Sunday, August 14, 2016

Caldwell Borough paid out $30,000 to settle family's lawsuit over repeated warrantless police "welfare checks."

On July 19, 2016, the Borough of Caldwell (Essex County) agreed to pay $30,000 to a family who complained that Caldwell police repeatedly entered their home to conduct "welfare checks" without warrant or consent on a family member's minor child at the behest of the child's father.

In their lawsuit, Craig DeVito and his wife Provi along with their daughters, son-in-law and two grandsons, who all reside together, claimed that the father of one of the grandsons had on five occasions during a one month period in 2012 had Caldwell Police conduct "welfare checks" on his son.  The father, Joseph Colon of Toms River, was reportedly involved in a custody dispute with Daryen DeVito, one of Craig's and Provi's daughters.

The DeVitos said that they endured the welfare checks "with increasing reluctance" and finally had their lawyer call Caldwell Police Chief James H. Bongiorno and tell him that "and all future police visits would require a court order."  Despite this warning a Caldwell patrol officer allegedly entered the family's home on December 13, 2012 "without knocking or ringing the bell" causing a shocked Provi to tell him to leave.  The officer reportedly explained that "We got a call saying to check on [the grandson] because his father fears something is going on."  According to the lawsuit, the officer didn't leave but called for back up.  This incident caused the family's lawyer to write to Chief Bongiorno threatening legal action if the police again conducted a warrantless welfare check.

Despite the letter, Sergeant Michael Pellegrino came to the DeVito's door on Mother's day to conduct a welfare check on the grandson.  After Pellegrino allegedly said "I don't need [a warrant]," Craig DeVito, who met Pellegrino at the door, pointed to a doormat that that stated in clear, block letters "COME BACK WITH A WARRANT."  This reportedly caused Pellegrino to "snicker" and push Mr. DeVito aside and search the house without anyone's consent.

The case is captioned DeVito, et al v Borough of Caldwell, et al Federal Case No. 13-cv-06786 and the DeVitos' attorney was Ronald J. Brandmayr of Freehold.  Case documents are on-line here.

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 Caldwell or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the DeVitos $30,000 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.