Wednesday, August 23, 2017

State paid out $30,000 to settle lawsuit filed by lawyer who claimed she was arrested for not answering Trooper's questions.

On July 6, 2017, the State of New Jersey paid $30,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a Philadelphia attorney who said she was arrested for exercising her constitutional right to remain silent.

In her complaint, Rebecca Musarra claimed that she ignored State Trooper Matthew Stazzone's questions during an October 16, 2015 traffic stop in rural Warren County.  Stazzone allegedly told Musarra, "If you don't answer my questions, I am going to arrest you."  Musarra said that she told Stazzone that she was an attorney and knew that she had a right to not respond to questions. According to the lawsuit, Stazzone then ordered her out of the car, handcuffed her and drove her to the police station where she was placed in a holding cell and chained to a bench.  While in the cell, Musarra said that Stazzone and another trooper asked her "biographical questions" which she refused to answer.

About a half hour later, a supervisor reportedly spoke with Musarra and told her that refusing to answer police questions constituted obstruction.  Musarra said that she told the supervisor that his argument was wrong under both federal and state law.  Some time later, the supervisor reportedly explained that Stazzone was a "rookie" and that "we'll mark it up to training."  According to the suit, the supervisor later apologized for Stazzone and told Musarra that he would do her a "favor" and try to get her car released from the impound lot without fees.

A May 6, 2016 newspaper article contains a video of the traffic stop.

The case is captioned Musarra, v. State of New Jersey, Federal Case No. 3:16-cv-0485 and Musarra's attorney was Kevin M. Costello of Mount Laurel.  The complaint and and the release are on-line here.

None of the Musarra'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 the State or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Musarra $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.