Monday, May 17, 2010

Elmwood Park and Rutgers University pay $12,000 to settle police false arrest malicious prosecution suit

In January 2010, the Borough of Elmwood Park (Bergen County) and Rutgers University agreed to pay $6,000 each to a Hillside man who sued members of Elmwood Park's and Rutgers' police departments for false arrest and malicious prosecution.

In his suit, Andre Shakoor said that a Rutgers student, on September 20, 2007, reported his laptop computer stolen. A campus security camera captured an image of a bearded man taking the laptop. The laptop was "equipped with a 'LoJack' tracking system which activates when a user of the computer goes on the Internet."

Shakoor alleges that he purchased a used laptop the next day for $400 from a store in East Orange. About a week later, when Shakoor went on the Internet, the LoJack monitoring agency was able to track the laptop to an Elmwood Park motel where Shakoor was staying. But, when police showed the security video to a motel clerk, she couldn't identify the bearded man.

On October 4, 2007, Rutgers Police traced the laptop to Shakoor, who had used it to pay a traffic ticket. Elmwood Park Police Officer Vincent Scillieri, along with Rutgers Police Officers Bradley Morgan, Gregg A. Hippe and Joseph Churchill, reportedly went to the motel where Shakoor was staying. There, they allegedly stopped Shakoor as he drove into the motel's parking lot and asked to search his room and car because "they were looking for drugs." Shakoor consented to the request, according to the lawsuit, although he later learned that it was based on a "false pretense."

During a search of Shakoor's room, the officers reportedly found the laptop and arrested Shakoor even though he claimed to have explained that he purchased it and even though he didn't resemble the person identified in the security video. He claimed to have been taken to the police station, fingerprinted, photographed, issued a summons and released.

On October 17, 2009, Shakoor alleged that Officers Hippe and Churchill spoke to someone at the store where Shakoor purchased the laptop and received information that led them to another man who later admitted to stealing the laptop. Shakoor's lawyer requested discovery from the Rutgers Police Department, but was allegedly not informed that police had arrested another man for stealing the laptop which resulted in Shakoor's prosecution being prolonged. According to the lawsuit, the police knew that Shakoor legitimately purchased the laptop but "refused to disclose [the arrest of the other man to Shakoor] and persisted in their prosecution of [Shakoor]. After making numerous court appearances, the charges were dismissed on the prosecutor's motion on March 26, 2009.

The case is captioned Shakoor v. Borough of Elmwood Park, et al, Federal Case No. 2:09-cv-04724-JAG-MCA and Shakoor's attorney was Paul Casteleiro of Hoboken. Case documents are on-line here.

None of Shakoor's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $12,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Elmwood Park, Rutgers or any of their officials. All that is known for sure is that Elmwood Park, Rutgers or their insurers, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Shakoor $12,000 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.