Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Voorhees pays $60,000 to settle police false arrest/malicious prosecution suit

On June 15, 2011, the Township of Voorhees (Camden County) agreed to pay $60,000 to a local man who sued members of the Voorhees Police Department for allegedly arresting him without probable cause because he "needed an education."

In his suit, Michael Sebastian, Jr. said that on June 12, 2007, the day after he was arrested for contempt of court after having been found guilty of a traffic violation, he needed police assistance regarding an attempted burglary at his home.  The officers who responded, Carlos Garcia-Lazar and Anthony Rusterucci, questioned him as to what he would do if he found an intruder in his home.  After Sebastian responded that he would use all necessary force, including deadly force, the officers allegedly told him that use of force wouldn't be appropriate if the intruder was a police officer serving a warrant.  Sebastian said that he explained to the officers that he did not mean that he would use force against an officer, rather that he understood the question to be limited to illegal, unidentified intruders.

According to the complaint, the two officers consulted with Lieutenant Francis Bialeki and Sergeant Robert Woolston who caused a warrant to be issued charging Sebastian with "making a terroristic threat to kill a township official."  Thereafter, about a dozen police officers came to Sebastian's home, arrested him and took him to the police station where he was allegedly denied access to an attorney and detained and questioned for five hours.  Sebastian claimed that Officer Richard Monahan told him that that the arrest was precipitated by his actions in the municipal court the previous day.

Monahan alleged that the Camden County Prosecutor's Office declined to indict him for the terroristic threats charge and that the matter was returned to municipal court for disposition.  The municipal court ultimately dismissed the charges after police officers failed to appear to testify on the State's behalf.

Also named in the suit were Voorhees Police Officers Daniel Starks and Lance Klein.

The case is captioned Sebastian v. Voorhees, Federal Case No. 1:08-cv-06097 and Sebastian's attorney was William H. Buckman of Moorestown.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of Sebastian's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $60,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Voorhees or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Voorhees or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Sebastian $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.