The Morgan Stanley executive accused of assaulting a New York cab driver is charged with violating a Connecticut hate-crime law that has been used to convict one man for uttering a racial epithet and another for shouting a gay slur while threatening to set a man on fire.
William Bryan Jennings, 45, arrived today at Connecticut Superior Court in Stamford where he is expected to enter a plea. He is accused of calling the Egyptian-born driver, Mohamed Ammar, 44, an expletive and saying “I’m going to kill you. You should go back to your country” during a dispute over a fare. The hate-crime law brings the same five-year maximum sentence as the assault charge.
“You can’t punish somebody merely through speech, but you can punish him when he’s threatening to beat people up,” Martin B. Margulies, a professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law in Hamden, Connecticut, said in a phone interview.
Jennings, who served as the bank’s bond-underwriting chief in the U.S. before he was placed on leave, was charged Feb. 29 in the December incident. He’s accused of attacking Ammar with a 2 1/2-inch blade at the end of a 40-mile ride from New York to the banker’s Darien home.
The Connecticut hate-crime statute, signed into law in 2000, makes it a felony to cause or threaten physical damage to a person or to property with a specific intent to intimidate or harass a person “because of the actual or perceived race, religion, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression of such other person.”
Jennings’s lawyer, Eugene J. Riccio, declined to comment on the bias charge. Jennings denied threatening to kill Ammar or telling him to go back to his country, according to the banker’s statement to the police.
The state hate-crime law “is one of the very few crimes where motive enters into the definition of the offense,” Margulies said. “The test is whether you perceive your victim to belong to certain ethnicity.”
In Connecticut, there were 243 arrests and 33 convictions under the hate-crime statute from 2007 to 2011, according to Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, a spokeswoman for the State Judicial Branch office.
In 2010, an appeals panel upheld the jury conviction of a man who used anti-gay slurs when he tried to set another man on fire as they drank in a wooded area in Willimantic. The victim, Scott Beattie, had taken off at least some of his clothes and had earlier been drinking with a gay man, according to the decision.
“The jury reasonably could have determined that the defendant had the requisite specific intent to intimidate or to harass Beattie on the basis of Beattie’s actual or perceived sexual orientation,” the court wrote.
In 2007, a Connecticut appeals panel found that the hate-crime law wasn’t unconstitutionally too broad or vague as applied to a defendant convicted of violating it. The court said the law protects against “true threats.”
In a 2003 incident in Stamford High School’s parking lot that gave rise to that case, a white man used a racial epithet and said, “This is a white man’s neighborhood” to a black man while making two fists.
In the case of Jennings, who had attended a bank holiday party at a Manhattan hotel before hailing Ammar’s cab, the incident began when he refused to pay the agreed-upon $204 fare when they arrived in the driveway of his $3.4 million home, Ammar said.
Jennings said “he did not feel like paying” because he was already home, Ammar said. The banker offered to pay $50, Ammar said, while Jennings told police the driver demanded $294 and that he offered to pay $160.
Ammar said after the banker refused to pay, he backed out of the driveway to seek a police officer. Ammar said he had tried to call 911 but was hampered by poor cellular reception in the wealthy Fairfield County suburb. A fight ensued as they drove through Darien. That was when Jennings made the threats and allegedly cut Ammar, according to the police report, filed in state court in Stamford.
Jennings said the driver cut his hand trying to grab the knife from him, which he said he wielded because he feared he was being abducted, possibly back to the city. Ammar denied he tried to take Jennings back to New York.
The banker, who eventually fled the cab and turned himself in two weeks later after a vacation in Florida, was charged with second-degree assault, theft of services and intimidation by bias or bigotry. The charge for not paying the cab fare is a misdemeanor with a maximum three-month sentence.
Michael Lawlor, undersecretary in the state Office of Policy and Management, co-sponsored the hate-crime bill when he was a state representative. The law assigns a higher penalty to assault or vandalism that is motivated by hatred, he said in a phone interview.
“It’s not a crime to hate people,” he said. “You can hate people all you want.”
He said the state would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt as to why Jennings allegedly picked this victim.
“If it was just over the cab fare, then it would not be a hate crime,” Lawlor said. “If they were doing it and claiming self-defense, that’s another law, too.”
Max Simmons, a criminal-defense and civil-rights lawyer in New Haven, said in a phone interview he could recall only one client being charged with it, a case that was dropped for reasons unrelated to the alleged racial slurs used.
“It has to be a pretty clear-cut case,” Simmons said. “There’s always a First Amendment challenge lurking in the background of a statute like that.”
Under the hate-crime law, Ammar would also be able to sue Jennings for damages. In May 2011, in a lawsuit in the same court as Jennings’s criminal case, such a claim was allowed to go forward against a Greenwich police officer. In that case, a black man who worked as a livery driver said he was racially profiled when he was stopped while driving a client’s Mercedes.
The case is State of Connecticut v. Jennings 12-0176761, Superior Court for the State of Connecticut (Stamford).