $200 missing. “It started to happen to all my friends,” he said. If they were not carrying money at the time of the stop, he continued, the drivers were usually sent on their way with a traffic ticket of some sort.

“People have always been robbed but were fearful that something else would happen or that they would be sent back to their country,” he explained.

The man told his story at the home of an acquaintance in Coram. He and several other laborers who claim to have been robbed during police stops had gathered for a meeting about the evolving case.

Several said that despite the arrest of Sergeant Greene, they remained nervous about possible reprisals for their cooperation with the authorities, and they agreed to be interviewed for this article only on the condition that they not be identified. Irma Solis, an organizer from Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy group that has been finding and counseling possible victims, said fear of retribution is forefront in the minds of the accusers. “One of their first questions is, ‘How can I be sure they won’t come after me?’ ” she said.

Lawyers from LatinoJustice PRLDEF, an advocacy group that helped to spur the federal investigation in Suffolk County, have also been interviewing the men and recording their testimony.

“We’re concerned about how forceful and comprehensive this investigation really is,” said Juan Cartagena, the organization’s president and general counsel. “This is the same police department that has demonstrated an inability to protect Latinos for years now.”

Mr. Cartagena said his team was “studying the possibility” of calling for the appointment of an independent prosecutor to handle the cases.

To view the original article, click here.