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PERTH AMBOY, NJ–Video of city police officer Davis Salazar slamming resident Edwin Rodriguez to the ground in his home on State Street shed new light on the Perth Amboy Police Department's recent decision to grant Rodriguez an $850,000 settlement in a subsequent civil suit.
The footage, obtained by New Brunswick Today, begins with Salazar standing in the doorway of Rodriguez's residence in Perth Amboy on Sept. 5, 2013, ordering Rodriguez to produce identification.
Rodriguez, who is filming the interaction, at first appears prepared to comply, but requests Salazar close the door while he retrieves his ID from upstairs.
"Could you, please … can I close my door please?" Rodriguez asked.
"No," Salazar replied. "I'm waiting for you to go and get your ID."
"Alright, well can you step out of my property?" Rodriguez asked. "I'm going to go upstairs. You've got to wait; other people live here." Salazar again refuses.
The exchange continues for a few moments, until Rodriguez eventually turns around and says, "I ain't getting nothing," and takes a few steps up the stairs.
Salazar then slams Rodriguez to the ground and can be seen on top of him, holding him down, as the video ends.
A second video, recorded on a cell phone, shows another perspective from inside the household.
The footage shows several officers in the entryway of the home, as Salazar continues to hold Rodriguez down and attempts to cuff him. Officers Marino Diaz and Luis Perez were among those who arrived on the scene shortly after Rodriguez was taken to the ground, Salazar would later testify. Diaz can be seen in the second video helping Salazar to hold Rodriguez down.
Rodriguez can be heard shouting, "I'm not doing nothing, bro!"
An officer then yells, "Put your hands behind your back," though it's unclear if it's Salazar or another officer.
"My arm is broken!" Rodriguez shouts several times. It was later determined that Rodriguez sustained a broken clavicle during the arrest, according to court documents.
According to Salazar's court testimony, he also sprayed Rodriguez in the face with oleoresin capsicum pepper spray during the arrest and then dragged him out onto the porch by his ankles. Rodriguez was charged with disorderly conduct, unlawful posession of a weapon, obstruction, and resisting arrest.
The $850,000 settlement, first reported on May 2, 2016 by John Paff of NJ Civil Settlements, was awarded to Rodriguez after he filed a lawsuit claiming he was the victim of excessive force and a violation of his Constitutional rights that night.
The civil suit also alleged that Salazar repeatedly offered false testimony against him during the ensuing trial, which led to his conviction on the two disorderly conduct charges, one for shouting and the other for possession of a knife, which Rodriguez and his attorney contend was a false claim made by Salazar.
“The insurance company ordered the settlement, as there was no trial for Mr. Rodriguez’s allegations," said Perth Amboy's Director of Law Arlene Quinones Perez, who is also a partner at the DeCotiis, FitzPatrick, and Cole law firm."The City of Perth Amboy has paid the required deductible of $100,000, and the remaining settlement amount of $750,000 will be paid by the City’s insurance provider."
JUDGE HERMAN WOULD NOT ALLOW VIDEOS IN ORIGINAL TRIAL
During the criminal proceedings against Rodriguez, Salazar said he was dispatched by Central Dispatch to the area of Rodriguez's home on Sept. 5, 2013 around 7:39 p.m, ostensibly because "motorcycles were racing up and down the street and someone with a remote control car [was] going in and out of traffic."
Brain Schiller, Rodriguez's defense attorney, objected to Salazar's testimony, citing the dispatcher's report that he said only referenced mini-motorcycles in the street and not the remote control car.
Salazar replied that he was told by a witness upon arriving at the scene that Rodriguez was using the remote control car in the street, and that he observed Rodriguez picking it up as he approached his residence.
Salazar testified that he approached Rodriguez while he was standing on the sidewalk and that Rodriguez "refused to identify himself" and was "acting a little squirrelly."
Salazar said he continuously asked Rodriguez for his ID, which Rodriguez claimed was inside, as the two headed to the porch of Rodriguez's State Street residence, where the video footage begins.
"I followed him up to his doorway, at which point he tried to close the door in my face," Salazar said in a recording of the May 29, 2014 trial in Perth Amboy before Judge Edward Herman. Salazar added that he put his foot in the doorway to prevent Rodriguez from closing it all the way.
"He said something to the effect of 'I'm not giving you shit,' turned away, started walking up the stairs … attempted to walk up the stairs."
Salazar claimed in his testimony that as Rodriguez walked up the stairs, he observed a knife cupped in Rodriguez's left hand, the blade facing up and concealed against his forearm.
At that point, he said, he placed Rodriguez under arrest, immobilized his right hand, and "yanked him to the ground." The prosecution then entered a kitchen knife into evidence, which Salazar said he perceived as a threat to his safety.
Schiller then attempted to cross-examine Salazar with the two videos recorded the night of the incident, which he purported would demonstrate Rodriguez did not have the knife in his hand at the time.
However, Herman said that he would not allow the videos if they were not independently authenticated prior to the cross-examination.
"The state has a right, if it cares to do so, to find out who made this video and when it was made – if it was made contemporaneously with the events," Herman said in the recording of the trial. "I'm not going to allow you to use the video. I'll note your objection and you can file your appeal later if you want."
After significant back and forth, Herman ordered the courtroom cleared, including Rodriguez and Salazar, so that he could view the videos.
Schiller played the footage taken by Rodriguez at his front door first, then the footage taken from the other perspective. Herman, who was not aware there were two videos, repeated that he wasn't going to allow them for use in the cross-examination.
