Thursday, February 18, 2010

Questions regarding $600,000 West Deptford police abuse claim settlement

I have taken an interest in Nekiesha Williams' excessive force lawsuit against the West Deptford Township Police Department that resulted in her receiving a $600,000 settlement in June 2008. Specifically, I am interested in learning what motivated someone to insert a "probable cause stipulation" into a consent order after it had been signed. I am creating this blog entry in hopes that someone can provide relevant information.

Background:

On June 12, 2008, Ms. Williams signed a confidential settlement agreement with the Township of West Deptford (in Gloucester County, New Jersey) in which she agreed to accept $600,000 as full settlement for the claims she brought in her lawsuit against the Township's police department (Williams v. Township of West Deptford, New Jersey Federal District Court, Civil Case No. 05-1805)

The settlement agreement is available by clicking here. A July 15, 2008 Gloucester County Times article that reported on the settlement is available by clicking here.

In her lawsuit, Ms. Williams claimed that in an August 6, 2003 encounter, West Deptford Police Officers Patrick Goggin, Michael Pfeiffer and Sean McKenna used excessive force that resulted in her being thrown to the ground and breaking her femur. The police officers' account of the incident was significantly different.

A November 9, 2003 Courier Post article the describes the August 6, 2003 incident is available by clicking here.

On March 15, 2005, Williams, who was being prosecuted for assaulting and interfering with the police officers during the August 6, 2003 incident, was admitted into a diversion program called the Pretrial Intervention Program (PTI) "without trial or admission of any issue of law or fact regarding the charges" she was facing.

The March 15, 2005 consent order that authorized Williams' admission to the PTI program is available by clicking here. At the time of the consent order's entry, Williams was represented by defense attorney Troy A. Archie of Camden and the prosecutor was Michael S. Curwin of the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office.

The consent order contains the following handwritten comment" "Defendant stipulates that there was probable cause for her arrest in this case. T. A. A." The "T.A.A." are the initial of Williams' defense attorney Troy A. Archie.

In Williams civil lawsuit, the police officers argued that they could not be liable for the injuries that she sustained during her arrest because Williams had stipulated on March 15, 2005 that probable cause existed for her arrest. See pages 11 through 13 of Judge Robert B. Kugler's April 22, 2008 written decision, which is available by clicking here. Judge Kugler found, however, that the alleged probable cause stipulation was not fatal to her lawsuit.

A question remains, however, over exactly how and why the probable cause stipulation was inserted into the consent order. According to a December 4, 2007 affidavit by Williams (available by clicking here), the handwritten stipulation was not on the consent form she signed and Mr. Archie never told her about the insertion.

Troy A. Archie, in his December 4, 2007 certification (available by clicking here), states that Assistant Prosecutor Michael Curwin asked him to sign off on the stipulation after Ms. Williams had signed the consent form. He also states that he agreed to the stipulation without discussing it with his client and without receiving her permission.

Questions:

Something appears to be amiss here. The only conceivable purpose for anyone to insert the probable cause stipulation into the consent judgment was to protect West Deptford Township from civil liability.

If the statements in Mr. Archie's certification are true, it was Assistant Prosecutor Curwin's idea to insert the stipulation. But aren't county prosecutors supposed to make decisions in criminal cases without regard to a Township's position in civil litigation? On July 26, 2008, I put this exact question to Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean F. Dalton. In his August 25, 2008 response, Dalton apparently did not investigate the matter. Rather, he reviewed the documents that I sent him and concluded that there was no evidence that Mr. Curwin did anything unethical. The correspondence between me and Prosecutor Dalton are available by clicking here.

I also don't understand why Mr. Archie, who must have known that the probable cause stipulation might have sabotaged his client's civil case, agreed to sign off on it without discussing the matter or gaining his client's permission.

If anyone has any answers or suggestions, please send them to me.

John Paff
Somerset, New Jersey
paff@pobox.com