Southold ex-probationary cop Garrett Lake during his trial in Suffolk...

Southold ex-probationary cop Garrett Lake during his trial in Suffolk County Supreme Court on Nov. 16. Credit: Tom Lambui

A Suffolk judge has thrown out a lawsuit filed by an ex-Southold probationary cop who alleged the town fired him in a retaliatory move for making high-profile drunken driving arrests.

Monday’s ruling by Acting State Supreme Court Justice James Quinn said Garrett Lake failed to prove that his termination was illegal or improper “in spite of [his] high statistics and awards," adding evidence showed the town fired him based on performance and community complaints over Lake's tactics.

The case was tried in Suffolk County Supreme Court.

Lake, 37, of Cutchogue, was fired four days before his 18-month probationary period was set to expire in May 2016.

He sued the town in 2016, alleging his termination was politically motivated after he refused to give special treatment to the friend of a town GOP leader and a Jamesport assistant fire chief after he arrested both in separate incidents.

The town maintained that Lake was terminated for “overly aggressive” stops and searches.

Eric Bressler, Lake’s attorney, said Tuesday they were “very disappointed” and plan to appeal.

Lake did not return a call seeking comment.

The decision comes more than two months after a nonjury trial in Riverhead that featured testimony from Lake, town and police officials. Lake wanted reinstatement to the department and back pay. 

Police Chief Martin Flatley’s testimony painted Lake as an overzealous rookie who was ultimately “not a good fit” for the department.

Flatley said not every traffic stop warranted a “full blown” vehicle search.

The police chief is scheduled to retire in June as part of an unrelated settlement with the town over his handling of a pandemic-era retirement party.

Videos of seven stops were shown at trial, including the two Lake said factored in his removal.

One involved Steven Romeo, whom Lake arrested in July 2015 after Romeo's truck collided with a limousine in Cutchogue, killing four women who had been visiting North Fork wineries.

Lake claimed John Helf Sr., then vice chairman of the Southold Town Republican Committee and a friend of Romeo’s, tried to obstruct his investigation. A dashboard camera video shows Helf was present, but did not include audio of his alleged comments that Lake "didn't have to go this route" in arresting Romeo.

Romeo, who later pleaded guilty to driving while impaired, a traffic infraction, had his license suspended for 90 days and was fined $500.

Nancy DiMonte of Elwood, whose then 25-year-old daughter, Joelle, survived the 2015 crash, attended the trial and called the decision an “injustice.”

“We were hoping this decision would vindicate [Lake]” she said Tuesday. “Something very smelly went on at that scene.”

The families involved in the crash reached a $6.1 million settlement in a wrongful death case last fall.

Lake also alleged that his February 2016 arrest of assistant fire chief David McKillop after a parade was criticized by commissioners of that department. He said they got “special privileges” to access footage of the arrest.

McKillop’s charge was later reduced to driving while ability impaired and two vehicle violations were dismissed, according to Southold Justice Court records.

Documents shown in court show that Lake made 38 DWI arrests in 2015, the same year he was honored by the county for drunken driving enforcement. That number far surpassed the next-highest officer, who made 12 arrests that year.

Quinn found no evidence of interference in either case and said superior officers directed him to conduct field sobriety tests and Lake was "supported in the arrests," according to the written decision.

Former town board member Christopher Talbot was the only witness who testified on Lake’s behalf about disparaging comments Helf allegedly made about Lake at the town’s GOP headquarters.

Quinn wrote that the single statement is “unconvincing” that Lake’s removal was political.

Town supervisor Al Krupski said Tuesday he hopes the town and Lake can “move on.”

Former supervisor Scott Russell stood by the decision to terminate Lake based on job performance and said his claims of political influence “weren’t rooted in reality.”

Lake’s petition was first dismissed in 2017 before an appellate court reinstated the lawsuit in 2020.

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