Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Readington paid out $45,000 and $200,000 to settle two police abuse cases.

Although Thomas Wachendorf's and Christopher Strobel's brutality lawsuits against the Readington Township police have received a fair amount of publicity (see, e.g. the January 4, 2007 Star Ledger article, which is set forth at the foot of this posting), the amount of their settlements with Readington have not been publicly disclosed until now.

WACHENDORF

In a settlement reached January 23, 2007, Thomas J. Wachendorf settled his case against the Readington Township and officers Christopher DeWire and Scott Crater for $45,000. This figure has not previously been released probably because both Wachendorf and the Township agreed that "the terms and conditions of [their] settlement and the claims upon it was based shall remain confidential in so far as permitted by law." This confidentiality agreement cannot, however, defeat a citizen's right to gain access to it by way of an Open Public Records Act request.

Wachendorf's suit arose out of his encounter with police while driving on Holland Brook Road in Readington on the morning of May 2, 2004. According to Wachendorf's complaint, Officers DeWire and Crater, in two separate patrol cars, followed him into his driveway and exited their cars "with their handguns partially drawn." Then, Wachendorf alleges, DeWire and Crater ordered him out of his vehicle and then, seconds later, pulled him out of the car and "threw him onto the gravel driveway at the edge of the brick patio, and slapped a handcuff onto {his] left wrist." According to the complaint, Wachendorf did nothing illegal and did not resist arrest. Still, he claims, the fall to the ground caused him to strike his head and lose consciousness and break his glasses.

He was taken to the Readington police station and charged with Obstruction of Justice and Eluding police. After his release, Wachendorf claims that he received medical treatment for a fractured left wrist for several months after the encounter.

Wachendorf was represented in the lawsuit Steven P. Weissman, Esq. and Annmarie Pinarski, Esq. of Somerset.

STROBEL

In a settlement reached January 27, 2008, Christopher J. Strobel and Valerie Luckstone received $200,000 from General Star Indemnity Company, Readington Township's insurer. Unlike Wachendorf's settlement agreement, Strobel's and Luckstone's agreement does not contain a provision requiring confidentiality.

Strobel's and Luckstone's suit arose out of a March 26,2002 incident when Strobel was allegedly stopped by Readington Police officer Joseph Greco while he was walking home on the shoulder of Route 22. After giving Greco his driver license, Strobel reportedly began telling the officer "about the recent death of his infant daughter." During that conversation, two other patrol cars, driven by officers Scott Crater and Sebastian Donaruma arrive at the scene.

At this time, Strobel claims that since he had given Greco all the information he had asked for, he told Greco that "he was going to walk home." According to the complaint, when Strobel "turned and began walking, Officer Crater grabbed Strobel around the waist and threw him face first into one of the police cars." Then, with the help of Officers Greco and Donaruma, Strobel claims, Crater again "slammed [his face] into the rear window of the patrol car with sufficient force to shatter it and send Strobel's shoulder through the broken window."

Thereafter, Strobel claims, the officers punched him a few times and he fell to the ground and that when he told Donaruma that he was hurting his right arm, "he was kicked in the head and his face was ground into the pavement by the officer's boot."

The complaint states that Strobel was verbally abused by Officer Greco on the ride back to the police station and that when he asked for a lawyer, Officer Crater told him "[y]ou have no rights here, this is our town and don't you forget it." He was charged with Obstruction of Justice and Resisting Arrest.

Forty minutes later after Strobel was locked up, Readington Officer John Insabella allegedly went to Strobel's home and instructed his wife, Valerie Luckstone, to sign a Domestic Violence form "if she wanted her husband released from jail." Even though Luckstone allegedly maintained that no domestic violence had occurred, she signed the form "in order to get her husband out of jail."

Strobel and Luckstone alleged that after the incident, they were continued to be harassed by police. Also, they claim that the Readington Municipal Court repeatedly postponed Strobel's case and told him that if he "insisted on pleading innocent, he would just have to wait. When he did appear in court on April 24, 2003, Readington Prosecutor Robert Ballard reportedly told Strobel's lawyer that "if Mr. Strobel did not drop his notice of claim against the town, Mr. Strobel would go to jail." While Ballard delivered this alleged threat, Ballard was "surrounded by 5 Readington Township police officers."

Strobel and Luckstone were represented in the lawsuit by Gary S. Kull, Esq., Erik J. Pedersen, Esq. and Sara B. Garvey, Esq. of Gladstone.

