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

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Clementon pays $850,000 to settle police brutality claim

On October 27, 2009 Clementon Borough (Camden County) agreed to pay $850,000 to a man who had sued several Borough police officers who he claimed beat him during an August 25, 2006 traffic stop.

According to court filings, Clementon Police Sergeants Charles Grover and Randall Freiling along with Officers Gordon Schaeffer, Christopher Mackey and Alfred Higginbotham participated in a traffic stop involving Plaintiff Dennis Wiggins' van. Wiggins claimed that after the officers were rude to him and yelled profanities at him, that he became fearful and called 911 to request that a supervisor respond to the scene. No supervisors were reportedly available.

Thereafter, Wiggins claimed that he was issued a careless driving ticket and told he could leave the scene. But, Wiggins alleges, after he drove about thirty feet, Sergeant Grover opened the door of the van and exclaimed that Wiggins had run over his foot. After ordering Wiggins out of the van, the officers allegedly handcuffed him, dragged him at least ten feet by the handcuffs and stomped on his while he was on the ground.

The officers, however, claimed that Wiggins had intentionally dragged Sergeant Grover over two hundred fifty feet with his lower body trapped under Wiggins' vehicle. Wiggins was arrested and held for nearly twenty-four hours under $100,000 bail.

According to the lawsuit, Wiggins was tried on August 1, 2007 and was completely exonerated" and the trial judge reportedly expressed his belief that Mr. Wiggins' arrest was premised on race discrimination and that Defendant Officers had lied during trial.

Wiggins and his wife, Ericka Wiggins, filed suit on October 19, 2007 claiming a violation of constitutional rights, assault and battery, false imprisonment and other torts.

The matter is captioned Wiggins v.Clementon Police Department, Civil No. 07-5033 (RBK). The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here. The Wiggins' attorney was Ari R. Karpf of Bensalem, PA.

None of Wiggins' allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement expressly states that the $850,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Clementon 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 Wiggins $850,000 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.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Newark pays $60,000 to settle police beating death case

On June 4, 2009, Walter Lee of Sherman Avenue, Newark accepted $60,000 from the City of Newark (Essex County) to settle a claim that Newark police had beaten his son, Warren Lee, to death on October 12 2006.

According to the lawsuit filed in Federal District Court on December 12, 2007, the deceased man was sitting in a parked car when he was approached by Newark Police Lieutenant Neil Minovich and Sergeant Anthony Costa. The suit claims that the two officers, who believed there to be illegal drugs in the car, "became extremely violent, viciously breathing and punching Warren Lee despite no provocation on the part of Warren Lee." According to the suit, even though Lee starting gasping for air, the two officers would not stop beating him or call for medical assistance. When witnesses tried to come to Lee's aid, Minovich and Costa reportedly told them "he's faking." According to the suit, Lee lost consciousness and was later pronounced dead.

The suit alleges that an autopsy of Lee's body disclosed that he had choked to death due to an obstruction in his airway and that there were "abrasions, contusions and swelling in various areas of Warren Lee's body which were suffered at the hands of Minovich and Costa during the arrest." The complaint also alleges "upon information and belief that Minovich and Costa have been the subject of complaints of excessive force, corruption and/or racial bias against African American individuals."

But, an October 14, 2006 Star Ledger article states that police authorities claimed that Lee had "choked to death on a bag of drugs he swallowed . . . while police tried to arrest him." The article states that "as [the officers] approached, Lee tried to swallow a plastic sandwich bag containing smaller bags of heroin and cocaine. Lee started to gag, and the officers tried pounding on his back and doing the Heimlich maneuver. They also called an ambulance."

A January 11, 2007 Star Ledger article states that "Lee's family does not dispute that he choked on a bag of drugs." But, the family's filed Notice of Claim stated that "Even when it became clear that Mr. Lee was injured, was choking and/or gasping for air and was in need of medical assistance or aide, the police officers continued to beat Mr. Lee, finally throwing him out of the car and onto the street."

"Essentially, they left him there to die," Lee's attorney Marc Albert was quoted as saying.

The case is captioned Lee v. City of Newark et al, Case No. 07-cv-4909. The plaintiff's lawyer was Christopher A. Seeger, Esq. of Newark. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.

None of Lee's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement expressly states that the $60,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Newark or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that defendants, and perhaps their insurers, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay Lee and his lawyer $60,000 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.