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Cops ‘Stop and Rob’ Latinos, Class Action Says

(CN) - Police officers in Long Island's Suffolk County employed a "stop and rob" campaign targeting Latinos, a federal class action claims.

Twenty-one unnanmed Latinos living in the New York City suburb filed their 62-page civil rights lawsuit on Wednesday.

"For many years, SPCD officers have targeted Latinos for unfounded, race-based traffic or pedestrian stops, searched or detained them and wrongfully taken their personal property (money), issued unjustified traffic citations, or otherwise harassed them," they say.

With the complaint unavailable in the federal court system's database, Courthouse News obtained a copy of it, with a case number and a time stamp, on LatinoJustice's website.

The plaintiffs say they were targeted "based on the belief that these drivers were likely to be undocumented and therefore prone both to carry cash and to not report any theft."

Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the firm that filed the case, noted that "people of color should be able to walk and drive the streets of Suffolk County without fear of being harassed and robbed by SCPD officers."

"The Constitution and civil rights laws of this country demand nothing less from any law enforcement agency, and it is based upon those laws that we have commenced this action," Cartagena said in a statement.

The plaintiffs specify officer Scott Greene among others as a named defendant, saying he targeted and stopped Latinos, demanded their wallets, took the cash and issued them a bogus ticket.

Greene also searched their cars and took the money he found there, too, according to the complaint.

The class says Greene was arrested in January 2014 after a sting operation conducted by an undercover officer working with the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office caught Greene on tape taking $100 from an envelope in the undercover officer's car.

Greene was indicted on 21 counts that March, then hit with another 60 counts in June 2014 for taking money from 20 Latinos in Suffolk County.

The parties also say Suffolk County Police Commissioner Edward Webber turned a blind eye to the alleged practice.

"That these criminal practices, conducted every week in public, went on for a decade yet were never halted by the department reflects a fundamental failure of the department's ability to monitor itself," said Foster Maer, senior litigation counsel for LatinoJustice PRLDEF. "The system of justice is broken for Latinos in Suffolk County and must be reformed."

When Suffolk County Police set up traffic checkpoints in predominantly Latino neighborhoods, they did so "not to inspect for sobriety or other specific illegal conduct," but to "target" Latinos in the county to ask for documentation, according to the complaint.

Latinos say the Department of Justice jumped in to investigate their claims of discrimination between 2010 and 2011.

"The United States investigation found rampant and systemic discrimination by the SCPD against Latinos," according to the complaint.

The department had no comment on the pending litigation, but said "specific efforts" have been made recently to "enhance" its relationship with the Latino community.

"We believe [Greene's] actions to be violative of his oath of public office, the public trust and the law and are not representative of the members of the Suffolk County Police Department," a police spokeswoman said. "The Suffolk County Police Department expects and demands the highest professional and ethical values of our officers."

She added that the department has "been working diligently to build trust in all our communities."

"The public should know that when we receive a complaint about one of our officer's conduct, we treat it seriously and will act upon and investigate it fully," the statement concludes.

The plaintiffs want the department to remedy the allegedly discriminatory conduct. They also seek unspecified damages for civil rights violations.

Elan DiMaio with Shearman & Sterling joins LatinoJustice PRLDEF as co-counsel for the plaintiffs.

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