On July 21, 2014, the insurer for two Waterford (Camden County) police officers agreed to pay $260,000 to a father and his parents who sued them for alleged harassment, unlawful arrest and use of excessive force.
In their separate suits, Tracey Miller and his parents Ronald and Lavina Miller said that Waterford Police Sergeant Joseph McNally is a “very close friend” of Thomas Watson, who is the father of Tracey’s ex-wife Jennifer Miller. According to the complaints, the divorce between Tracey and Jennifer was “highly contested” and involved a domestic violence complaint and custody of the couple’s child.
According to the parents’ complaint, “[e]very time that an issue arose with respect to this matter including the filing of a domestic violence complaint, Defendant, Sergeant McNally, a Waterford Township Police Officer, was involved in the investigation.” The complaints go on to say that the animosity that pitted the Watson family and the Waterford police against the Millers caused Tracey to be “constantly under surveillance.” The Millers, who all lived in the same house, claimed that Waterford Township Police Department, would frequently pass by Plaintiffs’ house, slow down as they approached their house and would stay there for several minutes in an attempt to harass and/or intimidate Mr. Miller and his family members, including the Plaintiffs.”
According to the Millers, the police harassment graduated into physical violence. One of three official encounters between the Millers and the police occurred on April 9, 2011. The parents and their granddaughter were driving home and allegedly saw a police vehicle parked near their home. The granddaughter called her father, Tracey, who was following behind them and told him to be “very careful” for they were “in fear for his life.” When Lavina asked one of the officers in the waiting car why the police were there, the officer, Timothy Lyons, reported said that Tracey was being stopped for “tinted windows”.
At this point, the complaints allege that Lyons beat Tracey severely while he was on the ground while his minor daughter was “crying and screaming hysterically for Officer Lyons to stop beating her father.” This allegedly provoked Lyons to swing his nightstick at the daughter and her grandparents. During this time, McNally allegedly took Lyon’s place on top of Tracey’s back and continued holding his face in the wood chips and . . . punching him in the left side of his face and head almost knocking him unconscious. Lavina said that she went in the house to call 911 to get help from the State Police. The 911 operator allegedly told her that the State Police would not respond because Waterford police were already there.
After finishing with the alleged beating of Tracey, Lyons then reportedly approached Tracey’s father, who was then 69 years old and “suffers from many chronic disabilities.” Lyons allegedly “slam[ed] him violently on the concrete ground causing a phone to fly out of his hand.” (The father was allegedly on the line with 911.) According to the complaint, this caused a “serious right shoulder fracture.” A few days after the incident, both Ronald and and Lavina said that they were called to the police station to be processed for various charged including resisting arrest and aggravated assault on a police officer. The Millers claim that the officers themselves are “under criminal investigation by the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office.”
On January 30, 2014, U. S. District Court Judge Joseph E. Irenas dismissed all the counts against Waterford Township and most of the counts against the individual police officers. The only counts that survived the motions were civil rights and other tort claims against Lyons and McNally.
Also named in the suits were Waterford Police Officer Brent J. Staiger and Sergeant Richard J. Passarella,
The cases are captioned Miller v. Waterford, Federal Case No. 1:11-cv-03405 and 1:11-cv-03578 and the Millers’ attorney was Charles A. Fiore of Williamstown. Both complaints, Judge Irenas’ opinion and the settlement agreement are on-line here.
The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from publicly disclosing the settlement terms. Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public’s right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.
None of the Millers’ allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $260,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Waterford or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Waterford or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the Millers $260,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.