On March 28, 2016, the City of Bridgeton (Cumberland County) agreed to pay $690,000 to settle a Seabrook woman’s two claims that city police used excessive force against her.

In the first incident, occurring on April 20, 2013, Marella Lawson claimed that Officers Shane Sawyers and Robert Robbins came to her home because she had allegedly violated a no-contact order. Lawson, who claims to be diabetic, said that she asked the officers if she could finish eating before going to the police station.  This resulted in the Sawyers allegedly saying that she “ate enough” and grabbing her arm when she reached for her orange juice.

Lawson claimed that she begged the officers to not handcuff her behind her back because of a frozen shoulder. She said that officers responded by kicking her, punching in the face, spraying her with mace and banging her head against the floor.

The second incident, on March 31, 2015, arose out of a traffic stop for which a video was  previously part of a Fox 29 news broadcast.  While the Fox 29 story remains on-line, the video has been removed.  The video, however, may sometimes be found by searching for it on YouTube.  The traffic stop, in which Sawyers was also involved, resulted in officers breaking the window of Lawson’s car and pulling her out of the car, forcing her to the pavement, pepper spraying her and arresting her.

The case is captioned Lawson v. City of Bridgeton, et al, Federal Case No. 1:14-cv-00749 and Lawson’s attorney was Gregg L. Zeff of Mount Laurel.

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 Lawson’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that Bridgeton or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Lawson $690,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision 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 resolve 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]