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Appeals court upholds dismissal in Niagara Falls racial profiling case

LOCKPORT – An appellate court Friday refused to overturn Niagara County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III’s opinion that a Niagara Falls policeman lied on the witness stand, as it affirmed Murphy’s ruling dismissing a marijuana possession indictment against two men.

One of them, Joachim S. Sylvester, was later convicted of trying to shoot a man in an incident that occurred the month after Murphy’s ruling. Sylvester, 39, of Ontario Avenue in the Falls, is now trying to get Murphy to overturn that jury verdict. He faces a prison term of up to 40 years in the attempted murder case.

Murphy’s March 2014 ruling that the traffic stop – which led to the seizure of 7 pounds of pot, 27 oxymorphone pills and a stack of counterfeit money in a maroon Hummer – was a case of “driving while black” rocked the local law enforcement community. He called it “racial profiling” and also said repeatedly that he didn’t believe the testimony of Detective Thomas V. Rodriguez about the circumstances behind the stop.

The Niagara County District Attorney’s Office, in one of the rare instances where the prosecution may appeal an adverse ruling, did so. But Friday, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court upheld Murphy’s decision.

The two-page ruling noted that Murphy “refused to credit the testimony of the officer who initiated the traffic stop, concluding that he ‘tailored his testimony to justify the subsequent search.’ In our view, that credibility determination is supported by the record, and we see no basis to disturb it.”

Assistant District Attorney Peter M. Wydysh, who prosecuted the case, declined to comment Friday. Niagara Falls Police Superintendent E. Bryan DalPorto said he hadn’t read the ruling and therefore couldn’t comment on it.

Rodriguez stopped the Hummer on May 9, 2013, at 18th and Niagara streets in Niagara Falls. The driver was Shateek L. Payne of Buffalo, and the passengers included Sylvester and Payne’s brother Michael A. Payne, all of whom were arrested on drug possession charges. Michael Payne was shot to death a month later in Buffalo.

Murphy said he didn’t think Rodriguez ever asked for permission to search the Hummer. Rodriguez said he did, but Shateek Payne said he didn’t, and Murphy said he believed Payne. He also said there was no probable cause to stop the Hummer, even though after all the drug evidence was thrown out, Payne pleaded guilty to running a stop sign. The appellate ruling didn’t mention the traffic infraction.

Murphy, who was Niagara County district attorney for 16 years before becoming a judge, said Rodriguez “saw a shiny, expensive vehicle driven by young, black, African-American males in a neighborhood where it had never been seen before. He was bound and determined to search that vehicle. … Hunches cannot retroactively legalize police conduct that was improper.”

Last July, County Judge Sara Sheldon threw out another drug indictment based on a traffic stop by Rodriguez, ruling that it also was improper.

On April 17, 2014, four weeks after Murphy’s ruling, Sylvester allegedly opened fire on Larry Miller of Niagara Falls in broad daylight and fled the scene. On Oct. 27, with Murphy presiding, a jury convicted Sylvester of attempted murder and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. The crime was caught on videotape taken by a surveillance camera on a Highland Avenue store.

On June 11, Sylvester’s new attorney, Frank LoTempio III, asserted that Miller, who didn’t show up to testify at the trial, had signed an affidavit saying he didn’t think Sylvester was the shooter. He also accused an alternate juror of misconduct for either talking to friends and family about the case or reading newspaper reports about it during the trial. A hearing on the newly raised issues is set for July 30.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com