Camden, ACLU fight over disc with data of police investigations

Posted: July 10, 2012

The city of Camden wants a judge to bar a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union from making public confidential information he received anonymously about Police Department Internal Affairs investigations.

A disc containing the sensitive data was mailed to Alexander Shalom's ACLU office in Newark in May, according to court documents.

It is now the focus of a legal dispute in civil litigation brought by nearly 100 low-level drug dealers who claim they were illegally targeted by a group of dishonest Camden officers subsequently convicted on corruption charges.

Alleging false arrest and imprisonment, the plaintiffs in the case have sued the city, the state, and nearly a dozen individuals and related agencies, including the police department.

The ACLU is representing convicted drug dealer Joel Barnes, one of the plaintiffs.

The city contends that the disc contains information "not relevant" to the pending suit, including "confidential internal affairs complaints of private citizens, . . . attorney-client privileged communication, . . . work product of Internal Affairs officers, . . . and information regarding criminal investigations."

The issue is before U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Schneider, who is overseeing the early stages of the complex civil litigation.

Shalom declined to discuss specifics, but he said information on the disc was "relevant" to the legal dispute.

"Many of the files contained on the disc should have been provided to the plaintiffs during initial disclosures but were not," Shalom wrote in a motion filed late last month in opposition to the request for a protective order.

Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson said last week that authorities believe information on the disc came from a small data storage device known as a thumb drive that disappeared from Internal Affairs about three years ago. The disappearance is the focus of an investigation, Thomson said.

The chief declined to comment further, citing the ongoing litigation.

Nearly 100 plaintiffs, most with prior drug arrests, filed suit against the city after their cases and dozens of others were dismissed or their sentences were vacated by the Camden County Prosecutor's Office in 2009.

The prosecutor's action came following allegations that members of a police antidrug unit - including at least two who took part in Barnes' arrest - had planted evidence, stolen cash from drug dealers, filed false reports, and lied in grand jury testimony.

Three former officers pleaded guilty and a fourth was convicted after a three-week trial last year. All are scheduled to be sentenced this summer.

In a suit on behalf of Barnes, 30, Shalom contends that drugs were planted on his client during a police raid on a Camden home in August 2008. Barnes served 14 months in prison before being released.

"When officers lie to obtain a conviction, they needlessly shatter the lives of the people they erroneously condemn," Shalom wrote in the complaint filed on Barnes' behalf.

A year after his release, according to court records, Barnes was arrested for heroin possession and pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to one to three years in prison.

Barnes already has been awarded $22,904 by the state to settle a wrongful imprisonment claim.

Barnes' criminal record before and after the bogus arrest should have no impact on his suit, Shalom said last week. It "doesn't give the police carte blanche to undermine the Constitution," he said.

No hearing date has been set on the protective order sought by the city over the Internal Affairs disc.

In a motion filed last week, David Rybeck, who is representing the city, said the issue was moot since the city has now turned over all relevant information to attorneys for the plaintiffs. The final batch of discovery material was turned over on June 19, he said.

Rybeck argued that the ACLU should be required to return the disc to the city because "the documents contained on the disc were obtained unlawfully" and because much of the information is "irrelevant to the Camden Police Cases."

Shalom argued in his motion that since the disc was not part of the discovery process, the city could not ask for it to be returned. He likened it to information "sent to a litigant by a whistleblower or anonymous informant."

The disc arrived at Shalom's Newark office May 8 in an envelope with no return address, he said.

After conducting a brief review of its contents, Shalom said he notified city officials. He sent a copy of the disc to an attorney for the city, but retained the original.

He has agreed not to share the information with other lawyers in the case until Schneider has ruled on the issue. But he is skeptical about the city's claim that it has turned over all relevant documents.

"The fact that the City obviously failed to produce a number of relevant documents to Plaintiffs, and only took steps to produce those documents after Plaintiff's counsel received the disc in the mail, counsels against allowing the City to determine which of the documents should be turned over," he wrote.


Contact George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.

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