On October 20, 2023, the Township of Evesham (Burlington County, NJ) quietly agreed to pay $300,000 to a now-retired police officer who claimed that he was “papered up” with disciplinary charges in retaliation for complaining about an unauthorized lookup being run on his girlfriend’s license plate.
In his 2020 lawsuit, David Petersen said that he began working for the Evesham Police Department around 2005 and had a commendable record until 2017. He also served as the Union Vice President between 2008-2009. On April 6, 2019, while Petersen was ill, his girlfriend, now wife, Jessica Lettieri, who previously worked at the Evesham Police Department but then transferred to a position at the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office, was at his home taking care of him. That day, Lieutenant Siitonen, an officer from the Evesham Police Department, visited Petersen’s home for a “sick visit,” during which his body camera was on.
Around May 14, 2019, during a conversation with Lieutenant Siitonen and Lieutenant Bruce Higbee, Higbee allegedly asked him, “when are you going to tell me about your 28-year-old girlfriend that works at the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office that used to work here?” Petersen said that this comment caused him to look at Siitonen because he had not previously disclosed his relationship with Lettieri. Siitonen “shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘He [presumably Higbee] has a thing with license plates,” according to the lawsuit. This, according to Petersen, raised suspicions that information about Petersen’s relationship with Lettieri came about through an improper lookup of the plate that was on Lettieri’s 2012 black Jeep Liberty.
Petersen alleged that soon thereafter, rumors circulated about his relationship, suggesting he was having an affair with Lettieri and getting a divorce because of her. One false rumor was that Lettieri had answered Siitonen’s visit on April 6 in a towel.
Petersen said he approached the Department’s Internal Affairs to inquire about the potential illegal run of Lettieri’s license plate, but initially faced resistance. Eventually, an investigation confirmed the tag had been run, according to the lawsuit. Following this, Petersen said he faced backlash and disciplinary actions, with his relationship with Lettieri being used against him, especially since Chief Chew of the Evesham Police Department was not fond of Lettieri for having left the department.
By mid-May 2019, Petersen said he became aware of group chats discussing his relationship. He was also informed about other officers allegedly discussing his personal life. Petersen said he faced multiple internal affairs charges and complaints over the next months. He said he was informed of plots against him, including plans to ensure his termination. Petersen alleged facing a series of investigations, one of which led to a three-day suspension. During this period, Petersen said that “he was being charged with thirty (30) additional charges but they were willing to drop them” provided that Petersen and Lettieri were willing to “move on” and see the value in all members of law enforcement needing to stick together.
In October 2019, Captain Reinholt reportedly told Petersen about another investigation, assuring him it was independent and not an internal affair. However, by December 2019, Petersen said he was slapped with numerous charges, ranging from code of ethics violations to spreading gossip.
Petersen believes that had he not raised concerns about the illegal run of Lettieri’s license plate, he wouldn’t have faced discipline.
The settlement agreement, which is intended to be a “global settlement,” also resolves three lawsuits challenging disciplinary sanctions imposed on Petersen as well as several disciplinary matters that were then pending. The agreement also notes that Lettieri’s lawsuit against the Township was previously dismissed and Lettieri, who signed off on the agreement, agreed to waive any rights she may have to appeal that dismissal. Finally, the settlement agreement notes that Petersen applied for retirement with an effective date of October 1, 2021, and that Petersen shall retire in good standing.
Of the $300,000, $15,000 was awarded to Petersen as wages, $148,101.56 as damages with the remaining $136,898.44 going to Petersen’s lawyer.
The case is captioned Petersen v. Evesham, Docket No. BUR-L-346-20, and Petersen was represented by Gregg L. Zeff of Mount Laurel. The civil lawsuit and settlement order are in a combined PDF file on-line here.
The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, under which the plaintiff agreed that the settlement and its terms and amounts be kept confidential. Fortunately, however, 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 Petersen’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $300,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Evesham or any of its employees and officials. All that is known for sure is that Evesham or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Petersen $300,000 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.