Mount Laurel man claims civil rights violations after state trooper entered his home

Posted: July 05, 2012

Richard Greenberg says his two-year-old Nissan Maxima was still humming when he dropped it off for a routine oil change. The bill to replace its high-quality synthetic oil should have been $62.

But the Mount Laurel man ended up with a bill twice as large and a car that no longer ran.

When Greenberg tried to protest the service, he was visited by a state trooper at his home and arrested until he paid up.

Last week, a New Jersey appeals court ruled that Greenberg has a right to a trial to try to show he was falsely arrested and held on Feb. 22, 2007.

Greenberg, 60, an insurance agent, said in an interview this week that Trooper Nicholas Pryszlak accused him of passing a bad check and "came into my home, put me against a wall, searched me and handcuffed me."

After being transported to a state police barracks in Bordentown, Greenberg said, he was chained to a bench and taunted by Sgt. Steven M. Jones. Jones resigned last year after admitting during an unrelated internal investigation that he took $7,000 worth of gasoline from a state pump for his personal use.

The appeals court reversed Superior Court Judge Evan H.C. Crook, who last year dismissed Greenberg's complaint against the state police; the trooper; the sergeant; Oil Station Inc., a Hainesport oil and lube service shop; and Peter Moran Jr., its owner. Greenberg is seeking unspecified damages and also claiming civil rights violations.

Greenberg said that he had tried to explain to the trooper that he stopped payment on a check paid to an Oil Station mechanic because Pep Boys workers told him the car battery posts had been snapped, apparently during servicing. Greenberg later mailed Moran a replacement check for $31 - with a note explaining why - and got it back ripped in half, according to the court ruling.

Moran, who has owned the Route 38 auto shop since 1988, enclosed a note saying Greenberg should pay the full bill or he would go to small claims court.

Moran said in an interview that he had called police, but Greenberg's arrest "wasn't my intention." He summoned police because he felt he should be paid. "It was my position we didn't do anything wrong," Moran said. The car had a "preexisting condition."

Greenberg said the trooper called him three different times and asked him to pay the bill. A month later, the trooper pounded on the door to his home, shortly after 7 a.m., and told his wife that Greenberg would know why he was there. While Greenberg was being arrested, he said he muttered that his wife was a dentist in Moorestown and was owed money. Then, he asked the trooper sarcastically: "Would you please collect that for me?"

Greenberg's lawyer, Michael A. Ferrara Jr. of Cherry Hill, said that a person's home "is sacred" and a trooper cannot remove someone from his home except under serious and unusual circumstances.

"This can't happen in America," he said, adding that a charge of passing a bad check under $200 is a disorderly persons offense.

In its written 23-page decision, the appeals court pressed that issue. "Physical entry into the home is the chief evil the Fourth Amendment was intended to prevent," it said. "A law enforcement officer may not enter a suspect's home to make an arrest without a warrant, exigent circumstances, or consent."

The court opinion noted previous occasions of the state police intervening on Moran's behalf: "On more than one occasion . . . a trooper would go to the customer's house and bring the customer back to OSI's [Oil Station Inc.] place of business, telling the customer, in words or substance, that 'if you don't go pay this bill you're going to be charged. So if you're smart, you'll take care of your obligation and go pay the bill and that will be the end of it.'"

The opinion did not specify what record reflected this practice.

Moran said in an interview that he recalled seeking police help only "once or twice" before. He said he had to call state police because Hainesport does not have a local police force.

The state Attorney General's Office, which is defending the state police entities, said: "The alleged conduct at issue here occurred in 2007. We intend to explore the facts and allegations in this matter and, simultaneously, will be evaluating our position in the ongoing litigation."

Greenberg said his confinement at the station was short-lived but intimidating. When he was taken to the station, he said Jones mocked him, according to the court decision.

Saying he did not want to jeopardize his insurance license and career, Greenberg agreed to come up with the money. His wife withdrew $130 from the bank, and Greenberg was transported to the Oil Station in a police cruiser to meet her so that he could pay.

Then, Greenberg was released.


Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com or @JanHefler on Twitter. Read her blog at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz

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