An immigration attorney who was arrested two years ago for bringing a firearm into the Criterion Cinemas movie theater has filed a lawsuit against the City of New Haven and Police Chief Dean Esserman, alleging false arrest and police misconduct.
Sung-Ho Hwang, who practices law in the Elm City, was charged with breach of peace and interfering with officers in August 2012 after he brought a gun to a showing of the “Dark Knight Rises.” The gun was licensed, and all charges were eventually dropped in December 2012. Hwang, claiming that his reputation suffered in the wake of the incident, is charging the city with false arrest, arguing that the city held him in custody without probable cause, and instituted malicious prosecution.
“This case is not about Second Amendment rights,” said Steven Errante, Hwang’s attorney. “This case is about vindicating Mr. Hwang’s reputation because he was arrested with no justification whatsoever.”
In August 2012, around 20 officers responded to reports that a man had brought an unconcealed weapon into the theater. This incident came less than a month after the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, when a gunman opened fire at a midnight screening of the same film, killing 12 people. Errante said that Hwang understands the fear that must have accompanied the sight of an armed man in the theater, and also does not blame the subsequent police investigation. However, he said that Hwang’s suit takes issue with the way the case was handled after the police established Hwang’s weapon was licensed.
According to Errante, rather than apologize for the mistake, Esserman ordered Hwang arrested to “save face,” rather than apologize for the mistake.
“They arrested him for publicity reasons,” Errante said. “All sorts of police cars were there — a SWAT team and TV news crews had shown up. It became a big deal, and my supposition is the police chief didn’t want to walk out and say ‘False alarm; everybody go home.’”
Esserman declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Hwang’s arrest made headlines across the city. The lawyer’s reputation suffered a severe blow as a result, according to John Williams, a New Haven lawyer who specializes in police misconduct cases.
Hwang’s strong public presence across the city, Williams said, only made the damage to his reputation worse.
“He was a highly respected attorney in the community and had just been elected to be president of the New Haven County Bar Association,” Williams said. “According to conversation among a lot of lawyers in town, he was a likely candidate for a judicial position in the near future. Now he may still be, but there can’t be any doubt that an arrest like that would’ve had a terrible impact on his professional career.”
Williams said that one of the major challenges in the case will be providing evidence for a damaged reputation, considering that damage to reputation is often intangible and difficult to quantify in monetary terms. Such cases are especially challenging when they are brought against the police, he added.
“The average citizen or juror believes the police can do no wrong,” Williams said. “But, as a former New Haven police chief once said, police departments recruit from the human race.”
Nevertheless, neither Errante nor Williams said they did not think that New Haven had more police misconduct cases than any other city. Hwang’s arrest was more likely a one-time incident rather than part of a larger trend of false arrests, Errante said, adding that the arrest was likely made as a product of the fear that followed the Colorado shooting.
When asked for comment, the City of New Haven communications office said that it is “extremely limited” in what it can say about pending litigation.
“The City is aware of this matter and will respond accordingly at the appropriate time,” said New Haven Deputy Corporation Counsel Christopher Neary in an email to the News. “Suffice it to say for now The City believes that the New Haven Police Department acted appropriately under the circumstances.”
The City has until Oct. 2 to respond to the lawsuit, according to the New Haven Register.