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Judge dismisses 'American Gangster' lawsuit

February 17, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
A judge has tossed out a lawsuit alleging that about 400 retired federal drug agents were defamed by a false statement on screen at the end of the film "American Gangster." The statement suggested that a notorious Harlem heroin dealer, Frank Lucas, cooperated in the prosecution of some high level drug dealers. It said Lucas' "collaboration (with law enforcement) led to the conviction of three-quarters of New York City's Drug Enforcement Agency."

In a written ruling Thursday, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon dismissed the $50 million lawsuit filed last month against NBC Universal by three former federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents on behalf of agents who worked in the city between 1973 and 1985.

At no point in the film is a DEA agent identified, the judge said, and there is no suggestion that any federal agent is corrupt.

However, she did take a shot at NBC Universal, saying it would "behoove a major corporation like Universal (which is owned by a major news organization, NBC) not to put inaccurate statements at the end of popular films."

Universal Pictures said in a statement that it was gratified by the decision.

"We are happy that this matter has been brought to a swift and decisive close," it said.

Dominic F. Amorosa, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said he was disappointed in the ruling but he was pleased that the judge noted that the statement at the end of the film was wrong. He said the plaintiffs would appeal.

In the Ridley Scott film, which was released in November, Lucas' wife is assaulted during a search of their home, his dog is shot and hundreds of thousands of dollars is stolen by corrupt law enforcers. But the judge noted that the film does not identify the people who do these things as DEA agents.

The judge said the truth was that Lucas, played by Denzel Washington in the film, became a target of federal and city investigators who arrested him in January 1975 at his Teaneck, N.J., home, which was searched lawfully as $585,000 in cash from the sale of narcotics was seized.

She said the New York Police Department's Special Investigations Narcotics Unit had nothing to do with the arrest anddprosecution of Lucas, who was convicted in September 1975 and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

She said he did later assist in the apprehension and conviction of numerous other drug dealers but his cooperation did not lead to the conviction of any law enforcers.

"There was and is no federal, state or local agency called the `New York City Drug Enforcement Agency,"' the judge noted. "To put it bluntly ... the `legend' that appears on-screen at the end of the film is wholly inaccurate."

The lawsuit had argued that the erroneous statement damaged the reputation of some former agents who are now working for private firms or other law enforcement agencies.

The lawsuit had sought to have the erroneous statement removed, and for the plaintiffs to receive all of the profits from the movie, which has grossed more than $130 million at the box office.

 

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