On December 29, 2015, Harold “Hal” Howard, 76, showed up at the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office headquarters in Belle Glade saying that he wanted to report an assault.
He told officers he’d been leaving a friend’s house in his Dodge Ram pickup truck nine days earlier when he spotted kids playing in the middle of the road. He honked at them to move. While he was stopped, a man later identified as Yousef Muslet, a 50-year-old Belle Glade resident, came up to his driver’s side window and started talking to him about religion. Unusual, sure, but not illegal — otherwise there wouldn’t be so many Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on your door.
But this is America in 2016, when being Muslim in public is apparently considered suspicious behavior. Muslet, who has a beard and was dressed in traditional Islamic garb, was guilty of doing exactly that. According to the offense report, “Howard stated that the male had a strange look on his face during the entire encounter and began to yell, 'Allah, praise Allah,' which frightened him more.”
Toward the end of their conversation, Muslet shook Howard’s hand — as a gesture of goodwill, he later explained in court. Howard didn’t take it that way. From the offense report:
“Howard stated that as he was shaking the male’s hand, he realized that the male’s grip was getting tighter. Howard stated that he attempted to remove his hand from the handshake, but could not due to being overpowered by the male’s grasp. Howard stated that the male began to pull his hand and arm out of the driver’s side window towards the outside of the truck but was ultimately caught by the seat belt being that he (Howard) was still seat belted in. Howard stated that he had to forcibly separate their hands with his free hand to release the grasp. Howard stated at this point he feared for his safety and life, being that that the male was pulling him out of the truck and was overpowering him.”
Howard left and their interaction came to an end, but he felt compelled to report the incident to the authorities nine days later. After he made his report, the PBSO promptly tracked down Muslet and arrested him. He was charged with burglary with battery, “being that he unlawfully entered Howard’s vehicle and battered him.” (Just to be completely clear: At no point did Muslet take or attempt to take anything from Howard’s truck.) He pulled away when they tried to handcuff him, allegedly telling officers, “You guys fucked up now. I’m going to get all of you!” and was charged with resisting arrest.
The severity of the charges meant that Muslet faced up to life in prison for allegedly shaking a man’s hand too aggressively and then insulting a cop. Fortunately, Palm Beach managed to avoid becoming a national embarrassment. Judge Peter Evans ruled in September that Muslet was not guilty of burglary and battery, and yesterday, the state attorney’s office dropped the charges for resisting arrest.
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Attorneys from the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which represented Muslet in court, are nonetheless frustrated they had to go to court over a handshake.
"While we are pleased that the criminal justice system ultimately produced a just result, we still firmly hold that these charges should have never been filed in the first place, nor should have judicial resources been wasted on clearly Islamophobic allegations that did not have any merit,” Omar Saleh, a civil rights attorney for CAIR Florida, wrote in a statement.
You can view the offense report here: