Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Hoboken pays $125,000 to settle false arrest claim

On April 12, 2009, the City of Hoboken (Hudson County) agreed to pay $125,000 to a Guttenberg man who sued members of the Hoboken Police Department for an alleged false arrest and violation of his constitutional rights.

In his suit, Gregg Martin claimed that that Hoboken Police Officers Detective William Vera, Detective Michael DePalma and Detective Sergeant John Rodriguez falsely arrested him at his Guttenberg home on September 18, 2006. According to a December 4, 2008 trial court opinion, the Hoboken officers were investigating a scam being perpetrated by a moving company. When provided with a photograph of the suspect, the Hoboken officers were told by a Guttenberg officer that the photo was of a Guttenberg resident. When the Hoboken Officers went to Martin's apartment and spoke with him, Martin, after a while, reportedly decided to end the conversation and began closing his door. Detective Vera allegedly put his foot in the door, preventing it from closing. The officers then arrested and handcuffed Martin.

The officers reportedly asserted that Martin had obstructed the law by trying to close the door and for refusing to speak with them. Hudson County Superior Court Judge Mary K. Costello, however, held that what started as a non-intrusive "field inquiry" changed into a violation of Martin's constitutional rights when the officer put his foot in the door. Costello wrote that Martin's "refusal to speak with the officers and his attempt to close the door did not convert any suspicion that they may have had into probable cause. As such, their actions were impermissible."

Costello granted Martin a summary judgment on the issue of the officers' liability and the City appeal led. Before the appeal was decided, however, Martin and the City of Hoboken settled the case for $125,000.

The case is captioned Martin v. Vera, Docket No. HUD-L-1957-07 and Martin's attorney was Joel I. Rachmiel of Springfield. Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement for $125,000 does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Hoboken or any of its officials. While summary judgment was decided in Martin's favor, it is possible that that ruling would have been overturned had the appeal been decided. All that is known for sure is that Hoboken or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Martin $125,00 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.