Thursday, October 21, 2010

Freehold pays $150,000 to settle police false arrest/excessive force suit

On December 11, 2009, the Township of Freehold (Monmouth County) agreed to pay $150,000 to a local man who sued members of the Freehold Police Department for arresting and detaining him without cause and for injuring his wrist by applying handcuffs too tightly.

In his suit, Frank J. Constantino said that on April 21, 2007, he was driving home with his son. He claims that while he was stopped at an intersection and signaling a right turn, he noticed a bicycle approaching about 30 to 40 yards behind him on his right hand side. After making sure that his turn would not cut off the bicyclist, he claims that he safely executed his turn when the bicyclist screamed "A--hole, stop at the stop sign." Constantino claimed that he said "I did. Have a nice day" to the bicyclist and drove home.

A few minutes after he got to his home, Constantino claims that the angered bicyclist arrived and approached him and said "I am a Freehold Township Police Officer and you're under arrest." As his neighbors began to congregate around him, Constantino alleges that he asked the man for his badge or some other proof that he was indeed an officer. Then some squad cars arrived and the bicyclist, who was later identified as Officer George A. Burdge, III, allegedly "grabbed Constantino's arm, twisted his arm very aggressively behind his back and threw [him] down on his knees on his front lawn in front of his wife, children and neighbors." Burdge then allegedly applied handcuffs so tightly to cause Constantino to "yell out in pain." When Constantino asked Burdge to loosen the cuffs, he was allegedly told to "shut up."

When he was taken to the police station, Constantino claims that he was chained to a bench for three hours while Burdge denied him a request for a drink of water while the officer was drinking water in front of him and mocking him. He was given six summonses and released. He claims that all of the charges were later dismissed or resulted in not guilty verdicts. He claims that he lost his job as a specialist at the New York Stock Exchange. Also named in the suit was Freehold Police Officer Ernest Schriefer.

The case is captioned Constantino v. Freehold, Federal Case No. 3:08-cv-5159 and Constantino's attorney was Gary L. Mason of Manalapan. Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from publicly disclosing the settlement terms. Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public's right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.

None of Constantino's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $150,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Freehold or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Freehold or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Constantino $150,000 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.