Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Belmar pays $7,500 to settle police excessive force suit

On October 10, 2012, the Borough of Belmar (Monmouth County) agreed to pay $7,500 to a Bradley Beach man who sued members of the Belmar Police Department for allegedly beating and choking him.

In his suit, Jason Bernardinello said that on July 25, 2009, when he was 19 years old, he and some friends were riding their bicycles on Ocean Avenue at about 10 p.m.  He said that Special Officer whose name was stated in the lawsuit as "Sean Bowers" (but who is presumably Shawn Bowens or perhaps Sean Bowens) grabbed one of his friends' bicycles, tackled the friend from behind, "slammed [him] violently" and handcuffed him.  Thereafter, while Bernardinello was allegedly having a "civil discussion" with another office, Bowens reportedly screamed "Get the f**k out of here" to him.

Bernardinello claimed that when he tried to "respectfully and calmly respond," Bowens grabbed his throat and started choking him and shoved his head into a light pole.  He claims that four other officers jumped on him and "pummeled him while he lay, defenseless on the ground, punching him in the face and the groin while bystanders pleaded with the special cops to stop the beating."

Bernardinello further claims that he was detained at police headquarters for two hours and the officer on desk duty, who "was highly intoxicated," refused to let his parents see him.

The case is captioned Bernardinello v. Belmar, Federal Case No. 3:11-cv-0413 and Bernardinello's attorney was Dan A. Druz of Belmar.  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 Bernardinello's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $7,500 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Belmar or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Belmar or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Bernardinello $7,500 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.