Thursday, January 10, 2013

North Plainfield pays $5,000 in a no-injury, police violation case.

I recently read a July 19, 2011 decision by United State District Court Judge Freda L. Wolfson in Maria Broadnax's civil lawsuit against the Borough of South Plainfield and patrol officer Ryan Mote. At issue was the legality of Mote sticking his fingers in the pocket of Broadnax's jeans during a December 11, 2008 traffic stop for driving a car with tinted windows on Route 22.  Broadnax had claimed that Mote violated her Fourth Amendment rights by momentarily sticking his fingers, up to his knuckles, in the pocket of her tight bluejeans before she withdrew from the officer causing his fingers to slip back out.  In October 2011, a few months after North Plainfield lost its motion for summary judgment, it settled the case by paying Broadnax and her lawyer $5,000.  The opinion and settlement are on-line here.

In deciding the summary judgment motion, the court drew a distinction between an officer patting down the exterior of someone's clothing and actually sticking his hand in the person's pocket.  Exterior pat-downs, which are less intrusive, are sometimes needed to ensure that the officer is not confronting an armed person.  But, as Judge Wolfson observed, "it is unlikely that an officer could reasonably suspect that a weapon was hidden in a pocket in a pair of tight jeans." Thus, Mote's failure to first ascertain, either visually or by way of an exterior pat-down, a bulge or protrusion in Broadnax's pocket that suggested the presence of a weapon, transformed the entry of his fingers into Broadnax's pocket to a Fourth Amendment violation. 

I suspect that North Plainfield settled not because it was worried that Broadnax would be able to prove extensive damages--all she apparently suffered was the indignity of having her Fourth Amendment rights violated. My suspicion is that North Plainfield made a business decision to settle in order to avoid the high legal costs that a trial of this matter would have incurred.

If Ms. Broadnax's constitutional rights were violated, I can't blame her for seeking vindication from the courts.  After all, that's exactly what courts are supposed to do.  The problem, both in this case and more generally, is that the costs of litigation almost always force police departments to settle lawsuits regardless of the legal merits of the plaintiffs' claims or the seriousness of injuries suffered.

This signals to some attorneys that they don't really need to "win" cases in order to make money.  Rather, they need only to have enough contested facts in the record to survive the police department's summary judgment or dismissal motion.  Thereafter, the high cost of trial pretty much always drives the case to settlement which results in both the plaintiffs and the lawyers receiving a sum, perhaps a small one, from the police.

As undesirable as this is, the alternatives (e.g. "losers pay" statutes, restricting access to the courts, etc.) would be worse.  Yet, there ought to be better and more efficient ways to adjudicate the claims of citizens who claim that the police violated their rights.

Union City pays $106,500 to settle police beatdown suit

On February 24, 2012, the City of Union City (Hudson County) agreed to pay $106,500 to a local man who sued members of the Union City Police Department for allegedly beating him.

In his suit, Jean Peguero said that on May 23, 2009, he was walking his dog when approached by Union City Police Officers Alex Ruperto, Jose Castillo and Damien DiFazio and Sergeants Dominick DePinto and John Dowling.  According to the complaint, the officers had fifteen minutes earlier told a friend that they were looking for Peguero and "were going to punch [him] in the face when they saw [him]."

After surrounding Peguero, the officers reportedly told him to tie his dog to a fence and then assaulted him.  According to the lawsuit, Ruperto punched Peguero in the mouth, "knocking his head back where it struck a concrete column."  DePinto and DiFazio then reportedly continued the beating Peguero while he was on the ground.

Also named in the suit were Union City Police Chief Charles Everett and Sergeant M. Mico.

The case is captioned Peguero v. Union City, Federal Case No. 2:10-cv-01768 and Peguero's attorney was Thomas J. Mallon of Freehold.  Case documents are on-line here.  The police officers' incident reports are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from publicly disclosing the settlement terms or even the fact that the settlement exists.  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 Peguero's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $106,500 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Union City or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Union City or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Peguero $106,500 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.