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Hate crime charges dropped for 3 in August attack

After prosecutors Tuesday dropped hate-crimes charges against three defendants accused of beating an Ecuadorean immigrant in Patchogue last summer, attorneys for two of the men said police overcharged the men in the wake of the earlier high-profile stabbing death of another immigrant, Marcelo Lucero.

Ramon Rodriguez, 20, of Patchogue, Curt Hatton, 20, of Islip, and Matthew Mont, 16, each pleaded guilty Tuesday in Suffolk County Court in Riverhead to reduced charges of misdemeanor assault. They had been charged with assault as a hate crime, a felony, following an attack in August on Milton Balbuca of Patchogue.

Attorneys for Hatton and Mont said police mistakenly labeled the attack a hate crime to blunt criticism, following Lucero's slaying in November 2008 in Patchogue, that Suffolk police were not doing enough to protect immigrants.

Suffolk police said at the time that Rodriguez used an anti-Mexican epithet while he, Hatton and Mont beat Balbuca, a day laborer, on Division Street in Patchogue.

"It was never a hate crime," said Hatton's attorney, David Besso of Bay Shore, adding that political pressure led to the felony charge. "I don't think there's any question," he said.

A spokesman for Police Commissioner Richard Dormer declined to comment.

The altercation on Aug. 14 started after Balbuca borrowed a phone from one the defendants, said Robert Clifford, a spokesman for District Attorney Thomas Spota. A fight ensued when Balbuca, who was "highly intoxicated," refused to return the phone, Clifford said.

Police leveled the original hate crime charges against the defendants, Clifford said, adding that prosecutors reduced the charge because "the evidence did not support a hate-crime element."

Mont's attorney, Laurence Silverman of Dix Hills, said the original hate-crime charges were driven by "the atmosphere from Lucero. . . . If this had happened before Lucero, it just would have been prosecuted as a simple assault charge."

Rodriguez's attorney, Daniel Barker of Riverhead, declined to comment Tuesday.

Hatton and Rodriguez each will be sentenced to 3 months' probation and time served in jail, their attorneys said. Mont will be sentenced in March to community service.

Balbuca could not be reached for comment.

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