Friday, December 4, 2015

Lakewood secretly pays $55,000 to settle police false arrest suit.

Robert Lawson
Lakewood Chief of Police
On November 20, 2015, the Township of Lakewood (Ocean County) agreed to pay $55,000 to a man and woman who said they were wrongfully arrested for burglary.

In their suit, Victor Wilson and Maria Rizzolo claimed that they were put under surveillance by Lakewood Police Sergeant Greg Staffordsmith and Detectives Michael Cavallo, Peter Aakjer and Thomas Delia on January 16, 2013 even though the burglary under investigation was reported to have been committed by a white male with bushy hair while Wilson is a dark-skinned African-American who never had bushy hair.  The surveillance resulted in Wilson's and Rizzolo's arrest.  A search of the car the pair was in at the time of the arrest contained what the police referred to as "bolt cutters, a sledgehammer and wire cutters."  The complaint alleged that the items were actually "hedge clippers with long wooden handles for trimming shrubs, an ordinary hammer, or maul, and a pair of pliers."

At the police station, Rizzolo was allegedly told that she would not see her children again unless she cooperated.  In order to increase the pressure, the complaint alleges that police retrieved Rizzolo's 9 year old children from their schools and took them to the police station so that they could see their mother in handcuffs.  The complaint alleges that Rizzolo cracked under the pressure and told police that Wilson had committed the burglaries.  They claimed that Cavallo falsely testified at grand jury proceedings.  Wilson claimed that he spent eleven months in jail and that a judge suppressed the evidence against him for want of probable cause. The pair also claimed to have been harassed by Lakewood Police as a result of having filed their civil suit.

The case is captioned Wilson and Rizzolo v. Township of Lakewood et al, Federal Case No. :15-cv-0Q229 and Wilson' and Rizzolo's attorney was Michael A. D'Aquanni of Springfield.  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 Wilson and Rizzolo's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $55,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Lakewood or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Lakewood or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Wilson and Rizzolo $55,000 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.