On July 27, 2016, the Town of West New York (Hudson County) agreed to pay $50,000 to a photography student from Hackensack who said that West New York police beat him up for questioning why they wanted to see his identification.  He said that police also erased a recording of the encounter from his phone and took $40 and a necklace from him that was never returned.

In his lawsuit, Rene Berdugo, a photography student at the School of Visual Arts, said that he was taking photos of a bodega at 62nd and Monroe on April 27, 2013 when Officers Marco A. Barrera and Hector A. Rodriguez asked him for identification.  When he asked the officers why they wanted his ID, they allegedly told him that they would arrest him if he refused.  Berdugo said that he began recording the encounter on his cell phone while walking backwards into the bodega.  According to Berdugo, the officers punched and kicked him, arrested him and took him to police headquarters where officers erased the video from his cell phone and took $40 in cash and a necklace from him.

The case is captioned Berdugo v. Town of West New York, et al, Federal Case No. 2:15-cv-00112 and Berdugo’s attorney was Thomas J. Mallon of Freehold. Case documents 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 lawsuit’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 West New York or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Berdugo $50,000 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]