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May 2, 2013 10:02 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Judge Tosses Wrongful Arrest Suit Filed Against Southampton Town Police

May 2, 2013 10:02 AM

A federal judge has dismissed a $50 million lawsuit filed against Southampton Town Police by one of two men released from prison last year after a Suffolk County District Attorney investigation concluded that he had been wrongly arrested by the department’s now-defunct Street Crime Unit.

Southampton Town Attorney Tiffany Scarlato said on Monday that the judge, U.S. District Court Judge Sandra Feuerstein, ruled that even though the charges against Mohammed Proctor stemming from his arrest in 2010 had been dropped, police appear to have nonetheless followed proper procedures and the grounds for lawsuit were unwarranted.

"In other words, what the judge was saying was that just because the DA dismissed the charges, doesn't mean that these things didn't actually happen—it doesn't mean the police didn't have a good warrant or that the officers did anything improper at all," Ms. Scarlato said. "The plaintiff withdrew the excessive force and denial of medical attention claims, so no factual issues remained for trial."

Mr. Proctor, of Riverside, filed the original lawsuit in May 2010, less than a month after his arrest, charging the officers with unlawful search and seizure for having conducted a body cavity search and removing a bag of cocaine from his anus. Jury selection for the trial was set to begin shortly, before Judge Feuerstein issued her ruling.

Mr. Proctor, 37, was released from prison last May after Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota's office announced that it had dropped the charges against him and another man, Bernard Cooks of Southampton, citing questions about the "credibility" of an officer who had played a role in the arrest of both men. Both had been serving multi-year prison sentences when the charges filed against them were dropped.

Since that time at least five other convicted drug dealers, all arrested by the same undercover police unit, have had similar charges filed against them in 2010 and 2011 dropped or their convictions vacated. They had either finished serving their terms or were still imprisoned on unrelated charges.

One of those other men, Kwame Opoku of North Sea, has also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Town Police. Mr. Opoku was swept up in the same bust that netted Mr. Cooks and a third man, Nathaniel Cooper. Mr. Cooks and Mr. Cooper have filed notices of intent to sue but have not as yet filed lawsuits against the town.

The town has contracted with the Smithtown law firm Devitt Spellman Barrett to handle the civil suits against the department, but Ms. Scarlato said the ruling by Judge Feuerstein bodes well for the eventual dismissal of the other suits as well.

"If the dismissal of the charges against this guy isn't a basis for trial, then the dismissal of charges shouldn't be a basis for trial for any of them," she said. "She put on the record that she believed that the ... dismissal of the indictment and the charges was not based on the merits of the case and that the town did have reasonable cause to make these arrests."

Though the DA's office has revealed few specifics about their months-long investigation of the arrests made by Town Police, the men who have had charges dropped against them appear to have all been linked to a single officer, Eric Sickles. Officer Sickles was found to have been addicted to prescription pain medication—prescribed to him after an injury unrelated to his police work—while working as an undercover detective with the town's undercover drug investigation unit.

Officer Sickles was suspended for eight months and underwent substance abuse treatment for his addiction. His immediate superior officer on the unit, Lieutenant James Kiernan, was also suspended for five months last year after former Town Police Chief William Wilson filed a host of disciplinary charges against him. Both men have reached settlements with the town and have returned to work in the department.

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