NYCLU Defends African-American Man Jailed for Writing Letter Critical of Public Official

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
February 21, 2001 12:00 am

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NEW YORK–The New York Civil Liberties Union today announced that it will file a federal lawsuit on behalf of Terence Hunter, an African-American resident of Staten Island who was arrested and held overnight in a cell last month for writing a letter critical of Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari.

“Mr. Hunter was arrested for nothing more than exercising his fundamental right to petition the government,” said NYCLU Interim Executive Director Donna Lieberman at a news conference held today at the organization’s headquarters in lower Manhattan. “The individuals responsible must be held accountable.”

In addition to filing the lawsuit, Lieberman said, the ACLU will call upon New York Police Commissioner Bernard B. Kerik to investigate “how a law-abiding New Yorker exercising his constitutional right to protest government action peacefully could be arrested and detained overnight upon referral from the borough president.”

Hunter’s letter, which sought an explanation for the closing of a local community center in the predominantly African-American North Shore area of Staten Island, accused Mr. Molinari of being a “Jim Crow politician,” termed the center’s closing a “high-tech lynching,” and attached copies of three photographs of lynchings depicted in a recently published historical study of lynchings in the United States.

On one of those photographs Mr. Hunter had written “North Shore” on the body of the victim and “South Shore” — a reference to a relatively affluent and white area of Staten Island — on a white girl witnessing the lynching.

Two days after the letter was mailed to Mr. Molinari — and on the eve of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend — five plainclothes police officers arrived at Mr. Hunter’s apartment and directed that he come with them to the 120th Precinct to discuss the letter and photographs.

At the precinct, Mr. Hunter was photographed, fingerprinted, and held overnight in a cell; at one point he collapsed in the cell and an ambulance was summoned. The next day he was transferred from the precinct to the Staten Island Criminal Court, but prior to seeing a judge he was taken out of the building and told by the detective who had arrested him that charges were being dismissed and that he should forget about the incident. After walking back to the 120th Precinct and then home, Hunter was admitted overnight at a local hospital.

At the NYCLU news conference, staff attorney Christopher Dunn, who is handling the case, said that the organization is preparing a federal civil-rights lawsuit on behalf of Hunter. “This might happen in a totalitarian society but it violates the most basic principles of our society and of the United States Constitution,” he said.

Hunter is a 41-year-old, lifelong resident of Staten Island. He currently is employed as a capital budget manager in the offices of the Brooklyn Borough President. Prior to this incident, he had never been arrested. His letter to the Borough President was the first he had written to an elected government official.

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