ELIZABETH, NJ — A city woman who claims a sheriff’s officer assaulted her at the Union County One Stop Center is suing the sheriff’s office and county government because of that officer's “malicious beating.”
Tatianna Cunningham claims in the federal lawsuit filed June 11 that Sheriff’s Officer Sandro Reyes used excessive force in the October 2017 incident at the One Stop Center in Elizabeth and in an attempt to justify the beating, the sheriff’s office lodged false charges against Cunningham — allegations attorneys for the county denied in an answer filed with the court Friday.
“This lawsuit arises out of an assault, malicious beating and excessive force perpetrated by Reyes as to the plaintiff, Cunningham,” the complaint filed in the lawsuit says. “Cunningham was injured from the assault perpetrated by Reyes.”
According to the lawsuit, Reyes threw Cunningham to the ground, hit her and pepper-sprayed her in the face. In their answer filed with the court, attorneys for the county deny nearly all of Cunningham’s claims saying Reyes then believed Cunningham's actions to be criminal.
“The acts of county defendants were at all times performed and executed in good faith, without malice or evil intent and upon probable cause to believe that plaintiff was engaged in unlawful conduct,” the answer states.
According to the complaint, Reyes screened Cunningham, then 21, with a metal-detecting wand several times as she was entering the One Stop Center building, then followed her onto an elevator when she walked in, believing she had been cleared to enter the building where she was at work with a career development program for students. She was then a student at Union County College.
“Although Cunningham was headed to work and had no weapons or metals on her person, Reyes came onto the elevator and forced Cunningham off the elevator,” her attorney, Nathaniel Davis of Maplewood, writes in the complaint. “After Cunningham exited the elevator, Reyes approached Cunningham from behind and threw her down to the ground even though she posed no threat and did not attack Reyes.”
Cunningham claims that law enforcement also conspired to prosecute her on charges of trespassing and obstruction, knowing she was innocent of those charges.
“The procurement of prosecution against Cunningham for the known-to-be false allegations in regard to the criminal accusations were malicious, shocking and objectively unreasonable in the light of the circumstances,” her complaint says. “Those criminal proceedings terminated in Cunningham’s favor. The court found the plaintiff not guilty.”
On Thursday, the Union County Freeholders appointed the law firm Renaud & Deappolonio LLC of Cranford to represent Reyes, the county and the sheriff’s office in the litigation. The board approved $20,000 for the purpose. The litigation was not discussed at the public meeting during which the freeholders approved the funding by a unanimous vote.
Union County spokesman Sebastian D’Elia declined to comment, citing a policy of not commenting on pending litigation. Efforts to reach Cunningham's attorney on Friday were not successful.
Cunningham had gone public with her story one month after the incident, during which time Elizabeth community activist Salaam Ismial led a rally outside of the county building for justice following the incident, NJ Advance Media then reported.
Cunningham, who then provided a photograph of her injury to NJ Advance Media, was a student at Union County College in Cranford, according to the NJ.com report. The incident was captured on videotape but that recording had not been made available to the public, the report said.