A retired police officer who screamed obscenities at a train passenger who was talking on a cell phone and who hit the hand of another passenger who intervened was acquitted Tuesday of misdemeanor charges stemming from the confrontation.
John Clifford, who is also a lawyer, was found not guilty after a two-day nonjury trial at which he acted as his own attorney. He had been charged with misdemeanor counts of attempted assault, disorderly conduct, harassment and attempted petit larceny and had faced up to a year in jail if convicted.
Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Larry Stephen issued his verdict immediately after closing arguments: "I see no crimes having been committed beyond a reasonable doubt. The case is dismissed and sealed."
The 6-foot-4 Clifford acknowledged during trial that he was aggressive and overbearing when he approached Long Island Rail Road commuters he considered rude for talking too loudly on cell phones and for other behavior.
During trial, Clifford, 60, admitted cursing at Nicholas Bender, "a 19-year-old nitwit waking up one girlfriend after another," and slapping the hand of Lydia Klein after she slapped his when he reached for a business card she was handing Bender on the train from Long Beach to Manhattan's Pennsylvania Station on March 28, 2007.
Clifford, who retired as a police sergeant after 10 years on the job, said Tuesday he had been arrested eight times after being accused of throwing coffee, spewing expletives and getting in the faces of people whom he considered loud and rude on the commuter line. This was the only case that wasn't dismissed.
"It took a lawyer and an old ex-police sergeant to stand up to it (public rudeness)," Clifford, of Long Beach, said as he left court. He said that unless lawmakers and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority do something, the lack of public civility will persist.
Asked what he regretted about his behavior, Clifford replied, "Nothing."
He added, "I don't want anybody to think they can't have a private conversation (around me), but keep it private."
The LIRR issued a statement saying it was "disappointed" but accepted the judgment of the court.
"Some of our customers feel as if they have been abused by Mr. Clifford's behavior," the statement said. "We will not tolerate aggressive behavior by Mr. Clifford if he seeks to impose his own standards of conduct on others. We will not hesitate in the future to call on police if necessary to protect the safety of our customer and employees."
Meanwhile, Clifford, a lawyer since 1984, has filed five lawsuits against passengers and against the MTA, which runs the region's mass transit system, for issues arising from his reactions to rudeness.
Clifford, formerly a security staffer for HBO, was fired after being arrested several times in connection with his LIRR confrontations. He said he plans now to "hang out my shingle again" and practice law.