Camden taxpayers liable for $1.88 million in police corruption case

Posted: January 12, 2013

Taxpayers are going to pick up more than half of the $3.5 million payout to 88 people whose drug convictions were thrown out after investigators determined they had been arrested by a group of rogue Camden police officers.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Schneider, who oversaw the consolidated cases, ordered the city to pay the settlement by Feb. 15.

Jason Williamson, a New Jersey ACLU lawyer, whose office represented one of the plaintiffs, said Thursday that lawyers were still working out how much each client would receive.

"Thank goodness, it's done," said Williamson, staff lawyer at the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project.

Schneider also directed the lawyers representing the plaintiffs to file motions for court approval of additional legal fees by Jan. 31.

According to the City Council resolution approving the settlement, which includes costs and attorneys' fees, the city will pay $1.88 million of the settlement, and its excess-insurance carrier will pick up the remaining $1.62 million.

Robert Corrales, a spokesman for the city, said Camden had set aside money in anticipation of a settlement.

State Community Affairs Commissioner Robert E. Constable III has 10 days to veto the settlement if he wishes to. Lisa Ryan, a spokesman for the department, said it would have no comment.

Constable was in New Orleans on Thursday and was not immediately available for comment.

Based on a state formula for unlawful imprisonment, the plaintiffs are entitled to a total of at least $2.2 million.

Initial reports on the settlement indicated one plaintiff had not accepted, but Paul Melletz, attorney for Alanda Forrest, said his client had agreed to take it on the condition he could pursue a separate claim for excessive force stemming from the same arrest.

Melletz, of Begelman, Orlow & Melletz of Cherry Hill, said that suit would proceed.

Forrest, 56, who filed the first lawsuit alleging false arrest while still incarcerated, served 555 days before his release on Jan. 6, 2010. He alleges he was beaten unconscious and required medical treatment when he was arrested July 1, 2008, on drug charges.

The 88 plaintiffs were among 200 people whose charges were dismissed or whose convictions were vacated after the investigation of the rogue narcotics officers.

Camden has already paid out $344,000 to 11 other plaintiffs who filed suits in state court.

Under state law, those wrongfully jailed are entitled to $20,000 for each year behind bars.

According to the ACLU, the 88 plaintiffs in the federal case spent a combined 109 years in jail, which works out to about $2.2 million under the state formula.

Most of the plaintiffs in the case have other drug convictions that were not affected by the police-corruption case - and some are back in jail - but their lawyers say that whatever their criminal records, their rights were violated by dishonest police officers.

"This prolonged campaign to plant evidence on innocent people was a true stain on Camden police and represents one of the most serious forms of police corruption," Alexander Shalom, an ACLU-New Jersey lawyer who headed the plaintiffs' negotiating committee, said Thursday.

"Unfortunately, the systems that are designed to prevent corruption and protect the public eroded and allowed rogue officers to operate unabated for years," he said.

The ACLU represented Joel Barnes, 30, of Camden, who was arrested in 2008 after police planted drugs on him, and spent 418 days behind bars. He is on parole for a conviction stemming from a drug arrest in December 2010, according to state records.

Of the officers the FBI arrested, Jason Stetser, Kevin Parry, and Dan Morris have pleaded guilty in federal court to corruption; a jury convicted Antonio Figueroa and acquitted Robert Bayard.

All but Stetser have been sentenced. He is slated to learn his fate Thursday.


Contact Joseph Gambardello at 856-779-3844 or jgambardello@phillynews.com.

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