Monday, January 16, 2017

Fort Lee paid out $75,000 to settle false arrest case filed by man who possessed bath salts.

On September 22, 2016, the Borough of Fort Lee (Bergen County) paid $75,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a Bronx, New York man who claimed that he was jailed for three days because Fort Lee police "were unable or unwilling to differentiate between lawful and unlawful bath salts."

According to his lawsuit, Anthony Cordero Small said that he was a passenger in car that was pulled over by Fort Lee Police Officer Richard Hernandez at about 8:30 p.m. on October 28, 2013.  He said that he and other two occupants of the car were African Americans and that the basis of Hernandez's stop was "minor motor vehicle violations."  The lawsuit alleged that the trio were returning from a meeting with the producers of a popular VH1 television show who had agreed to feature Small's clothing line in upcoming episodes.  Officers Michael Ferraro and John Reuter arrived shortly afterward to provide back-up.

Small alleged that a video recording of the stop exists showing that all three occupants were removed from the vehicle and subjected to a lengthy roadside interrogation.  The lawsuit claimed that Hernandez, in addition to some unidentified red liquid, found a bag of bath salts in the car that he "mistakenly believed to be illegal bath salts."  Small said that he told Hernandez that his girlfriend had received the bag of bath salts at an NFL promotional event and that the salts were in their original packaging and labeled "Soak" which is a brand endorsed by many professional sports teams.

Small claimed that he and the other occupants were arrested and charged with CDS possession of bath salts.  Small said that he was held under $25,000 cash bail, with no ten percent option, which caused him to remain in jail until October 31, 2013.  He said that because of his confinement, he missed his meeting with VH1 officials which resulted in a decreased business opportunity.  He claimed that on November 19, 2013, the New Jersey State Police Laboratory determined that the bath salts were not a controlled dangerous substance--rather they were of "the type of legal and commonly available therapeutic bath salts people commonly use to mix in water when bathing."  All charges against him were reportedly dismissed.

Also named as a defendant was Fort Lee Police Chief Keith N. Bendul.

The case is captioned Small v. Borough of Fort Lee, et al, Federal Case No. 2:15-cv-05898 and Small's attorney was John E. Hogan of Woodbridge. 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 Fort Lee or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Small $75,000 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.