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Suffolk DA looking at whether racist rant in video constituted a crime 

Suffolk County police commissioner Tim Sini.

Suffolk County police commissioner Tim Sini. Photo Credit: James Carbone

Members of the Suffolk County district attorney’s office were among the more than 1 million viewers of a video posted on Facebook recently that shows a white driver on Long Island repeatedly shouting a racial slur at another driver.

“I saw the video of the racist rant, if you will, which was obviously incredibly disturbing and further proof that racism is alive and well in our community,” Timothy Sini, the county district attorney, said in an interview Wednesday after inquiries by Newsday.

As of last week, neither the district attorney's office nor Suffolk’s police department had received a complaint about the exchange, according to officials.

But Sini said his office nonetheless had decided to “take a look to see if any crime was committed.”

Based on viewings of the video alone, he said, the district attorney's office found no crime, that is, nothing to support potential charges such as disorderly conduct or harassment — or a hate crime, which can be an “add on” to an existing criminal charge.

“Although the activity is extremely disturbing and offensive, it does not seem to constitute a crime, at least without further evidence of some other action taken by the individual making the comments,” Sini said.

After reports of the viral video, Sini added, his office reached out to the Long Island NAACP to let officials know about the DA’s intent to review the clip. He said the office reached out once again to let organization officials know the outcome.

“Long Island can’t just be a community that rises up based on the number of video views on social media,” Tracey Edwards, Long Island regional director of the NAACP, said in an interview. “My request to police and district attorney’s offices is that there be automatic reviews, including interviews with those involved, to see if there is aggravated harassment associated with these vile language incidents.”

In May, the Queens district attorney’s office charged a white Long Beach man — whose videotaped rant against a black woman on a Long Island Rail Road train also went viral — with menacing as a hate crime.

In that case — which Sini said his office also examined as part of its review — Edward Ruggiero approached a Lynbrook woman on April 19 as she talked on her cellphone, when the train was somewhere between the Forest Hills and Jamaica stations, and threatened to smack her with his raised hand.

A portion of the exchange was captured on video by another passenger, officials said. Ruggiero later pleaded guilty to reduced charges of aggravated harassment and disorderly conduct, and was ordered to take a bias course and pay a $250 fine, according to news reports.

Fred Brewington, a civil rights attorney with offices in Hempstead, also looked at the video of the exchange between the drivers on Long Island.

“It is repugnant, it is reprehensible, but is it a violation of law? Probably not,” Brewington said in an interview Tuesday.

“If someone is walking down the street and making comments, referring to someone using the N-word, the question is whether that rises to the level of criminal harassment,” he said. “If the person who took a video wanted to file a complaint, then the DA would be forced to investigate and make a determination as to what the facts were.”

Sini stressed that the finding of a lack of criminality, absent additional evidence, for one racist rant does not mean that the district attorney's office would not investigate others. “There may be circumstances that actually would allow for a charge,” he said.

Brewington, reflecting on the recent spate of videos on race-related incidents, called such viral videos “two sides of the coin.”

“There’s always been claims that these incidents were made up,” he said. “That is now debunked.”

At the same time, however, “it happens now so often that people are being desensitized to it and some people can actually feel empowered that they have license to use hate speech,” Brewington said.

“Because it is not a crime,” he said, “doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause pain, that it isn’t causing injury.”

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