Immigration lawyer Sung-Ho Hwang stayed busy at his New Haven law practice last week, after prosecutors dismissed misdemeanor charges against him.
The charges stemmed from a communications breakdown between Hwang and police at a midnight showing of the latest Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” The conversation in the New Haven movie theater was complicated by the fact that Hwang had a pistol tucked in the waist of his pants, even though he had a permit to carry the weapon.
After the charges were dropped on Monday, Dec. 3, Hwang, who is president of the New Haven County Bar Association, declined requests for interviews. He referred all questions to his attorney, Hugh Keefe, who said he was confident most people would look beyond his client’s arrest on charges of breach of peace and interfering with police to see what amounted to a “basic misunderstanding.”
“Hopefully, there will be no permanent harm,” Keefe said. “Obviously it doesn’t do anyone’s reputation any good to be arrested in a high-profile case, which this was. But anyone who bothers to look at the facts carefully will come to the conclusion that this was a misunderstanding.”
Since Hwang had a permit to carry the loaded handgun, he was never charged with having the weapon at the Criterion theater on Aug. 7. But moviegoers were especially jittery at the time. A couple of weeks before, a gunman had walked into a screening of the same film in Colorado and killed 12 people, injuring 58.
Under that hysteria, Hwang got caught up in what became a tense moment, said Keefe, of New Haven’s Lynch, Traub, Keefe & Errante.
“As far as the gun was concerned, he had a right to carry it, since he had a permit,” said Keefe. “Either as a concealed weapon or in open or public view, it’s perfectly legal in Connecticut, as long as you have a permit.”
Police were called after someone reported seeing a man with a gun in the theater, although it was never entirely clear whether that person was Hwang. When police officers arrived, they started ordering people to put their hands in the air while being searched.
According to police statements, when the officers came to Hwang, he did not listen to their commands. “He remained in his seat while using his cell phone,” the police said at the time, adding that they then spotted the gun in his waistband. “He was taken into custody by force.”
Keefe explained that the misdemeanor charges, which could have resulted in Hwang being locked up for up to 18 months, were dismissed by Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney David Strollo for a number of reasons.
The first reason, he said, was the fact that Hwang didn’t know the men who filed into the theater were really police officers.
“Sung-Ho has consistently said that when he heard people screaming [put your hands up] he thought it was a prank. One of the people screaming at him was a patron, she wasn’t a cop, so he thought it was a prank,” Keefe said. “And he was busy reading his business e-mails on his phone.”
Keefe said the large response of police didn’t help the tense situation, as 18 uniformed officers started shouting orders at the crowd. “Most of them had their guns drawn, so it was clearly very tense,” Keefe said.
As soon as Hwang realized they were police officers, he complied with their commands, Keefe said.
The other reason Hwang’s charges were dropped, the lawyer said, was the fact that he has a spotless record. “He’s a highly respected member of the legal community and a highly reputed member of the New Haven Korean community, that helped,” Keefe said. “I don’t think he got any special favors because he’s a lawyer, but he runs programs to help the city’s poor. That kind of background helped the disposition.”
Lawyers who were familiar with the case said the outcome was appropriate. One of them was Craig C. Fishbein of the Fishbein Law Firm in Wallingford. He has successfully represented shooting ranges in lawsuits brought by individuals trying to shut them down. More recently, Fishbein was appointed to the state Board of Firearms Permit Examiners, who hear appeals from people whose handgun permits have been denied or revoked.
“I predicted from the beginning that these charges would not be pursued,” Fishbein said. “Kudos to the prosecutor for following the law and doing the right thing.”
Fishbein said he thought Hwang’s arrest, even though it was not on a gun charge specifically, was the result of a misunderstanding over what is legal in Connecticut under its gun laws. Many police officers and citizens, he said, don’t understand that Connecticut is not a conceal carry state, meaning a person with a permit in the state is not required to keep the weapon hidden from view.
“This case is a small brick in educating not only the police forces in the state, but also the public,” he said.•