NJ city pays $850K to exonerated man who accused cop of lying at trial
PERTH AMBOY — A Middlesex County man received $850,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit that claimed that a city police officer who arrested him lied under oath about him having a knife.
Edwin Rodriguez was arrested Sept. 5, 2013, by a cop who body slammed him after asking for Rodriguez’s identification.
Officer Davis Salazar charged Rodriguez with several offenses, including resisting arrest and possessing a knife, which the cop said he was holding in his hand.
Rodriguez denied having any knife and said video of the incident could prove it.
But Municipal Court Judge Edward Herman — apparently worried about the city losing a lawsuit — did not allow the video evidence to be played at trial.
New Jersey 101.5 obtained a copy of the video that Rodriguez recorded during his arrest, as well as a copy of a video taken by a neighbor of Rodriguez.
Rodriguez’s attorney, arguing that the judge was biased against his client, won an appeal of the guilty verdict issued by Herman in 2014. After a retrial a month later, Rodriguez was found not guilty of all charges by another Superior Court judge.
Salazar had responded to State Street and Dillon Lane to investigate a report of mini motorcycles on road.
Salazar found Rodriguez outside and demanded his identification. Rodriguez declined and walked to his home.
When Salazar followed behind, Rodriguez told the cop to wait outside so he could obtain his papers. Rodriguez tried closing his front door in the meantime, but Salazar kept his foot in the way to prevent the door from closing.
Rodriguez began to record events with his cell phone in his hand. Rodriguez’s downstairs neighbor also was recording.
After asking the cop several times to remove his foot, Rodriguez turned to walk up the stairs to his apartment. Salazar quickly entered the home, grabbed Rodriguez by his right wrist and "ferociously took him down on the ground, pinning him to the floor," according to court records filed by Rodriguez’s attorney. Rodriguez said he hurt his right wrist, arm and shoulder.
Salazar later claimed that Rodriguez had "a large kitchen knife cupped in his left hand against his forearm."
In the lawsuit, Rodriguez’s attorney — Brian Schiller, of the Scotch Plains firm Schiller & Pittenger — accuses the cop of fabricating this important detail, saying Salazar "remarkably" discovered the knife all of a sudden even though he never lost sight of Rodriguez during the entire episode, and that the knife "miraculously appeared" in his left hand "within seconds after Rodriguez is seen (on the video) closing the front door with his left hand (while recording with the other)."
Rodriguez’s attorney argued that Salazar illegally entered Rodriguez’s home and illegally arrested him. Then, to cover up his wrongdoing, Salazar trumped up the charge about the knife.
"Salazar's testimony was inaccurate and not credible,” Rodriguez’s attorney said in criminal case documents obtained by New Jersey 101.5. “He fabricated a police report written sixteen days after the alleged offenses took place.”
In his winning appeal, Rodriguez’s attorney complained that Judge Herman and the police department dragged their feet on the case for eight months by allowing the cop to miss trial dates.
Rodriguez also accused the judge of being biased by improperly denying the defense the opportunity to play the video at trial.
Herman said he decided to keep out the video because he didn’t “know who made this video.” The defense, however, pointed out that the cop testified that Rodriguez had a phone in his hand and was presumably recording.
Herman also declined to dismiss the charges against Rodriguez after the cop failed to appear for trial more than once because, he said, he "was not going to leave the city of Perth Amboy vulnerable to the defendant's civil suit."
The city settled the lawsuit in April, but admitted no wrongdoing.
Terms of the agreement include that both sides keep the settlement confidential and decline to discuss the settlement publicly.
The agreement, nevertheless, is a public record and a copy of it was obtained by open-government activist John Paff, a Somerset County resident, who shared it with New Jersey 101.5.
Read the lawsuit and settlement:
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.