Saturday, June 25, 2016

Toms River Township confidentially pays $25,000 to resolve police excessive force lawsuit.

On May 14, 2016, the Township of Toms River (Ocean County) agreed to pay $25,000 to an African-American man who claimed that police unjustifiably roughed him up during a January 14, 2011 traffic stop that occurred while police were looking for the killer of Lakewood Police Officer Christopher Matlosz.

In his lawsuit, Delovi Canales said that on the night of of Matlosz's death, he and a friend were at Christopher's Pub which is adjacent to a Howard Johnson's where police believed Matlosz's killer was located.  While driving home from the pub, Canales' car was stopped by several police officers.  At least two of the Toms River officers on the scene, Sgt. Scott Kenny and Officer Pat Jacques, had their guns drawn and were present when Canales was allegedly pulled out of his car and "slammed" to the ground by an unidentified plain-clothes officer and was told by that officer "Don't [f***ing] move or I'll blow your head off."  After remaining handcuffed on the ground for eleven minutes, Canales claimed that the officer lifted him off the ground by his handcuffs and slammed him onto the hood of the police car.  He claimed that being lifted by the handcuffs while his hands were behind him injured his shoulder.

Both Kenny and Jacques argued that Canales' claims against them should be dismissed because he could not prove that either of them was the plain-clothes officer who allegedly assaulted him.  But Judge Mary L. Cooper rejected that argument in a February 20, 2014 ruling because Canales' friend identified Kenny as the plain-clothes officer and because even if Kenny wasn't the unknown plain-clothes officer, "he may be directly liable . . . where he fails to intervene when a constitutional violation by another officer takes place in his presence."

Also named in the suit were Toms River Officers Ed Mooney, Jim Carey, Chris McDowell, P.J. Gambardella, Kevin Scully and unnamed State Troopers.  All of these officers were dismissed from the suit and the claims by Canales' co-plaintiffs, Alex Valcourt and Terrance Williams, were also dismissed.

The case is captioned Canales v. Township of Toms River, et al, Federal Case No. 3:11-cv-03159 and Canales' attorney was Donald M. Stanzione of Edison.  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 lawsuit'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 Toms River or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Canales $25,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision 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 resolve before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.