A convicted drug dealer collared by the Southampton Town Police Department’s now disbanded Street Crime Unit in 2010, only to have the charges dismissed earlier this year at the request of the Suffolk County district attorney’s office, intends to sue those responsible for putting him behind bars.
An attorney for Christopher Rionero, who was arrested by Town Police for allegedly selling drugs in a Hampton Bays nightclub, filed a notice of claim with the town last month, accusing police and prosecutors of wrongful arrest, neglect of duty, malicious prosecution, gross negligence and carelessness. The list of defendants includes Southampton Town, its police department, the D.A.’s office and the Suffolk County Police Department.
The notice makes no reference to monetary damages or what restitution for the perceived wrongs he suffered from his arrest, which include the “loss of liberty for a period of approximately eight months.”
Mr. Rionero was arrested at the former Coliseum nightclub early in the morning of July 4, 2010, and accused of selling drugs to an undercover officer, police said at the time. He was charged with two felony counts of drug possession and sale of a controlled substance. He was convicted at trial.
But in March of this year, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota asked the court to vacate that conviction, making Mr. Rionero the latest of more than a half dozen accused drug dealers who have seen their charges dropped or convictions dismissed in the wake of an investigation of the Town Police’s former Street Crime Unit, an undercover drug investigative team whose members made all the arrests. At least two convicted drug dealers were released from prison while serving multi-year sentences after the charges against them were dismissed.
Though the D.A.’s office has never discussed their reasoning for reviewing the cases and ultimately dismissing the charges against Mr. Rionero and others, the investigation comes in the aftermath of revelations that one of the Street Crime Unit’s undercover officers, Erik Sickles, was addicted to prescription painkillers but was allowed to continue working.
The D.A.’s investigation and efforts by former Town Police Chief William Wilson Jr. to push the unit’s former commander, Lieutenant James Kiernan, out of the department sparked a near year-long battle in the corridors of Town Hall between the chief and some town officials. Both Lt. Kiernan and Officer Sickles served multi-month suspensions, imposed by the Town Board, while their cases were investigated and arbitrated, and both have now returned to duty on the force.
The Street Crime Unit was disbanded in late 2011.