Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Clayton and Elk pay $20,000 to settle police false arrest/excessive force suit

On June 25, 2012, the Borough of Clayton and Township of Elk (Gloucester County) agreed to pay $20,000 to a Clayton man who sued members of the Clayton and Elk Police Departments for allegedly arresting him on fabricated charges and for applying excessive force to him.

In his suit, Murray Celestine said that on April 8, 2008, he and his girlfriend, Marlena Hunsinger, who had just had an argument, were sitting on their front porch talking calmly.  Clayton Police Officer Michael J. Foley, Jr. then arrived.  According to the lawsuit, Celestine and Foley walked out into the back yard where Celestine told Foley that "every was fine at that time."  Foley then allegedly had Celestine put his hands on Hunsinger's van that was parked in the driveway so that Foley could frisk him. Meanwhile, Elk Township Officer Michael Bielski allegedly came into the back yard and "began putting black gloves on both of this hands."  After Celestine expressed that Bielski's actions made him uncomfortable, Bielski, at Foley's request, allegedly went into the front yard. 

During the frisk, Celestine said that he started to turn to his right in order to talk to Foley.  At this point, Foley allegedly grabbed Celestine's right wrist and told him he was under arrest for domestic violence.  During the arrest, Foley allegedly pushed Celestine "so hard that Mr. Celestine's hand snapped the antenna off" the van that he was leaning against.  Celestine claims that Foley put him in a "bear hug" and "slammed him to the ground" resulting in Celestine breaking his wrist and Foley dislocating his shoulder. This event was allegedly followed by Bielski jumping on top of Celestine, pushing his face into the ground and hitting him with his right fist.  Elk Officer Joseph Pierson then handcuffed Celestine.

After Clayton Police Sergeant John Dick filed an allegedly "false criminal charges against" him, Celestine spent the night in the Gloucester County Jail.  Celestine claims that he was diagnosed at a hospital with "a concussion, wrist fracture and lumbar strain."

The case is captioned Celestine v. Foley, et al, Federal Case No. 1:10-cv-01775 and Celestine's attorney was George R. Szymanski of Laurel Springs.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of Celestine's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $20,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Clayton or Elk or any of their officials. All that is known for sure is that Clayton and Elk or their insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Celestine $20,000 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.