Thursday, February 24, 2011

Seaside Heights pays $30,000 to settle police excessive force suit

On January 20, 2011, the Borough of Seaside Heights (Ocean County) agreed to pay $30,000 to an Avenel man who sued members of the Seaside Heights Police Department for allegedly assaulting him.

In his suit, Justin Racelis said that on July 29, 2007, he was leaving the Bamboo Bar when Police Officer Robert Rezzonico yelled to him "Hey, f*****' retard, get over here!" After he and his friends emptied their pockets in accordance with Rezzonico's instructions, Rezzonico allegedly threatened Racelis with arrest if he said "another word." After Racelis asked Rezzonico if he was serious, Rezzonico reportedly arrested and handcuffed him.

Racelis' girlfriend then allegedly put her attorney's business card and a PBA card into Racelis' mouth, and Rezzonico reportedly took them out. After the girlfriend asked for the cards back, Rezzonico allegedly threatened to "kick her ass."

Racelis started calling out to passersby and asked them to videotape the event. At this point, Racelis alleges, Rezzonico, together with Officers Shawn Heckler, Sean J. McGinley, Matthew Quinn and Moutros Constantino, "tackled [Racelis] to the ground, rammed a knee into [his] next and maced him."

But, allegedly, a passerby by the name of George W. Kramer, did photograph the event and when police realized it, they allegedly arrested Kramer and deleted the photos from his camera. (Kramer sued and later settled for $50,000 -- see our blog post here)

Also named in the suit were Seaside Heights Police Chief Thomas Boyd and Sergeant Terrence R. Farley.

The case is captioned Racelis v. Seaside Heights, Federal Case No. 3:09-cv-03066 and Racelis's attorney was Thomas J. Mallon of Freehold. Case documents are on-line here.

None of Racelis's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $30,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Seaside Heights or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Seaside Heights or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Racelis $30,000 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.