On February 23, 2023, the Township of Toms River (Ocean County, NJ) paid $125,000 ($10,000 was paid earlier to one of the man’s daughters) to a homeowner who said that police entered his home and aggressively arrested him after breaking down his front door to investigate a burglary. One of the officers involved had been previously sued twice for excessive force.
In his October 2018 lawsuit, Miquenel Altidor and his minor daughters claimed that Toms River police officers broke down their front door on December 28, 2017 and pointed their weapons at them. Mr. Altidor alleged that while he offered no resistance while being detained and handcuffed, he was “slammed to the floor” by an officer who “jammed his knee into Mr. Altidor’s neck and back.” Altidor claimed that the officers’ actions aggravated pre-existing conditions and were “in part based on racial animus and racial profiling.”
A November 22, 2022 opinion by U.S. District Court Judge Michael A. Shipp provides some context to the Altidors’ claims. According to the opinion, ADT Security had received a silent alarm from Altidor’s residence and could not reach Altidor by phone. This caused ADT to contact Toms River police which dispatched officers Matthew Crosta and Garret Henshaw to investigate. Crosta had the dispatcher attempt several calls to Mr. Altidor’s residence that were not answered.
According to the opinion, Crosta tried knocking on the several times and when he looked through the front window, he “observed the shoulder of a Black man in a white shirt near the foyer who moved away from the door as [he] shined his light inside.” This caused him to radio for backup. “About six or seven minutes later, and after the officers on the scene continued to receive no response from anyone in the home, Sergeant Mooney decided to make a forced entry with the rest of the officers following closely behind,” according to the opinion.
Altidor was sleeping in his bedroom and was awoken by a loud bang. When he walked out of his room, he “was immediately confronted by a swarm of police officers with guns drawn” who yelled at him that he was under arrest. Altidor, according to the opinion, “without hesitation . . . raised his hands horizontally to signal that he was not a threat.” Altidor was guided to the floor by Mooney and handcuffed.
Although Mooney and Crosta said that Altidor was not resisting, Officer Anthony Pacella said that he observed Mooney struggling to handcuff Altidor. “Officer Pacella then thought best to physically grab Altidor, push him to the ground, and pin him with his knee . . . [and] used his hand and forearm to shove Altidor to the ground and afterwards, placed his knee on Altidor’s upper back,” according to the opinion.
Police ultimately came to understand that Altidor owned the home and that no one was in danger. The officers then learned that the Black man in the white shirt that Crosta saw through the front window was actually Altidor’s brother.
Based on these presumed facts (Judge Shipp stated in his opinion that he “only reference[d] facts within [the Police Department’s] Statement of Undisputed Facts that Altidor [did] not dispute or [the Police Department’s] exhibits that Altidor does not contest.”) and video footage obtained from Altidor’s home security system, Judge Shipp found “nothing in the record that could lead a reasonable jury to conclude that the officers of the Police Department were motivated by discriminatory racial bias.”
Judge Shipp also found that the police were justified in entering Altidor’s home without a warrant because “exigent circumstances” existed. Judge Shipp found that it was reasonable for the officers to force Altidor’s door because a panic alarm had been tripped, Altidor could not be contacted after several attempts and because “a man was seen through the front door window but declined to respond to Officer Crosta knocking.”
Judge Shipp also found that police, given the circumstances, were justified in arresting Altidor. As for Altidor’s excessive force claims, Judge Shipp found “no evidence that Sergeant Mooney acted unreasonably in guiding him to the ground and performing a relatively routine arrest.” Judge Shipp, however, came to a different conclusion regarding Officer Pacella’s alleged conduct. After noting that “[e]ven several of the police officers believed Sergeant Mooney had control of the situation and there was no reason for Officer Pacella to put his hands on Altidor,” Shipp found “it dubious that Officer Pacella needed to use that level of force” and said that the question of whether Officer Pacella applied excessive force needed to be decided by a jury.
Judge Shipp went on to consider Altidor’s claim that Toms River was negligent for hiring Officer Pacella. He found that Altidor had made “a colorable claim for negligent hiring” because pretrial discovery indicated that Officer Pacella “admitted to two prior excessive force claims while he was employed by the [New York Police Department]” that resulted in litigation against Officer Pacella specifically,” according to the opinion. The judge found that there was “a factual dispute regarding what Toms River knew at the time it hired Officer Pacella and consequently, whether that hiring was negligent.”
As of May 3, 2023, Pacella is still employed as a Toms River police officer, with 8.76 years of service, at an annual salary of $123,058.57.
New Jersey Advance Media published a July 1, 2020 article on this incident. See, “A man was asleep in his N.J. home. Then police broke down his door with guns drawn,” by Alex Napoliello. Embedded with the article is a thirty second video clip depicting Mooney’s and Pacella’s interaction with Altidor.
The case is captioned Miquenel Altidor, et al v. Toms River Police, et al, Federal Case No. 3:18-cv-14834 and the Altidors’ attorney was Robert M. Anderson of Allenhurst. The civil lawsuit and settlement agreements are on-line here.
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 employees or officials named in the lawsuit. Also, Judge Shipp never ruled that Officer Pacella used excessive force, only that the question of whether or not he did needed to be determined by a jury. All that is known for sure is that Toms River Township or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the Altidors $135,000 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.