Child-support liens may delay payouts in $3.5M Camden settlement

Posted: February 15, 2013

Payday is here.

The $3.5 million Camden agreed to pay 88 people wrongfully jailed after arrests by a rogue narcotics squad is due Friday, but attorneys warn there are still obstacles before their clients can get the money.

The big hurdle: Back child support must be paid first.

Nobody knows just how much is owed, but if there is a "giant amount of child support in arrears," it could mean some of the 88 will get very little, said Cherry Hill lawyer Paul Melletz. His firm represents four of those who sued the city, some with child support liens.

"Part of the problem is that while they were in jail, they were not earning any money," Melletz said. "But that does not stop child support, and you cannot retroactively reduce payments."

How much of the $3.5 million will go toward child support and how many of the wrongfully jailed individuals will be affected has not been determined, officials said.

Last month, the city approved the settlement, which includes attorneys' fees. The city will pay $1.88 million and insurance will pay $1.62 million.

Shortly after the settlement was approved, a child support supervisor sent a letter to the clerk of U.S. District Court in Camden, citing New Jersey law that requires lawyers to pay child support before their clients get money.

"Unfortunately . . . this does not always happen," said the letter sent from the Probation Division, which oversees child support.

Those who sued in federal court are among 200 arrested by the narcotics officers later convicted of planting evidence, filing false police reports, and lying in court. Not all sued.

The city previously paid $344,000 to 11 others who sued in Superior Court in Camden County. It is not known how much of this amount was garnished for child support.

As part of the bigger settlement, the city required nondisclosure, said Melletz and other lawyers involved with the cases.

Camden's attorney, John Eastlack, said the city had no breakdown of how much each person would receive. That was worked out among the plaintiffs' attorneys, he said.

Alexander Shalom, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, expressed concern about the nondisclosure agreements and whether city officials knew how much each plaintiff would receive. The ACLU represented one plaintiff.

"We believe that situations with confidentiality should be rare, especially when dealing with public entities." Shalom said. "Taxpayers have a right to see how their money is being spent."

Shalom said that the city could find the breakdown of payments in court records and that he believed it had a responsibility to account for the $3.5 million.

Nonetheless, Shalom said, he is bound by the agreement and cannot say how much Joel Barnes, represented by the ACLU, will receive for spending 418 days in jail. Barnes alleged that police planted drugs after raiding his Camden home.

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

Shawn Sheekey, director of the Camden County Board of Social Services, said his office also would check whether the families of those who were jailed have received state or federal subsidies that should be refunded.

If a family is still receiving aid, the money may be used to pay social services equal to the amount of child support owed, Sheekey said.


Contact Barbara Boyer at (856) 779-3838, bboyer@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @BBBoyer.

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