On March 2, 2015, the Township of Deptford (Gloucester County) agreed to pay $35,000 to a Wenonah man who sued members of the Deptford Police Department for allegedly arresting him for video recording police and for possession of “saltine cracker crumbs.”

In his suit, John Cokos said that he was walking to Gloucester County College on November 10, 2011 carrying a video recorder.  He said that Deptford Township Police Officer Matthew Principato made an abrupt U-turn and asked him “what his intentions were with the video camera.”  Cokos said that he didn’t answer Principato’s question and instead asked “whether he was charged with any offense, and, if not, . . . whether he was free to leave.”

Principato allegedly ignored Cokos’ inquiry and said that “the camera made [Cokos] look very suspicious” and that “there had been burglaries in the area.”  Cokos said that he then asked Principato to have his supervisor come to the scene to “have the encounter witnessed.”  Detective Edward Kiermeier, at Principato’s request, later arrived at the scene.

According to Cokos, a “verbal and physical altercation ensued” after Cokos refused to obey Principato’s and Kiermeier’s command to turn off the video recorder.  Cokos said that he was “forced against a guardrail” while the officers searched him and his belongings.

He said that the “officers found saltine cracker crumbs in brown wax paper and asked [him] if it was crack cocaine.”  Despite Cokos’ denial that the crumbs were crack cocaine, the officers allegedly told him that he was under arrest for drug possession, handcuffed him and took him to the Deptford Police Station.

While lodged in a holding cell, Kiermeier allegedly approached Cokos and told him that “the supposed crack cocaine was, in fact, a piece of saltine cracker.”  Police did, however, still charge Cokos with obstructing administration of law/governmental function.  Cokos said he was found not guilty of the charge on January 11, 2012.

Also named in the suit was Deptford Police Chief Daniel Murphy.

The case is captioned Cokos v. Deptford, Federal Case No. 1:13-cv-06810 and Cokos’s attorney was  Matthew B. Weisberg of Morton, Pennsylvania.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of Cokos’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $35,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Deptford or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Deptford or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Cokos $35,000 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.

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to [email protected]