Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Clayton and Elk pay $35,000 to settle police harassment suit

On October 26, 2010, the Borough of Clayton and Township of Elk, (both in Gloucester County) each agreed to pay $17,500 (for a total of $35,000) to a Sewell Church, two church pastors and a church worker who alleged that police and officials from both municipalities harassed them. The suit was brought by the City Harvest World Outreach Church, Pastors Richard Beatty, his wife Pastor Leola Beatty and church worker Harry Hampton.

According to the lawsuit, Hampton was living at an Elk Township residence owned by City Harvest Church while the residence was being renovated and converted into a place of worship. On October 31, 2006, Elk Mayor William J. Rainey, accompanied by Elk Police Corporal Victor Molinari and Elk Police Officers Walter P. Garrison II, Joseph Pierson and Kevin Przybyszewski, allegedly knocked on the door, entered the premises and accused Hampton of possessing illegal drugs. According to the suit, Mayor Rainey and police detained Hampton while searching "the inside of closets, cabinets, rooms and storage areas." The police allegedly did not have a warrant, not did they have probable cause or permission to search the premises. The lawsuit further alleges that no charges were brought against Hampton or the other plaintiffs as a result of the search.

Hampton also alleged that Clayton Police Officer Mark Konnick stopped him while he was walking down the street at about 11 a.m. on December 12, 2006. He alleges that there was no justification for the stop and that Elk Police Officers Victor Molinari and Joseph Pierson and Clayton Officer Michael J. Foley also responded to the scene and assisted in questioning Hampton. Hampton alleged that after questioning him and finding no outstanding warrants against him, the four officers transported him to his Elk Township residence, "confiscated his house keys" and opened the front door without his permission.

Hampton further alleged that January 1, 2007, at about 11 p.m., Elk Police Corporal Lance Hitzelberger, who was later accompanied by Elk Officer Kevin Przybyszewski, stopped and questioned him without reason or cause.

Also named in the suit were Clayton Police Chief Dennis R. Marchei, Elk Police Chief Stephen B. Brogan and the Gloucester County Sheriff's Department. According to Clayton's release, Marchei was dismissed from the suit after a successful summary judgment motion and Officers Konnick and Foley were voluntarily dismissed from the suit. It is unclear exactly what injury either pastor suffered or why Gloucester County was named in the suit.

The case is captioned Beatty et al v. County of Gloucester, et al, Federal Case No. 3:08-cv-02235 and the plaintiffs' attorney was Jonathan H. Lomurro of Freehold. Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement with Clayton 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 the plaintiffs' allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreements expressly state that the $35,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Clayton, Elk, Gloucester County or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that the defendants or their insurers, for whatever reason, decided they would rather pay the plaintiffs $35,000 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.