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Court filing: Southampton Police officer showed 'biases' in drug probe

Once-secret grand jury testimony released under recent bail reform legislation shows a Southampton Village Police detective's "personal biases" about supposed dangers at the Shinnecock Indian Nation in a major drug case brought last year, according to a motion filed in Suffolk County Criminal Court.

The motion to dismiss the case filed by an attorney for a Shinnecock Indian Nation tribal member Justin Eleazer also asserts that state and local agencies that brought the case lacked the authority to investigate and prosecute it.

The U.S. Department of Justice has “sole” authority to bring such cases, according to the filing. Eleazer, who is jailed in the Riverhead Correctional Facility, has pleaded not guilty. 

In the court motion filed Monday, Northport attorney Peter Smith cited grand jury testimony in alleging Southampton Village Det. Michael Horstman, who led the drug probe, made "incorrect and sometimes false" statements to the grand jury. Horstman didn't respond to messages seeking comment. 

Smith received a “significant portion” of the grand jury minutes as part of discovery in the case, and is  seeking access to more of the testimony, including redacted portions that specifically relate to Smith's request for dismissal of the charges.

Suffolk district attorney spokeswoman Sheila Kelly confirmed the office has reviewed the Eleazer motion but declined to comment on it. 

Smith said revelations from the grand jury proceedings came about as a result of state bail and discovery rule reforms passed last year. The rule changes, which went into effect Jan. 1, give defense lawyers access to grand jury testimony, police reports, wiretaps, witness statements and other crucial evidence that can help their cases, early in the discovery process.

The testimony shows evidence of “personal biases” on the part of the detective, including “stereotypes and assumptions” of the “danger to law enforcement on the reservation,” Smith said in the motion.

Those statements may have “unintentionally discriminated against and prejudiced” Eleazer and “other defendant persons of color” in the case, Smith wrote.

According to the filing, Horstman told grand jurors that if he were to go to the reservation he would get “run off the road or have things thrown at him” by tribal members. Much of the probe was conducted using utility pole cameras, helicopters, court-approved wiretaps and confidential informants wearing audio and video surveillance devices, according to the filing. 

“Anybody who doesn’t belong there [on the reservation] who doesn’t live there or if they are not purchasing narcotics, they’re not welcome,” Horstman told grand jurors, according to the filing.

“They [Shinnecock tribal members] will chase you off,” Horstman told grand jurors, according to the filing. “They will corner you. And there has (sic) been several people assaulted for those same reasons.”

The Shinnecock Nation hosts an annual Pow Wow that brings tens of thousands of nontribal members onto the reservation.

Smith also asserted that the U.S. Department of Justice is the “sole” agency empowered to investigate and prosecute major cases involving U.S. recognized tribes.

Smith cited a 2010 U.S. Justice Department document, updated in 2017, that refers specifically to the federally recognized Shinnecock Nation.

“The Justice Department alone has the authority to seek a conviction that carries an appropriate potential sentence when a serious crime has been committed," the department says. "Our role as the primary prosecutor of serious crimes makes our responsibility to citizens in Indian Country unique and mandatory.”

Smith said assuming the order is “still the case," then all charges should be dismissed against Eleazer.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn declined to comment on the case. A spokesperson the Southampton Village Police Department didn’t immediately comment, and an official for the Shinnecock Indian Nation didn't respond to a request for comment. 

Eleazer was charged in October with operating as a “major trafficker” in an alleged $1 million drug ring that sold heroin laced with fentanyl in a multiple-count indictment after a month’s long probe by the East End Drug Task Force, which includes the Suffolk County Police Department, the New York State Police, the Riverhead Town Police Department and the Southampton Village Police Department. 

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