Sunday, March 12, 2017

Elizabeth pays $60,000 to settle police excessive force lawsuit.

On February 28, 2017, the Elizabeth City Council (Union County) resolved to pay $60,000 to settle (see note below) a family's lawsuit that claimed that police inflicted excessive force upon them during a gathering of friends and family who came to mourn a family member's recent shooting death.

In their suit, Chantal Theodore, David Romilus and Jessica Theodore claimed that on June 13, 2008, friends and family gathered at the Theodore's family home to grieve the death of Chantel's son, Curtis, who had been shot and killed earlier that day.  According to the suit, Elizabeth Police Captain Tyrone Tourner, accompanied by a contingent of about twenty police officers, came to the house and ordered the mourners to vacate.  Chantal and Romilus claimed that when they objected to Tourner's order, they were arrested.

Chantal said that she was "grabbed by several officers, thrown against a fence, lifted off her feet, forcibly handcuffed" and arrested for resisting arrest and obstruction.  Romilus, who is Chantal's brother, claimed that Officer Edward J. Pinkevicz sprayed in him in the face with a chemical agent and arrested him for resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.  Jessica, who is Chantal's daughter and Romilus' niece, said that when she ran outside barefoot, she "was almost immediately struck in the back of the head with a nightstick" and was arrested for aggravated assault and resisting arrest.  The trio claimed to have been kept in jail overnight and denied medical attention.

In a June 30, 2008 opinion, the Appellate Division found that Chantal was convicted in municipal court of the obstruction charge, Romilus of disorderly conduct and Jessica of simple assault and that all three convictions were upheld by the Union County Superior Court.  The Appellate Division, however, reversed Romilus' and Jessica's convictions but upheld Chantal's.  The Appellate Division's opinion also provides more context regarding the June 13, 2008 incident, including Tourner's testimony that police had received three complaints that "disorderly people" were at the Theodore residence and that some of the people gathered were sitting on cars in an adjacent restaurant parking lot drinking beer and littering.

The lawsuit also alleges that Officer Phillip McKenna had taken a photograph of Curtis' body after he was shot and circulated it among his fellow officers, friends and acquaintances.  McKenna and other officers named Turner, Pereira and Benenati allegedly assaulted Curtis nearly a year before his death causing him to receive a broken nose and front teeth.  Aggravated assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest charges brought against Curtis were allegedly dismissed.

The case is captioned Theodore, et al v. City of Elizabeth et al, Federal Case No. 2:10-cv-0279 and the trio's attorney was originally Mitzy Galis-Menedez of Secaucus who is now a Hudson County Superior Court Judge.  Case documents are on-line here.   

None of the trio's allegations have been proven or disproven in court and settlement, without more, does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Elizabeth or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Elizabeth or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the trio $60,000 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.

(Note: It is presently unclear whether or not there might be another, separate settlement agreement pertaining to this lawsuit.  Another OPRA request was filed on March 13, 2017 and this article will be updated upon receipt.)

Update: According to Elizabeth's response to the OPRA request, there is no separate settlement.