Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Elizabeth pays $7,500 to settle false arrest and police brutality claim

On October 30, 2006, the City of Elizabeth (Union County) agreed to pay $7,500 to an Elizabeth man who had sued the City claiming that Elizabeth police officer interrogated him without reasonable suspicion, assaulted him and falsely arrested him.

In his complaint, Plaintiff Jean Belizaire claimed patrol officers Michael Gregory and Victor Arena stopped him while he was walking down a city sidewalk on January 9, 2004. Belizaire claimed that both officer were in plain clothes and did not identify themselves as police officers. When the officers began interrogating him, Belizaire claimed, he "expressed confusion at such questions from strangers" and refused to answer.

At this point, Belizaire alleged, Officer Gregory approached him in a hostile manner and called him a "big mouth" and Officer Arena demanded his identification. After asking the officers to identify themselves, Belizaire claimed they refused and Officer Gregory told him to "shut up and to do as he was told." Suspecting that there were police officers, Belizaire claimed that he then grudgingly showed them his identification. The officers then reportedly called into the headquarters to see if there were outstanding warrants against Belizaire.

When he started challenging the officers' authority, Belizaire alleges that Officer Gregory lost his temper and screamed "We are only asking you a f------ question. What is your f------ problem." According to the lawsuit, Officer Gregory then "wrestled Plaintiff to the ground" while Arena put his knee in Belizaire's back and Gregory "stood his foot on the left side of Plaintiff's face." He claimed to have been treated for injuries arising from this encounter on January 10, 2004 at the Trinity Hospital.

Belizaire alleged that the there were no warrants against him but that he was charged with police interference, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct but later released on bond. He claimed that all the charges were dismissed by the prosecutor after Belizaire had made over ten appearances in the Elizabeth Municipal Court.

Finally, Belizaire alleged that he complained about the officers' conduct to Lieutenant John Bastardo and Sergeant Stephen Negrey but was never contacted by the police internal affairs unit regarding his complaint.

The matter is captioned Belizaire v. City of Elizabeth et al, Civil No. 2:06-cv-00099. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here. Belizaire was represented by Julio C. Gomez of Fanwood.

The settlement agreement contains a provision requiring the parties to keep the amount and terms of the settlement confidential. Fortunately, however, such "confidentiality clauses" do not trump the public's right to know under the Open Public Records Act.

None of Belizaire's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement expressly states that the $7,500 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Elizabeth or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that defendants and their insurers, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay the Belizaire $7,500 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' 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 the claims were true and the defendants 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.