On April 14, 2017, the City of Vineland (Cumberland County) agreed to pay $25,000 to an East Orange man who claimed that City police officers applied excessive force upon him on two separate occasions in 2011 and 2013. The same man was sentenced, in accordance with a plea bargain, to two to five years in prison for drug possession and resisting arrest charges that arose out of the same two occasions.
In his lawsuit, Noel Jones said that on December 1, 2011, he was a passenger in a car stopped by Officers Gary Mollik and Jose Torres for having a defective tail light. According to an April 1, 2016 decision by United States District Court Judge Noel L. Hillman, Jones claimed that while being patted down, he was threatened with physical violence by one of the officers and Mollik swung at him with an open hand causing him to “run in a circular direction in an attempt to alert neighbors as to what was unfolding because [Jones] feared for his safety due to Mollik’s unprovoked assault.” Torres then reportedly tackled Jones and placed him in a chokehold causing him to lose consciousness. According to Jones’ version of the account, as set forth in Judge Hillman’s opinion, he was stuck and kicked by Mollik which caused him to be transported to a hospital where he was diagnosed with a fractured orbital bone and a fractured jaw.
The officers’ account, also set forth in Judge Hillman’s opinion, is vastly different. According to Mollik’s account, Jones was trying to escape when Mollik tackled him, severely injuring the officers’ knee in the process. While Mollik admitted to having struck Jones in the face three times and putting him in a headlock, he said that he needed to do so to gain control over Jones who was violently resisting arrest. The officers said that Jones continued to resist arrest until officers threatened to release a K-9 on him. The officers said that once arrested and inside the police vehicle, Jones tried to hide a bag containing heroin and cocaine in his waistband.
The second alleged instance of police brutality occurred on June 23, 2013 at the Vineland bus station. Jones claimed that he was getting off a bus when police surrounded him and accused him of dealing drugs. He claimed that officers handcuffed him and slammed him to the ground, beat him and took him to headquarters where they “illegally strip searched” him and held him in custody for a day and a half. According to police, however, Jones was observed speaking with a “middleman [who] routinely brokered transactions between drug dealers and drug buyers in exchange for free heroin.” When questioned by Officer Louis Platania, Jones said that his name was “Lee Jones.” According to Judge Hillman’s decision, which set forth the police version of the incident, Platania recognized Jones and knew him to be a drug dealer who used the street name “Snowy.” The police claimed that they then tackled Jones, handcuffed him and found a digital scale in his pants pocket. Jones reportedly had clenched his hand around an object and police had to strike his fingers with a baton to get him to open up his hand. Once open, the police were able to retrieve what appears to have been a rock of crack cocaine.
On January 26, 2015, Jones pled guilty to some of the charges arising out of both arrests and was sentenced to two to five years in prison.
On April 1, 2016, Judge Hillman dismissed the counts of Jones’ civil lawsuit regarding the June 23, 2013 incident but refused to dismiss the excessive force and battery claims arising out of the December 1, 2011 arrest.
The case is captioned Jones v. City of Vineland, et al, Federal Case No. 1:13-cv-07132 and Jones’ attorney was Paul R. Melletz of Cherry Hill. The complaint and settlement agreement are on-line here.
The settlement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement’s terms to others, including the media. 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 Vineland or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Jones $25,000 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.