N.Y. rabbi fighting charge of trying to elude police

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CHELSEA — A New York rabbi who police say drove about 4 miles before pulling over for a trooper — leading to a traffic stop he says left his family "traumatized" — is denying he committed a crime.

Rabbi Berl Fink offered only a few brief remarks after pleading not guilty late Wednesday morning to a charge of attempting to elude police.

"All I wanted was an apology," Fink said outside the Orange County courthouse, referring to how he said he and his family were treated by Vermont State Police Trooper Justin Thompson.

A dash cam video from Thompson's cruiser from the stop Aug. 8 on Interstate 91 in Thetford showed Thompson ordered Fink and his 19-year-old son to the ground at gunpoint and handcuffed the rabbi's wife.

Before she was handcuffed, the family said, Fink's wife called 911 and asked for help "immediately," telling the dispatcher that the family was the victim of a "terror attack" by a police officer.

Instead of an apology, Fink, 57, of Brooklyn, got a citation to face a criminal charge in the court in Chelsea.

After his attorney, Robert Appel, entered a not guilty plea Wednesday on his behalf, Fink was released on his personal recognizance.

Prosecutors had offered to settle the case for a $300 fine or a referral to a court diversion program. Fink refused those offers and is fighting the charge.

Appel said both offers would have required "some acknowledgment of responsibility" on his client's behalf.

"The rabbi feels strongly that he did nothing wrong, that once he understood that the officer was signaling him to stop, he stopped," the defense attorney said.

Appel added that he is prepared to take the case to trial if necessary.

"I think a jury of good Orange County citizens, if the matter goes to trial, will enter the right verdict of not guilty," he said.

Appel is the former head of the Vermont Human Rights Commission and a board member of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

He said outside the courthouse that the ACLU was "in discussions" with the Finks, who are Hasidic Jews, to determine if any civil rights action would be brought.

Scott Waterman, a spokesperson for the Vermont Department of Public Safety, declined to comment Wednesday on Fink's case.

He pointed to a statement issued last month that included a joint statement by Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Anderson and the State Police Advisory Commission. In the statement, Anderson and the commission cleared Thompson of any wrongdoing.

That statement termed it a "high-risk" traffic stop based on several factors, including how long it took Fink to pull over, the time of night and the number of people in the vehicle.

Thompson, the statement added, followed the training and policies for handling such a stop. Anderson and the advisory commission also said in the statement that they found no evidence of bias on Thompson's part.

According to an affidavit from Thompson filed in court and made public Wednesday, the trooper wrote that his "rear-facing radar" on his cruiser clocked Fink driving 83 mph in a 65-mph zone on Interstate 91 in Thetford just after midnight on Aug. 8.

Thompson wrote that he pulled into the breakdown lane, turned on his rear flashing lights, and let Fink's vehicle, a 2004 Toyota Camry, pass him. The trooper added he then turned on his lights and siren and tried to pull Fink's car over.

As he followed Fink, Thompson wrote, he saw the vehicle "swerving within its lane of travel and cross the white fog lane."

After about 4 miles Fink's vehicle pulled over, according to the trooper, and he conducted a "felony stop on the occupants."

"I explained to Fink that I attempted to stop him for speeding and he told me that he did not think he was speeding," the trooper's affidavit said. "He said that he tried stopping but was looking for a place to stop."

Thompson then added, "I said to Fink, `You understand though that when the lights come on and the siren comes on that's your signal to stop' and he said, `I understand.'"

Appel argued in court Wednesday that there wasn't probable cause to bring the charge against his client, contending that while it took 4 miles for Fink to stop, he was never attempting to flee.

"It's not like he was running off," Appel said.

The defense attorney said that as soon as Fink realized the trooper was trying to pull him over, he tried to find a safe place and then stopped. During that 4-mile stretch that Thompson was following Fink, Appel added, his client was driving only about 60 mph.

"What if he goes 50 miles, he goes from Brattleboro to St. Johnsbury?" asked acting Judge Charlie Buttrey, and was followed by a trooper with lights and siren on and only traveling 65 mph.

Appel said it would be a matter of intent.

"There was no intent to elude here," the defense attorney said.

After a break of about 10 minutes, the judge returned to the courtroom and announced that he found probable cause to allow the case to proceed.

Orange County Deputy State's Attorney Dickson Corbett referred any comment to Orange County State's Attorney Will Porter, who was out of the office Wednesday.

Fink attended the court proceeding Wednesday with a handful of family members and accompanied by New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents the district in Brooklyn where the rabbi and his wife, Sarah, live.

Hikind said he came to the arraignment to support the Finks, whom he called "good people" on their way through Vermont to vacation in New Hampshire when something "horrible" happened to them.

And it's continuing, he said, with the filing of the criminal charge.

"At some point, doesn't someone say in the name of justice, `Hey, let's move on'?" Hikind said. "This is what Vermont is spending its tax dollars (on), to pursue Rabbi Fink?"

Hikind said that although it's clear from how the Finks dress they are Hasidic Jews, he can't say if that was a factor in the trooper's conduct. "I don't know what was in the heart of a particular state trooper," the assemblyman said.

Asked outside the courthouse to characterize the conduct of the trooper during the traffic stop, Appel said, "I think initially, overly aggressive, unreasonably so in my mind."

The defense attorney said he understood the concerns a trooper would have conducting a roadside stop when alone late at night. But, Appel said, in this case it soon became clear the Finks posed no threat.

"The insensitivity in which he treated these kind, peaceful people in my view was totally uncalled for," he added. "Once the situation had de-escalated the trooper reverted to being respectful and polite. Unfortunately he did not display those attributes during the initial contact."

The next hearing in the case is set for Dec. 20.

If convicted of attempting to elude police, Fink faces up to a year in jail.

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