WOODBRIDGE, NJ–The township recently settled a civil lawsuit for $70,000 in which three Elizabeth residents claimed their Constitutional rights were violated and they were threatened with a firearm by a local police officer at the Woodbridge Center Mall in May 2014.
The settlement, which was offered on April 10, grew out of an alleged encounter with Officers Dennis Benigno, now retired, and Andrew Lyszyk, according to a civil suit filed in U.S. District Court.
Also named as defendants in the suit are Woodbridge Center Mall security guards Anthony Vasta and Adilson Viera, as well as Woodbridge Township police officer Randall Aptaker, whom was accused of approving what the women called "false charges."
The allegations in the suit have not been proven in a court of law and the settlement does not imply any guilt on the part of the defendants.
Plaintiffs Shaquita Ayler, Manirah Harris, and Jasmine Gordon claimed they were leaving the mall when they were approached and stopped by the named defendants.
According to the suit, Benigno jumped on the hood of Ayler's car, drew his firearm, and threatened to shoot her.
The suit alleges that the three women were forcibly removed from the car by Benigno, Lyszyk, Vasta, and Viera, as well as several unknown police officers and security guards.
Ayler, Harris, and Gordon allege they were thrown to the ground, thoroughly frisked "on all parts of their body including their breast, between their legs, and on their buttock," and arrested.
Ayler, the driver, was charged with assaulting Benigno with her vehicle, aggravated assault, possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, obstructing the administration of law, and resisting arrest.
She would be held for three days on $100,000 bail, which resulted in the loss of her job with the State of New Jersey. Harris and Gordon were each charged with resisting arrest and obstructing the administration of law. Officer Aptaker, who was also named in the lawsuit, approved what the trio deemed "false charges."
Ayler promptly filed a complaint with the police department's internal affairs division, which informed her no investigation would be held until the conclusion of her trial.
By April 2015, all three cases were dismissed after the police officers failed to appear in court or provide court ordered documentation during the discovery period of the trial.
The three women then filed a lawsuit alleging that their Constitutional rights had been violated; the suit does not cite any ostensible reason for the initial stop and contends that racial and/or gender bias was the motive. All three of the women are black.
"Plaintiffs contend that the actions of the defendant officers and security guards were motivated by nothing more than racial and gender bias, and that as a result they were subjected to violations of their civil rights to include racial and gender discrimination, false arrest, use of excessive force, and assault and battery," the suit reads.
The trio's attorney Cynthia H. Hardaway, reached by New Brunswick Today, declined to comment further on the lawsuit or the settlement, citing the confidentiality agreement.
Ayler claimed at the time her lawsuit was filed that the Woodbridge internal affairs division had not returned any findings related to her complaint.
This reporter was directed by a member of the Woodbridge Township Police Department to Captain Roy Hoppock, who was not immediately available to comment on the initial reason the women were stopped prior to the incident, any internal affairs investigation that might have been conducted, or whether Ayler received any restitution beyond the $70,000 settlement.
John Paff first reported on the settlement on his "NJ Civil Settlements" blog on July 17. As Paff notes, the settlement is subject to a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from speaking publicly on the terms.
"All that is known for sure is that Woodbridge or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Ayler, Harris and Gordon $70,000 than take the matter to trial," Paff wrote.
"Perhaps the defendants' decision 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 resolve before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened."