Thursday, May 26, 2016

SPCA chief quietly pays $40,000 to settle Santeria priest's religious freedom lawsuit.

On October 24, 2014, the Chief of Police for the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) agreed to pay $40,000 to a Freehold-based Santeria priest who sued the Chief for "defil[ing] sacred space" and improperly charging him with animal cruelty for a faith-based chicken sacrifice.

In his lawsuit, Jorge Badillo alleged that SPCA Police Chief Victor Amato and other Monmouth County and Freehold Borough law enforcement officials violated his constitutional rights during a March 2011 residential weapons search where a dead chicken was found inside a shed that Badillo used as a religious temple.  Amato, who was called to the scene to investigate possible animal cruelty, found a "recently sacrificed chicken and 2 bird heads that were drying for sacrificial use."  According to the complaint, Amato issued nine summonses to Badillo and notified the local newspaper causing publication of Badillo's home address which resulted in Badillo's home and vehicles being vandalized and his family threatened.

Badillo claimed that no law prevented sacrificing chickens and that the killings were humane and had been done "in the same manner as kosher butchers." He said that he ultimately pled guilty to not providing water for his pet rabbit even though "the photograph taken by Chief Amato clearly shows water in the rabbit’s crate."

In a January 28, 2014 opinion, United State District Court Judge Freda L. Wolfson dismissed Badillo's complaint against the SPCA, Freehold and County officials leaving only Badillo's constitutional claims against Amato.  Of the $40,000, $13,000 went to Badillo and $27,000 went to his attorney.

The case is captioned Badillo v. Amato, et al, Federal Case No. 3:13-cv-01553 and Badillo's attorney was Jennifer Meyer-Mahoney  of Millstone Township.  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 Badillo's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that Amato or his insurer, for whatever reason, decided that he would rather pay Badillo $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.