New Jersey Libertarian Party Open Government Advocacy Project: Mount Olive pays $25,000 to settle malicious prosecution suit
On March 8, 2010, the Township of Mount Olive (Morris County) agreed to pay $25,000 to a man who sued members of the Mount Olive Police Department and the Township's mayor and prosecutor for maliciously prosecuting for harshly criticizing the police department for setting up a motor vehicle roadblock.
In his suit, William P. Duncan, Jr. said that on August 4, 2002, his elderly aunt was taken to the hospital by ambulance after falling down some concrete stairs and breaking her hip. Duncan said he drove to the hospital in order to care for his aunt and to supply a blood transfusion if needed.
While driving to the hospital on Route 46 at about 1 p.m., Duncan claimed that he was stopped by a roadblock set up by Mount Olive Police and detained there for about eight minutes while the police looked through car windows for evidence of criminal activity or motor vehicle violations. Duncan said that he felt that the roadblock was unconstitutional and was annoyed that it may have delayed his aunt's trip to the hospital.
In order to express his displeasure at the roadblock, he stopped at a phone booth to call Mount Olive Police. When he found he had no change, Duncan called 911 and "criticized the police for having the roadblock and asked the operator whether they lived in a Nazi state." Duncan admits to having used foul and offensive language.
According to Duncan's lawsuit, the Mount Olive police "immediately traced [Duncan's] call and tracked him down on the way to the hospital." Police allegedly "seized [Duncan] and forced him back to the site of the roadblock to have their supervisor" Michael Pocquat speak with him. There, Pocquat allegedly lectured Duncan for about twenty minutes about how the roadblock was needed to search for terrorists. After the lecture, Pocquat released Duncan and let him continue on his way to the hospital.
According to the lawsuit, Pocquat, during the next several weeks, decided to press criminal charges against Duncan because of his "criticism of the roadblock and his indirect suggestion that the Mount Olive Police Department were 'Nazis.'" Duncan alleged that this decision to press charges was made with the assistance and cooperation of Mayor Richard DeLaRoche, Police Chief Edward Katona, Jr. and Municipal Prosecutor Brian Mason.
Duncan alleged that Pocquat began calling members of Duncan's family to ask where Duncan lived, "even though Mount Olive police had written down [Duncan's] full name and address at the time of the roadblock incident and knew exactly where he lived." Duncan further alleged that at about 10 p.m. on August 27, 2002, Pocquat sent an officer to Duncan's elderly mother's house. He claimed that the officer told her that her house was under surveillance and that Duncan "is in a lot of trouble." He alleged that the visit "served no legitimate purpose but was designed to terrorize [Duncan's] mother.
Duncan claimed that he was issued a summons and complaint at his home at about 10:15 the same night for having "knowingly placed a 911 call knowing no emergency existed and using offensive language to convey his dissatisfaction with Mt. Olive." Duncan alleged that the summons and complaint, which contained his full address, was written prior to the police visit to his mother's house, thus demonstrating that the police "had [Duncan's] home address all along and had no need to be harassing his mother late at night."
Duncan was charged with violating N.J.S.A. 2C:33-3(e) (using 911 for non-emergency purposes). Duncan claimed that he was summoned to the Mount Olive Municipal Court to answer the charge even though it is a crime of the fourth degree which cannot be prosecuted in municipal court.. After apparently learning that the charge could not be prosecuted in municipal court, Mount Olive officials referred the case to the Morris County Prosecutor who declined to prosecute it as a crime. Rather, the County Prosecutor returned the matter to the Mount Olive Municipal Court to be prosecuted as the petty disorderly persons offense of harassment.
Duncan claimed that since his right to criticize the police was protected by the First Amendment, the prosecution was "utterly without probable cause." He also alleged that at his March 29, 2004 trial, Pocquat and two other officers perjured themselves. After having been found guilty by Municipal Court Judge Philip J. Maenza, he was sentenced to pay a $1,000 fine and spend 30 days in jail.
Duncan alleged that he asked Maenza to defer his sentence for a short while because his wife was having cancer surgery leaving him to care for his minor children. Despite this, Duncan claimed, Maenza ordered him to be sent to the Morris County Jail immediately where he stayed until March 31, 2004 when he was able to obtain a stay of sentence.
Duncan alleged that on April 14, 2005, all the charges against him were dismissed by the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court, which found "that the charges against [him] were insufficient as a matter of law."
The case is captioned Duncan v. Pocquat, et al, Federal Case No. 2:07-cv-01570 and Duncan's attorneys were Edward P. Kelly of Spring Lake and Michael G. O’Neill of New York. Case documents are on-line here.
None of Duncan's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $25,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Mount Olive or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Mount Olive or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Duncan $25,000 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 claimed. Or, perhaps the claimed 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.
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