CLICK HERE TO REPORT LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRUPTION (Provide as much information as possible: full names, descriptions, dates, times, activity, witnesses, etc.)

Telephone: 347-632-9775

Monday, April 2, 2012

Rogue Police Cost State $340,000 in Damages

Camden rogue police cost New Jersey $340,000 in damages
The Philadelphia Inquirer by George Anastasia - April 2, 2012

Nearly a dozen low-level Camden drug dealers and users whose convictions were overturned because of potentially tainted evidence gathered by corrupt city police have been awarded $340,000 in damages by the state. And that could be just the first in a series of payments totaling millions of dollars. Civil suits in New Jersey Superior Court filed by 75 people, and similar litigation in federal court from almost as many, offer the possibility of big paydays for some of Camden's chronic street-corner criminals. Most of the plaintiffs have drug convictions that predate the arrests and imprisonments for which they seek compensation. Through their lawyers, all say they were victimized by dirty cops who planted evidence and falsely charged them. In most cases, authorities say, it is impossible to determine otherwise. The settlements and potential awards in the pending litigation put a literal price on corruption in one of the nation's most crime-ridden cities. "The fundamental issue is that their rights were violated," said Paul R. Melletz, a Cherry Hill lawyer representing four clients who have sued the state and city. Each had earlier drug convictions, he said. Three have been arrested again. Two are in prison. But none of that matters, Melletz said. "These were rogue cops, just doing their thing because they had the power to do so," he said. "They were vigilantes with badges." Four former Camden police officers have been convicted of planting evidence, stealing cash and drugs, conducting illegal searches, and fabricating reports that led to a series of arrests and convictions between 2007 and 2009. Each faces about 10 years in jail. More than 200 of their cases were dismissed or vacated after the Camden County Prosecutor's Office learned of the corruption allegations. "If you allow somebody to manipulate the system for their own benefit, you have a totally corrupt system," said Linda L. Campbell, a defense lawyer representing two men who have settled their lawsuits with the state. Campbell's clients, Frank Shaw and Ronald Demby, have been awarded $32,000 each, she said. Demby, jailed recently on a drug charge, must wait until his release before he sees any of the cash, she added. To date, 11 plaintiffs who spent time in jail have been awarded a total of $340,000, according to the New Jersey Attorney General's Office. There are 64 suits under review in Superior Court.

In federal litigation, 67 plaintiffs have sued the City of Camden, the Police Department, and the convicted officers. Camden or its insurer could be on the hook for millions if all of the suits are successful. "It is one giant mess," Melletz said of the federal litigation, which includes claims and counterclaims in which defendants contest liability. Melletz, who has been designated a lead lawyer in the consolidated federal litigation, said that if settlements are reached, the suits could be resolved in about six months. If not, he said, "it will take years" to resolve the issues. A lawyer for the city declined to comment because the cases are in their early stages. The suits in state court are being processed under New Jersey's Wrongful Imprisonment Act. Defense attorneys believe nearly every plaintiff will be compensated for his or her prison time. "Anytime law enforcement conducts itself in such a manner it . . . must be corrected," said Leland Moore of the Attorney General's Office. But it would be wrong to assume that all the cases would be settled, he said. "We have a duty to the citizens of New Jersey to ensure that we examine each of these cases on an individual basis."

Using a formula that is part of the law, those who were wrongly jailed are entitled to $54.79 per day of incarceration, or about $20,000 per year. The cases being litigated involve people jailed for periods ranging from a few weeks to as many as three years, according to information from the Attorney General's Office. "They were supposed to be out there to serve and protect, but they did the total opposite," said Rhonda, a self-described former drug user arrested on Christmas 2007 at her sister's home near Eighth and Line Streets by two of the convicted officers. Rhonda, who spent about four months in the county jail, asked that her last name not be used because she has completed a drug-rehab program and fears her past could jeopardize her job. Her arrest exemplifies the abuse and corruption at the heart of the case, said her lawyer, Edward Crisonino. Known as a drug user by members of the antidrug squad, Rhonda was targeted not because of anything she had done but because of who she was, Crisonino alleged in the suit he filed on her behalf. "They knocked me to the ground, Maced me, and started screaming, 'Where's the stuff?' " Rhonda said recently, recounting the arrest. It was not the first time she had been rousted by the unit, she said. The way it operated was well known on the streets. "Tell us who's got something and where it's at and we'll let you go," she said officers told her. When she didn't, they charged her with possession of a small quantity of crack cocaine, which she said they planted on her. They also charged her with making terroristic threats. Rhonda said she pleaded guilty after the public defender appointed to represent her said it would be her word against the officers' at trial. With prior convictions for drug possession and assault, he said, "Who's going to believe you?" Rhonda recalled. Her story, or versions similar to it, is repeated in dozens of motions filed in state and federal court. The wrongful-imprisonment claims are bolstered by the fact that the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, after learning of the corruption allegations, dismissed or vacated criminal cases that were based on evidence and testimony from the officers who were charged. Not all the cases were flawed, authorities believe. But it was impossible to know which were built on phony evidence, illegal searches, and fabricated reports. "This is fallout from corruption," Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk said last week. "I would say the vast majority [of those arrested] were guilty of what they were charged with, but the process is to make sure that no innocent people get convicted." Faulk said his office vacated or dismissed any case in which an accused officer played an "essential role." If he was merely backup, the case was not dismissed. The prosecutor said that it "rankled" him that "guilty people are reaping a windfall," but that his office acted in the "interest of justice." "Our criminal justice system hinges on the honesty of law enforcement officials," Crisonino wrote in a motion filed on Rhonda's behalf. Crisonino has five other clients who are seeking restitution from the state and who have sued the city in federal court. Rhonda had mixed feelings upon learning that her 130-day jail stint would result in a payout of about $7,100 from the Treasury Department. "That's not even enough to buy a car," she said at first, but she later softened. "I don't really care about the money as long as they got their asses," she said of the convicted officers. "As long as they're going to pay for their evil deeds, I'll be all right." Rhonda said she had left town since finishing rehab and had no desire to return. "This is why Camden is the way it is," said the 43-year-old, who was born and raised in the city. "If you can't trust the police, then what are you going to do? There's nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide." Contact George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or

1 comment:

Debbie Richmond said...

The citizens of Camden must be furious over this, having cost everyone in so many ways, the most critical no doubt being lost trust.