The settlement agreements and the lawsuits referred to above are on-line here.


None of Wachendorf's, Strobel's or Luckstone's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Both settlement agreements expressly states that the payments do not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the Township or any of the officers. All that is known for sure is that Readington and its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay Wachendorf $45,000 and Strobel and Luckstone $200,000 than take the matters to trial. Perhaps Readington's decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps Wachendorf's, Strobel's and/or Luckstone's claims were true and Readington wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

ABOUT ME AND WHY I'M POSTING THIS.

I chair the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project which seeks to increase governmental transparency and accountability, particularly at a local level. As part of my work, I routinely check civil court cases where at least one of the parties is a government agency or official. Sometimes I run across settlements that may be of interest to citizens and taxpayers. For more information on the Libertarian Party, visit here.

John Paff
Somerset, New Jersey
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Third police-brutality lawsuit awaits resolution - One against Readington officers has been dismissed and another settled

Star-Ledger, The (Newark, NJ) - Thursday, January 4, 2007
Author: CLAIRE HEININGER, STAR-LEDGER STAFF

Two of the three civil lawsuits alleging brutality by Readington Township police officers have been resolved, with one dismissed in federal court and one settled out of court, according to court records.

The remaining lawsuit - filed in 2004 by a township resident who said officers slammed his face through a patrol car window, shattering the glass - is still pending in federal court, attorneys for both sides said this week, adding it was unclear how the other suits' resolution may affect their case.

Readington Township Police Chief James Paganessi declined to comment on the three lawsuits this week but has previously said they are without merit.

In dismissing the suit brought in April 2005 by Readington resident Walter Hrynyk against two officers and the police department, U.S. District Judge Garrett Brown Jr. found the officers did not violate Hrynyk's constitutional rights when they arrested him during a dispute with a neighbor in April 2003.

Told by the neighbor that Hrynyk was "very intoxicated" and had "a propensity for `shooting at houses,'" the officers "could therefore have drawn the reasonable inference that Mr. Hrynyk was armed and dangerous," Brown wrote in his 19-page decision, issued Dec. 12.

"In addition, Mr. Hrynyk refused to comply with the officers' request that he remain immobile, choosing instead to walk away from the officers in a yard littered with potential weapons," the judge wrote. "Under those circumstances, the officers' decision to subdue Mr. Hrynyk by pulling him to the ground and handcuffing him seems eminently reasonable to the court."

The second suit, filed in November 2004 by township resident Thomas Wachendorf, was settled out of court and terminated Dec. 1, according to federal court records that do not specify the amount of the settlement. Neither Wachendorf nor his attorney, Annmarie Pinarski, returned phone calls seeking comment. Richard Cushing and Deborah Rosenthal, the attorneys representing the officers, also did not respond to calls for comment.

Wachendorf had claimed in the lawsuit he was treated for a concussion, a fractured hand and various bruises and abrasions when two officers threw him onto his gravel driveway after pulling him over.

Still pending before U.S. District Judge Mary Cooper is the third lawsuit, filed by Readington resident Christopher Strobel in March 2004. The two sides are awaiting Cooper's ruling on whether to hear testimony or to render a summary judgment, attorneys in the case said this week.

Strobel was walking on the shoulder of Route 22 when he was stopped by an officer, who was joined by two others as Strobel began to tell the officer about the recent death of his infant son, according to his complaint.

Offered a ride home three times, Strobel told the officers he preferred to walk, and was then allegedly grabbed by an officer and thrown face first into one of the police cars, shattering the rear window. At the police station, he asked for a lawyer, but was told, "You have no rights here; this is our town and don't you forget it," he said in the complaint.

His lawyer, Gary Kull, said the circumstances of Strobel's case distanced it substantially from Hrynyk's dismissal, which he said "should not" impact the judge's decision. The key element the two cases have in common, Kull said, was the police department's failure to investigate the complaints brought by both alleged victims.

"The problem with the Readington Police Department is their officers can do no wrong," Kull said. "This is a citizen walking down the street in tears and winds up with his face through the window."

Eric Harrison, the lawyer representing the three officers named in the lawsuit, said he could not discuss the merits of the case but said the resolution of the other two lawsuits does establish a positive pattern on the police department's behalf.

"Our position is clear: They didn't commit any violations in those cases, and they didn't commit any violations in this case," Harrison said. "It could have an impact."