Five delicatessen operators sued Buffalo and state law enforcement officials Thursday, accusing them of violating the civil rights of Arab-American store owners with selective prosecution by the so-called Deli Task Force.
In addition to the state and city, four Buffalo police officers and two state officials also were named in the suit.
Attorneys for the store owners are seeking class-action status on behalf of the operators of about 70 Arab-owned stores in Buffalo. They will ask State Supreme Court Justice Rose H. Sconiers on Thursday to issue a preliminary injunction banning further raids.
At an afternoon news conference, Police Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske responded to allegations of selective prosecution by Buffalo police against the store owners.
"I emphatically deny this," he said. "The department does selectively prosecute individuals -- those individuals who break the law, regardless of race or ethnic origin."
James Ostrowski and Salvatore P. Abbate, the lead attorneys for the store owners, said they will later seek class-action status in the case, in which they said they will seek substantial financial damages against the defendants.
Among the defendants in the suit served Thursday are Buffalo Police Officers James C. Szczur, Kevin Maloney, Kenneth Devlin and Michael O'Brien. They are being sued individually -- along with James Sevchik, the state Agriculture Departments chief inspector, and State Police Investigator John A. Lubecki -- for alleged racist misconduct in the raids.
Based on task force raids, the Erie County district attorney's office over the past year has obtained more than a dozen misdemeanor convictions against delicatessen owners in cases where the task force seized unlicensed firearms and drug paraphernalia.
The task force was launched in February 1996 after numerous complaints about the operations of two dozen delicatessens in the Fillmore District alone.
"What would be the motivation of the Buffalo Police Department to attack a law-abiding business?" asked Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk, who sparked the state-city task force. "It makes no sense whatsoever.
"If you run a store or business that puts the public in danger . . . you're a problem," he said.
The task force has successfully fulfilled its purpose, the police commissioner said.
"The Deli Task Force . . . has been, by all measures, extremely successful," said Kerlikowske, noting successful prosecutions of cases involving narcotics and drug paraphernalia, untaxed cigarettes, liquor-law violations, copyright infringements and numerous health-code violations.
"These cases were made under the strictest of legal guidelines and upheld by various judicial and administrative authorities. The task force operates under the guidance of numerous legal advisers from various agencies, including our cooperation," Kerlikowske added.
Ostrowski and Abbate said Arab-American store owners, primarily natives of Yemen, have been illegally harassed with raids at stores primarily in the inner city, the West Side and the Fillmore-Delavan areas.