Monday, June 16, 2014

Willingboro pays $40,000 to settle police illegal search suit

On October 9, 2013, the Township of Willingboro (Burlington County) agreed to pay $40,000 to a 51-year-old local man who sued members of the Willingboro Police Department for allegedly illegally searching his vehicle and using the fruits of the search to justify arresting him.

In his suit, Paul James Ash, who is African American, said that on April 15, 2008 at about 8:15 p.m. he visited the athletic fields adjacent to the high school to hit some baseballs.  He alleges that he had done this several times before and that there were signs advising that the fields were open to the public until 10 p.m.  He said that Officer Iris Cedeno approached in a marked patrol car and told him he was "trespassing."  Ash claimed that after he "began politely to raise a question," Cedeno ordered him to put down his bat and "get on the curb."  Ash said that he stood on the curb after advising Cedeno that he could not comfortably sit on the curb due to a back condition. 

According to the lawsuit, back up officers Jennifer Knecht and Jaime Jimenez then arrive and "forced [him] to sit on the curb and handcuffed him."  The officers then allegedly searched the vehicle, including the trunk, without warrant or probable cause and arrested him after they "found a firearm in a secure container inside the trunk."  He said that he spent the night in jail after being strip searched.  He claimed that the weapon possession charge against him was resolved by entry into the Pretrial Intervention (PTI) Program "without admission of wrongdoing on his part."

Also named in the suit were Willingboro Public Safety Director Gregory Rucker.

The case is captioned Ash v. Willingboro, Federal Case No. 1:10-cv-01900 and Ash's attorney was Justin T. Loughry of Camden.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of Ash's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $40,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Willingboro or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Willingboro or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Ash $40,000 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.