Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Bellmawr pays $850 to settle police lawsuit alleging warrantless search of motel room.

On October 19, 2013, the Borough of Bellmawr (Camden County) agreed to pay $850 to a month-long resident of the Bellmawr Econo Lodge who claimed that police illegally entered his motel room without a warrant or other legal cause.

According to court papers, Bellmawr Police Sergeant Michael Draham was called to by motel management on January 31, 2011 to investigate a report of two males and a female fighting in the motel lobby.  Prior to Draham's arrival, the two men, Salahuddin F. Smart and a man known as "Cuba" went to Smart's room to continue their discussion.  When Draham and another officer arrived, motel management directed them to Smart's room.  The officers entered the room after allegedly telling Smart that they had a right to do so given that they had received a 911 call "of a fight from  . . . within the room."  Seeing no evidence of a fight in the room, the officers departed.  Smart then filed a pro se federal civil rights suit alleging that Draham had unlawfully entered his motel room.

On September 24, 2012, United States District Court Judge Robert B. Kugler dismissed Smart's claim.  Kugler held that while the entry into the motel room was brief, it "constituted a constitutional violation."  But, Kugler found Draham to be covered by the doctrine of qualified immunity because it wasn't “clear to any reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.”   Kugler found that officers cannot "breezily dismiss" allegations of domestic violence and "automatically accept the explanations of a resident after receiving a 911 call."  He found that under the circumstances, Draham's brief entry into Smart's room was justified.

Smart appealed and a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.  The judges held that "Draham has presented no evidence supporting his generalized assertion that he was dispatched to the motel to investigate a potential incident of domestic violence. Because there is nothing in the record to suggest that the 911 call had anything to do with domestic violence, we cannot uphold the District Court’s conclusion that Draham could have reasonably believed that a warrantless search of Smart’s room based upon a possible domestic violence exception was justified."

After the reversal, the Borough and Smart agreed to settle the case for $850.

Also named in the suit was Bellmawr Police Chief William Walsh.

The case is captioned Smart v. Bellmawr, Federal Case No. 1:11-cv-00996 and Smart had no attorney  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 Smart's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $850 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Bellmawr or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Bellmawr or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Smart $850 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.