At its April 11, 2023 meeting, the Elizabeth City Council (Union County, NJ) resolved to pay $99,500 to settle a false arrest lawsuit filed by a Linden man who claimed that police failed to recognize that he was in diabetic shock and arrested him as a drunk driver instead of calling for emergency medical treatment.
In his lawsuit, Carlos Gonzalez claimed that on or about October 16, 2016, while he was driving his 1988 Toyota pickup in the City of Elizabeth, he experienced a medical emergency related to his insulin-dependent diabetes, resulting in severe hypoglycemia and loss of consciousness.
Elizabeth police officer Jorge Hidalgo approached Gonzalez’s vehicle and observed him slumped over in the driver’s seat. Hidalgo inquired about Gonzalez’s well-being and potential alcohol consumption but received only a mumbled response due to Gonzalez’s medical condition. Another officer, Vincent Flatley, arrived to provide assistance as requested by Hidalgo.
Instead of contacting emergency medical services, Hidalgo reportedly suspected that Gonzalez was driving while intoxicated and, according to Gonzalez, “falsely and maliciously claimed” that he detected a strong alcohol odor emanating from Gonzalez’s mouth and observed bloodshot eyes.
Hidalgo, assisted by an unnamed plainclothes officer, forcefully removed Gonzalez from the vehicle, placed him in handcuffs, conducted an unauthorized search of his person, and “violently shoved” him into the back of a police cruiser, according to the lawsuit. Neither officer reportedly inquired about Gonzalez’s need for medical assistance.
Hidalgo then transported Gonzalez to the Elizabeth police headquarters for processing and an Alcotest. During the approximately 20-minute observation period, Hidalgo did not call for medical help even though, Gonzalez claimed, he “was clearly and definitively in need of medical assistance.” Gonzalez claimed that he police were aware of his medical condition said that he repeatedly told the officers “that he did not drink and was not drunk.”
While at headquarters, Officer Grisel Arias allegedly compelled Gonzalez to undergo a breath test four times within a five-minute interval. Two of these attempts resulted in an error message indicating insufficient breath samples because Gonzalez’s medical condition made it difficult for him to blow into the machine, according to the suit. According to Gonzalez, the recorded results showed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.00%. Despite these results, Gonzalez said that he was charged with driving under the influence and that the Elizabeth Police Department filed a false police report to conceal the unjustified nature of the arrest.
Paramedics eventually arrived who discovered that Gonzalez had dangerously low blood sugar levels and transported him to Trinitas Hospital, according to the lawsuit.
Gonzalez asserts that his arrest lacked probable cause and was motived by profiling practices within the Elizabeth Police Department that targeted people based on race, ethnicity, or other unlawful factors.
In his April 13, 2021 opinion, United States District Judge John Michael Vazquez wrote that “it seems obvious [that officers need] training on how to distinguish between an intoxicated person and a person in medical distress.”
The case is captioned Carlos Gonzalez v. Elizabeth Police Department,Federal Case No. 2:18-cv-03765 and Gonzalez’s attorney was originally Joshua F. McMahon of Westfield and then, in May 2022, changed to Thomas S. Mirigliano of New York. The lawsuit and City Council resolution are on-line here.
None of Gonzalez’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 Elizabeth officers. All that is known for sure is that Elizabeth or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Gonzalez $99,500 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision to settle 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 settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.