The Camden City Council agreed Tuesday to pay $3.5 million to settle claims by 88 criminal defendants that they were wrongly charged or convicted due to police misconduct.
Criminal charges were brought in 2010 against five Camden police officers, members of a special patrol unit, who were accused of stealing money and drugs during illegal searches and conspiring to deprive people of their due process rights by planting drugs and threatening arrest based on the planted drugs if they did not cooperate.
Three officers pleaded guilty, a fourth was convicted by a jury and a fifth was acquitted.
The plaintiffs in In re Camden Police Cases, 11-cv-1315, were among about 200 people whose charges were dismissed or vacated administratively by the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office in 2010 once the allegations came to light.
The 88 plaintiffs served a combined 109 years in jail before the charges were dropped, says Alexander Shalom, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which handled one of the cases.
The litigation was not brought as a class action, but lawyers for the plaintiffs worked closely together, as U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Schneider emphasized that 88 trials would be costly and time-consuming, says Shalom.
Under the settlement, $350,000 will go toward joint legal fees and expenses for costs such as depositions that benefited the entire group. The remainder will be shared by the plaintiffs under undisclosed terms.
Shalom says the plaintiffs will receive a base rate as compensation for their arrest and varying additional amounts based on the number of days incarcerated, which ranges from one day to more than three years.
Fees for the 24 plaintiff lawyers will come from a share of each client’s proceeds.
Ninety-three suits were filed against the city over the officers’ actions. One plaintiff decided not to take the settlement and will go to trial against the city; four other suits were time-barred.
Shalom’s client, Joel Barnes, was visiting a friend on Aug. 2, 2008, when police raided the home in search of drugs. An officer handcuffed Barnes and emptied his pockets, finding no drugs. Asked where the drugs were, Barnes answered that he did not know, Shalom says.
The officer then produced a bag containing drugs and said, “Tell us where the shit’s at and we’ll make this disappear,” Shalom says.
When Barnes insisted he did not know whether drugs were in the house, he was charged with possession, possession with intent to distribute and possession in a school zone.
Fearing a longer jail term if convicted at trial, Barnes pleaded guilty to the school-zone offense, a crime he did not commit, says Shalom. In February 2010, after obtaining representation from the ACLU, Barnes’ sentence was vacated. He spent 418 days in prison.
Shalom says the case illustrates that the internal affairs function in the Camden Police Department was dysfunctional.
“Unfortunately, the systems that are designed to prevent corruption and protect the public eroded and allowed rogue officers to operate unabated for years,” he says.
John Eastlack Jr. of Weir and Partners in Cherry Hill, who represented the city, did not return a call.
The case has spawned related litigation.
Last May, the ACLU received an anonymously mailed disc containing files related to Camden police internal affairs cases.
The city sought a protective order in June to forbid Shalom from using or possessing the disc.
Camden maintained that the documents were confidential and that their disclosure would threaten the integrity of the internal affairs process, deter people from giving information for fear of exposure and violate attorney general guidelines.
The ACLU argued in opposition that protective orders don’t apply to information obtained outside the discovery process, that Camden should have disclosed many of the files on the disc but didn’t and that it failed to show the specific harm needed for a protective order.
Schenider denied the city’s motion for the protective order on Dec. 17.
Charles Toutant is a reporter for the New Jersey Law Journal, a Legal affiliate.