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Judge: Lawsuit over Suffolk department's policing of Latinos can proceed

Juan Cartagena, president and general council of LatinoJustice,

Juan Cartagena, president and general council of LatinoJustice, outside court in Central Islip on April 30, 2015. Cartagena announced a federal class action lawsuit alleging multiple officers in the Suffolk County Police Department targeted Latinos for unfounded, raced-based stops. Credit: Ed Betz

A federal judge has given the go-ahead to proceedings in a lawsuit against the Suffolk County Police Department and its officers that alleges Latino drivers were targeted in traffic stops on the basis of ethnicity.

The order, issued Wednesday by U.S. District Court Judge Arthur D. Spatt, grants a motion for at least 21 Hispanic men represented by the advocacy group LatinoJustice "to proceed anonymously" with the suit, which claims the department "subjected Latinos to an ongoing policy, pattern and practice of discriminatory policing."

Spatt's order allows the plaintiffs to inquire into police practices when it concerns Latinos and traffic stops, and protects the anonymity of the men who came forward alleging they were victims of discriminatory policing.

"Based on the extraordinary nature of these allegations, the court finds that the plaintiffs' fears of potential retaliation by the SCPD appear reasonable," the judge wrote.

The police department issued a statement saying it does not comment on potential or pending litigation.

The case stems from the January 2014 arrest of Scott Greene, then a Suffolk police sergeant, who was charged with taking money from Latino drivers after he was caught in a sting operation by Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota's office.

The federal civil lawsuit, filed in Central Islip in late April, branches out from the "stop-and-rob scheme" cited in court papers to include other officers, Greene's supervisors and the police department as a whole.

The judge granted a stay "solely with regard to the defendant Greene," essentially giving time for the former police sergeant to defend himself in a criminal case that is ongoing in state Supreme Court. Greene faces multiple charges of larceny, fourth-degree grand larceny as a hate crime, and official misconduct; he has pleaded not guilty.

Advocates with LatinoJustice characterized Spatt's order as a victory.

"It means we can now proceed with litigating this case," said Foster Maer, senior attorney for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, which is based in Manhattan but has been involved for years in legal advocacy on Long Island. "The prime focus of the case is institutional reform, that a police department that allowed one of its officers to engage in robbing drivers, for perhaps a decade, that that on its face means something is broken."

The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages to be determined at trial, as well as attorneys' fees and costs.

Greene could not be reached for comment. He has been acting as his own attorney in the criminal and civil proceedings.

Greene entered a handwritten letter into the record of the civil case, discussing his difficulty in finding a defense lawyer and asking the court for assistance in securing representation.

In the letter, dated July 14, Greene wrote that attorneys he had met "had no interest in the case" or told him the final cost of representation would rise beyond $100,000, "a price out of my reach."

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