Monday, January 5, 2009

Rutgers-Camden pays pro se litigant $4,000 to settle false arrest case

On October 7, 2008, Rutgers University agreed to pay a pro litigant (i.e. a plaintiff who sued without using a lawyer) $4,000 to settle his false arrest claim.

On February 23, 2005, Rutgers Police received a report that a black male was in the Rutgers-Camden campus law school library with a baby stroller and that he was placing books in the bottom of the stroller. Several days later, on March 1, 2005, a black male with a baby stroller, later identified as Salahuddin F. Smart, the plaintiff in the lawsuit, entered the Rutgers Camden Law School building. When Rutgers police located Smart, who had an infant in the baby carriage, in the law school library, they told him to gather his things and to come with the officers to the lobby of the building.

When they were in the lobby, the police claim that Smart became loud, belligerent and uncooperative when they asked him for his identification. Smart denies this, but admits admits that he did not cooperate with police because he believed it was his legal right to walk away and that the officers had no right to demand he produce physical proof of his identification.

After being asked to leave, Smart left the building and then placed a call to 9-1-1 to report that he was being harassed by the Rutgers Camden officers. While the police claim that Smart thrust his cellphone in a Sergeant's face and that the infant was not properly attired for the cold weather, Smart claims that the police followed him out of the library and taunted him by threatening to call DYFS for allegedly not dressing the infant warmly enough.

Sergeant Louis Capelli then handcuffed Plaintiff and charged with disorderly conduct and defiant trespass. After processing, Smart was permitted to leave.

The settlement agreement, which requires the parties to keep the terms and the amount of the Settlement Agreement "strictly confidential" is available, along with a court opinion on the case, at

http://www.lpcnj.org/OGTF/RutgersSmart.pdf

None of Smart's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement expressly states that the $4,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the Rutgers police officers. All that is known for sure is that Rutgers, and perhaps its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay Smart $4,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps Rutgers' 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 Smart's claims were true and Rutgers 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 www.njlp.org

John Paff
Somerset, New Jersey