On July 27, 2017, the Borough of Buena (Atlantic County) agreed to pay $125,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a Buena Vista Township man who claimed that two Borough officers roughed him up during a traffic stop and were laughing when he lay bleeding on the ground.

In his lawsuit, Warren J. Morris said that he was driving his car through Buena Vista Township on June 20, 2014 when he was stopped by Buena Borough police officers Sean Griffith and Jacob Apostle.  Morris said that he was fearful when the officers approached his car “because he did not know who these individuals were, they at no time identified themselves.”  According to Morris, when he asked the officers to identify themselves, Griffin replied “It doesn’t matter who we are.”  Morris claimed that upon being told this, he demanded that a State Trooper be called to the scene.

Morris claimed that he was arrested for “obstruction” because he rolled his passenger window down only half way when Griffith demanded that it be rolled down all the way.  According to the lawsuit, Apostle punched Morris in the eye when he exited the vehicle in accordance with Griffith’s order even though he did nothing to resist or provoke the officers.  Morris said that the punch caused him to lose consciousness and that he was dragged across the ground and pepper sprayed by Griffith.  He said that both officers were “standing behind their SUV type police vehicle laughing while working on something inside” while Morris was lying on the ground “with a good deal of blood on his right arm.”

Morris was taken to the hospital where he was allegedly treated for “facial contusion, facial lacerations, subconjunctival hemorrhage to the eye, chemical conjunctivitis and a chemical burns.”  He said that he was taken to the police station and given several motor vehicle moving and document-based summonses “all of which were issued without basis in fact.”  Morris said that all of the charges were later dismissed by a Municipal Court Judge.

The case is captioned Morris v. Borough of Buena, et al, Atlantic County Superior Court Docket No. ATL-L-1281-16 and Morris’ attorney was David R. Castellani of Northfield.  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 Buena or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Morris $125,000 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]