Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Woodland Park secretly pays $257,500 to settle police false arrest suit.

On June 24, 2015, the Borough of Woodland Park (Passaic County) agreed to pay $257,500 to an African-American, married couple who sued members of the Woodland Park Police Department for assaulting, falsely arresting and hurling racial epithets at them.

In their suit, Michael and Robin McDuffie said that on February 10, 2010 they were shovelling snow off their driveway when Woodland Park Department of Public Works employee Jak Tripi, who was plowing snow from the McDuffie's street, angrily told them to stop throwing their shoveled snow into the street.  According to their lawsuit, Tripi said "You people are making my job hard" and "You black scum bags are throwing snow in the f***ing street!  You Mother F***ing N***ers; why are you here?!"

As the incident escalated, Tripi allegedly "punched Mrs. McDuffie on the left shoulder with a closed fist" and told the couple that he was going to get some gasoline, pour it on their property and "burn [their] black asses up."  Tripi, for reasons unexplained, allegedly called the Woodland Park Police Department, moved his truck in front of a neighbor's house and continued to hurl racial slurs at the couple.

According to the complaint, Police Chief Anthony J. Galietti, Sergeant Luigi C. DeLuca and Officers Renne (presumably Carlo Renne) and Erik M. Luker arrived at the scene and the two officers ran to the McDuffies' home with their weapons drawn.  Luker allegedly shoved Mr. McDuffie and grabbed Mrs. McDuffie's arm.  When Mrs. McDuffie told a family member to get a video camera, Luker allegedly "pepper sprayed [Mr. and Mrs. McDuffie] in the face and, forcibly handcuffed Mrs. McDuffie and pushed her into the police SUV."  Meanwhile, Renne allegedly chased Mr. McDuffie into the house and pulled him outside where he was also handcuffed.  According to the lawsuit, Luker punched Mr. McDuffie in the chest after he was handcuffed while Chief Galietti and Sergeant DeLuca watched but did not intervene.  Mr. McDuffie was put into a separate police SUV and the couple was driven to the police station and charged with aggravated assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

While at the police station, the McDuffies claimed to have been verbally abused by the officers.  Renne allegedly told them repeatedly that they didn't belong in Woodland Park and "should go back to Paterson." After they were released after six hours in custody, the McDuffies claimed that Luker called their home four times and then stopped by, in an attempt to intimidate them.

According to the lawsuit, a grand jury declined to indict the McDuffies and all the charges were dropped.  Also, the McDuffies claim that Sergeant John M. Uzzalino repeatedly refused to accept their Internal Affairs complaint against the officers.

The case is captioned Robin McDuffie, et al v. Borough of Woodland Park et al, Federal Case No. 2:12-cv-01055 and the McDuffies' attorney was Robin Bernstein of Nutley.  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 the McDuffies' allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $257,500 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Woodland Park or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Woodland Park or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the McDuffies $257,500 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.