Schiller protested, stating that the videos were "the basis of our case" and that he only needed to demonstrate the recordings were an accuracte depiction of the incident. He said he could do so if he was allowed to question Salazar about the footage.
"I need to ask [Salazar] questions about the videos because his testimony is untruthful today, your Honor, and there are portions of this video that clearly show that," Schiller said in the recording. "There is clear untruthfulness."
Herman would eventually allow the first video into evidence after a discussion in his chambers, but Schiller was still not permitted to cross-examine Salazar with it.
After the trial in Perth Amboy, Rodriguez would be found guilty of disorderly conduct for yelling and disorderly conduct for possessing a knife.
CASE OVERTURNED AND JUDGE FERENCZ FINDS RODRIGUEZ "NOT GUILTY"
Unsatisfied with the proceedings before Herman, Schiller promptly filed an appeal in Superior Court.
"Judge Herman seemed to be biased to Perth Amboy and Officer Salazar," he said. "I specifically remember when Judge Hermann wouldn't let me cross-examine with the video and there was absolutely no reason."
However, before the appeal could be considered, Rodriguez was arrested on a parole warrant due to the guilty verdicts in the municipal trial. The weapons charge was a violation of his parole from an unrelated conviction years prior.
According to Schiller, Rodriguez was taken to state prison as a result, where he remained for 70 days. Rodriguez also lost his job at Old Bridge Chemicals and forfeited his unemployment insurance because of the parole violation.
Middlesex County Judge Diane Pincus accepted the defense's appeal on October 14, 2014.
Pincus vacated the guilty verdicts on both counts of disorderly conduct against Rodriguez and, rather than remanding the case back to Perth Amboy's municipal court, kept it in Superior Court.
One month later, the case would be argued before the now-retired Bradley Ferencz, who was presiding judge over the Middlesex County Vicinage of the Superior Court at the time.
This time, Schiller said, he was granted a pre-trial motion to utilize the videos in the cross examination. He headed into the trial confident he could create a reasonable doubt as to whether Rodriguez actually had a knife on him.
But it wouldn't even come to that, according to court transcripts.
In the end, Ferencz found Rodriguez not guilty on all counts and lambasted Salazar's testimony.
Salazar should never have been in the doorway in the first place, he said, and that even if Rodriguez did have the knife — "the Court has grievous doubt as to whether or not there was a knife," Ferencz said — there was no indication it would be used as a weapon.
"Quite frankly, [Salazar] was hesitant in his answers, disingenuous often," Ferencz said, according to court documents. "And, State, as much as it grieves me to say this, his recollection of the events are pitiful."
"[The defendant] was walking away upstairs to get his ID, uncontroverted," Ferencz continued. "When he was thrown down, he's thrown down on the ground and sprayed [with pepper spray.] If he had retrieved the ID and handed it to the officer, this would not have occurred, based upon the officer's testimony."
CIVIL SUIT LEADS TO $850,000 SETTLEMENT FOR RODRIGUEZ
Schiller then amended a civil complaint he had filed in February 2014 on behalf of Rodriguez to include a charge of malicious prosecution.
The complaint, which named the Perth Amboy Police Department, Salazar, and officers Marino Diaz and Luis Perez, also included charges of excessive force and claimed that police acted without probable cause the night they entered Rodriguez's home.
Though exonerated, Rodriguez was now out of work and without unemployment benefits.
Schiller told New Brunswick Today that his client had also been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder both by state personnel and an independent medical practitioner. As the civil suit lurched forward, Rodriguez's livelihood hung in the balance.
Months later, after the depositions of Salazar, Diaz, and Perez were taken, the City of Perth Amboy decided to settle the civil suit for $850,000 on April 29.
The settlement was contingent upon a confidentiality agreement, according to court documents.
Officer Salazar has been a member of the Perth Amboy police force since August 25, 2011 and currently receives a $73,404 annual salary, according to city records. The police department did not immediately respond to a request for comment and an inquiry into Salazar's current status on the police force.
Just one month after the settlement, the police department would suffer further fallout when suspended police chief Benjamin Ruiz was arrested for allegedly trespassing and impersonating a police officer. The City of Perth Amboy officially terminated the embattled former chief's employment on June 7.
After Ruiz was fired, Business Administrator Adam E. Cruz offered the following statement:
"After much deliberation, the Administration has decided to terminate Benjamin Ruiz as the Chief of Police of the Perth Amboy Police Department in accordance to the NJ Civil Servie Commission rules and regulations, effective June 7, 2016," Cruz said. "In order to protect the integrity of the police department, we will need to move forward.
"It is important to know that the Perth Amboy Police Department has always operated in the utmost professionalism and conduct, and will continue to serve the residents of the City of Perth Amboy," he added.
Schiller attributes Rodriguez's exoneration to the videos and Salazar's changing testimony. He also counts his client fortunate that Pincus called for a re-trial at the county level before Ferencz instead of remanding it back to Perth Amboy's municipal court.
"Otherwise, he would have been screwed and found guilty," Schiller said.
As a result of the civil settlement, the allegations included in Rodriguez's lawsuit against the officers and the police department were never proven or substantiated in court. The charges of malicious prosecution and excessive force, therefore, were dropped.
UPDATE: This story erroneously included a photo of an officer misidentified as Davis Salazar. It has been updated to rectify that error.