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August 11, 2004

Virgin Islander detained in "mistaken identity" case

By Beth P. Krane
Staff Writer

August 7, 2004

An Arab-American man at the center of last week's Port of Palm Beach terrorist scare said Friday that he thinks law enforcement officials overreacted because of his first name.

Riviera Beach police and federal law enforcement officials detained Mohammad Suid, 30, of the U.S. Virgin Islands, for hours and shut down the port and surrounding communities after stopping the businessman for speeding and finding his name on a national watch list. Officials later said it was a case of mistaken identity.

"I'm an ordinary, regular guy. I've never had anything like this happen," said Suid, who was born and raised in the U.S. Virgin Islands. "I definitely felt like it was racial profiling. ... I understand they were trying to do their jobs, but I think they could have handled it a lot better."

Suid, who runs a chain of department stores in the Virgin Islands with his father, said he was speeding in a U-Haul at the port when police stopped him. He had come from Orlando, where he purchased a cargo truck and furniture for his stores, with his cousin and had just dropped off the truck and other items to be shipped to the Virgin Islands. Suid said he was speeding because he was in a hurry to catch a flight from Miami back home.

"An officer asked me for my license, saw my name and asked me to step out of the truck," he said. "Then they started searching the truck."

Officers seemed uneasy when they found a license plate Suid had used to drive the new cargo truck from Orlando to the port, he said. They kept Suid, his cousin and a third man, who had driven the truck from Orlando, on the ground near the trucks for more than two hours before Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Border Patrol agents began swarming the area, he said.

"I'm asking them the whole time, `What's the problem? What's the problem?' but they wouldn't answer me," said Suid, who noticed the officers evacuating the port and surrounding communities. "I was like, `Man, what's going on? All of this because of me?'"

Suid said the chaos was upsetting to his autistic cousin, Khalid Suid, 19, who lives with him. Khalid still has trouble sleeping at night because of the incident, Mohammad Suid said.

The three men were fingerprinted twice -- once at the scene and again at the U.S. Border Patrol office -- and had their pictures taken, even though no charges were filed, Suid said. He was given a traffic citation for driving 51 mph in a 35 mph zone, Riviera Beach Police records show.

The trio was released more than four hours after the 2:30 p.m. July 28 traffic stop, but the men were given little explanation as to why they had been detained, Suid said.

"They told me it was a case of mistaken identity with Mohammad, but how many Mohammads are there in the whole world?"

Suid said U.S. Border Patrol agents made that comment to him, but Richard Montemayor, a U.S. Border Patrol spokesman, said that was not the case. The Border Patrol provided the space but did not take an active role in the interrogation, he said.

Riviera Beach officials defended the city's reaction again Friday.

"We made a routine traffic stop, that's what we did," spokeswoman Rose Anne Brown said. Officers detained the men and alerted federal officials because Suid's name appeared in a national criminal database with an alert saying he was "a person of interest," she said.

"Unfortunately, these men were detained for a few hours," Brown said. "Fortunately, for them and for us, the proper protocol was followed."

Riviera Beach Mayor Michael Brown said racial profiling was not at play: "There were a series of things that happened that caused our officers to believe that this was a suspicious individual."

The U-Haul truck was speeding at the port, which is an area of heightened security.

Officers reported the men gave conflicting information and were not cooperative. Then, the driver's name appeared on a national watch list, he said.

The traffic ticket lists Suid's address as the Florida Air Academy in Melbourne. Suid said he attended the school in 1989 and 1993, but that he presented his current U.S. Virgin Islands driver's license to the officers.

Mayor Brown said the flight school connection may have raised a red flag.

"A flight school would have raised all kinds of interesting issues for me," Brown said. "You're looking at the last community that would profile anyone, but 9-11 brought this on and we're just trying to deal with it and keep our residents safe."

Suid said he plans to pay his $180.50 speeding ticket and is consulting with a lawyer.

"My immediate concern is about the fingerprints and photos," he said Friday. "I want to make sure my name is cleared."

The 223-acre port is near a power plant and across the Intracoastal Waterway from the northern tip of the island of Palm Beach.

Staff Writer Patty Pensa contributed to this report.

Beth P. Krane can be reached at bpkrane@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6631.

Posted by afinta at August 11, 2004 12:03 AM