Trouble in Store

Samir Abumayyaleh says he tried to get Minneapolis cops to crack down on drug dealing around his shop. He never figured they'd target him.

Samir Abumayyaleh says he doesn't know exactly how he went from being a victim to being a suspect, but he can tell you the precise moment he realized it had happened: 10:46 p.m. on November 18, 1998. That evening, as he headed home after a 12-hour workday at Cup Foods, the South Minneapolis superette he'd owned for ten years, Abumayyaleh got a call on his cell phone. His brother Nabil was on the line, and he sounded frantic. Cup was being raided, and the cops wanted him to open the safe. Abumayyaleh pulled a U-turn and sped back toward the store.

When Abumayyaleh arrived at the store, he was immediately frisked and escorted downstairs to open the safe. Requesting an explanation, he was told that the officers were searching the premises for drugs and stolen property. "I told them if that was the case, they had the wrong store, but to go ahead and search the entire building," Abumayyaleh recalls. "I am not a drug dealer."

Nabil Abumayyaleh says that by the time he phoned his brother, the raid had been in progress for an hour and a half. Plainclothes officers had begun by storming through the front doors and ordering everyone inside to hit the floor; then they shut down the store's five-camera security system. "I thought we were being robbed," he recalls. All 14 employees and customers were searched and handcuffed.

"Our father was at the store, and he'd recently undergone a triple bypass," Abumayyaleh continues. "When he protested, one of the officers pushed him to the floor, stepped on his neck, and told him to shut up." Abumayyaleh says that in response to his request that his father be permitted to get his heart medication, "they just kept telling us to shut up." Meanwhile, he says, several Third Precinct officers were busy entertaining themselves behind the counters, monkeying with the indoor-outdoor PA system by airing remarks along the lines of "Attention Cup Foods shoppers, the store closes in five minutes," and answering the phone with gibberish meant to mock the owners' native Arabic and telling the callers, "No drugs today, call back tomorrow."

In her report on the raid, officer Sherry Appledorn from the Minneapolis Police Department's Community Crime Prevention/SAFE unit stated that the three-hour search of the grocery store at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue South yielded one bag of "suspected marijuana" found on a customer, three handguns behind the counter, and six pieces of "suspected crack" on one of the Abumayyalehs. Nabil Abumayyaleh says the white material was soap, not crack, and that it was tossed by a customer during the raid and ended up next to his 14-year-old brother. Officers also seized three boxes of cell phones, a box of pagers, a CD player, three mountain bikes, ten bike tire rims, and 27 postal scales. Four customers were taken into custody after police found outstanding warrants on their records.

No criminal charges were brought as a result of the raid. But last week attorney Ron Meshbesher filed a complaint in Hennepin County District Court on behalf of the Abumayyalehs, challenging the search and the seizure of the merchandise. The complaint asks the court to invalidate the warrant and order police to return the seized merchandise. The city has until March 18 to respond.

"This is a classic example of the police victimizing the victim," declares Meshbesher. In his complaint, Meshbesher argues that the city had no proof that the Abumayyalehs were involved in any criminal behavior; on the contrary, he says, it was the family who for years had been asking police to do something about criminal activity around their building. The attorney claims that during the months preceding the raid, Abumayyaleh and his employees phoned the Third Precinct more than three times a week. "And this is how the police reward their efforts," Meshbesher marvels. "The moral of the story is that if you complain to the police, they will turn around and try to shut you down."

Lt. Kris Arneson, the Third Precinct's supervisor, says precincts do not keep records of calls received, so she can't "confirm or dispute" Meshbesher's claim. She does, however, point out that Cup Foods' neighbors have "complained repeatedly about the problems" at the location. Indeed, the neighborhood newspaper Southside Pride quoted Eric Hill, chairman of a residents' task force studying the troubled corner, as saying that drug dealing was rampant around Cup Foods. (Block club leaders in the area did not return City Pages' calls requesting comment.)

In an affidavit filed with his complaint, Samir Abumayyaleh states that his store was unfairly targeted for activities that affected the area as a whole. "The SuperAmerica gas station across the street from Cup Foods has the very same problems, yet there has been no investigation or search of that store," he alleges.

Anthony Smith, a clerk at the gas station, says he is aware of drug dealing around the intersection, and adds that the people at Cup Foods "have nothing to do with the dealers." The C.C.P./SAFE unit, however, came to a different conclusion. Sherry Appledorn, the officer who led the Cup Foods raid, refused to discuss the event with City Pages. But in documents she filed in order to obtain a warrant for the November raid, she stated that she had "received information from several Confidential Reliable Informants" that Samir Abumayyaleh was "allowing gang members to come into the store and sell narcotics." Appledorn also noted that police informants had bought "suspected crack cocaine" inside Cup Foods five times during the month preceding the raid, that "the owners/employees have been present and have observed when the suspected crack cocaine was sold," and that the store sold "stolen cell phones and pagers to area gang members."

Abumayyaleh says he has never witnessed drug dealing inside his store. He does sell cell phones, he says, as a licensed Aerial and Airtouch dealer. "There's signs and displays all over the store. I've sold cell phones and pagers to Minneapolis police officers over the past several years," he asserts, adding that when he buys used cell phones, he makes "every effort" to ensure that they're not hot merchandise.

The Cup Foods raid was not the first time Minneapolis police have investigated neighborhood convenience stores for peddling stolen property. On March 16, 1998, 170 law-enforcement officials from the MPD, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Customs, and the Internal Revenue Service, raided 28 convenience stores and confiscated merchandise ranging from cigarettes to computers. Police officials characterized the bust as the largest property-crime sting in recent years. Cup Foods was not among the stores targeted.

C.C.P./SAFE officer Mike Looney says the city has not yet decided whether to bring charges against the Cup Foods owners; according to Looney, some of the items seized were "questionable." But even if the Abumayyalehs are not prosecuted, he says, the city may try to shut down their store under nuisance laws. "At best, they are turning a blind eye to criminal activity occurring inside," he says. "They are not telling suspicious patrons to leave, not watching to see if their customers are conducting illegal activities."

But that, says University of Minnesota criminal law professor Richard Frase, may be easier said than done. "You can kick people out, but if it's drug dealers, they tend to be rough, and there's a certain fear." Frase says he has "some sympathy" for police seeking to crack down on criminal activity around convenience stores. "But if [an owner] is calling police all the time," he adds, "the argument may not be plausible. [Police] have to find a way to work with business owners and citizens. Otherwise the message is, 'Don't call the police to complain, or you may become the target.'"

That is what happened to them, the Abumayyalehs and their attorney argue. In his complaint about the raid, Ron Meshbesher paints a picture of hard-working storeowners scapegoated in an investigation that failed to connect them with any criminal activity. The attorney notes that according to officer Appledorn's affidavit, the drug buys at Cup Foods involved "known gang members"--not the owners or employees. "A judge should have dismissed her application [for a search warrant] for lacking probable cause," he says.

Police spokeswoman Penny Parrish declines to discuss the case at length, but says the city is confident that the warrant will stand. "We got enough evidence to satisfy a judge," says Parrish. "There really isn't anything else to say."

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