Monday, September 12, 2016

Camden paid out $27,500 to settle retired police sergeant's First Amendment violation lawsuit.

Chief J. Scott Thomson
On August 1, 2016, the City and County of Camden agreed to pay $27,500 to a retired Camden City police sergeant who said that he was wrongly arrested for exercising his First Amendment rights during a police installation ceremony.

In his lawsuit, Melvin Ways said that he was forced to retire when the city's police department was dismantled and replaced with a county-wide Metro Police Department.  Ways said that he and other similarly displaced officers went to a May 1, 2013 public ceremony for the newly created Metro department in order to lay their uniform boots outside of the event "as a symbolic gesture signifying the many police officers displaced."

Ways said that although other members of the public were being admitted to the event, he was arrested by Sergeant Zach James as he tried to enter.  Immediately prior to his arrest, Ways told the media that "the City of Camden intentionally sabotaged the [city police department] in order to create Metro."  Ways alleged that J. Scott Thomson, Metro's Chief, had unlawfully ordered officers to not admit any of the displaced officers to the event and "was motivated by a desire to prevent [Ways] and others like him from exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and to assemble."

Ways said that there was no legitimate reason for the arrest because he could have been issued a summons.  After being chained to a bench for 45 minutes, Ways was issued a defiant tresspassing summons and was released.  He said the summons was later dismissed.

The case is captioned Ways v. Borough of Camden, et al, Camden County Superior Court Docket No. CAM-L-1233-14 and Ways's attorney was Jacqueline M. Vigilante of Mullica Hill.  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 Camden or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Ways $27,500 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.