WESTFIELD, NJ – The town of Westfield agreed to pay a Westfield couple, their adult son and his friend a total of $1.155 million when their federal civil rights false arrest case stemming from an incident in 2009 was settled last week, a month before a trial planned for Dec.15.
Under the settlement, Kimberly Sorrentino and Lawrence Rolnick will receive $1 million, while their son Austin will receive $100,000, according to the couple’s attorney, Donald DiGioia of Weiseman DiGioia in Mountainside. Austin Rolnick’s friend Ramon Martinez is set to receive $55,000.
Westfield Town Administrator Jim Gildea was contacted by TAP into Westfield and has not yet commented on behalf of the town.
Sorrentino and Rolnick filed suit against the town of Westfield, the Westfield Police Department and numerous officers in which they charged the defendants with “unreasonable, unconstitutional and unlawful physical assaults” upon them, their son and his friend during a holiday party held at their home on Dec. 23, 2009, according to an amended complaint provided by DiGioia.
According to DiGioia, Sorrentino and Rolnick’s adult daughter hosted a holiday party at the family home on Boulevard and rented a bus to transport guests from Manhattan to the gathering.
As guests were disembarking the bus around 2 a.m., a neighbor driving past stopped to ask partygoers to keep noise levels down, and upon returning home called in a complaint to the county, DiGioia said.
Subsequently, the police department sent three officers to the home at 545 Boulevard to investigate, he said, and when the police arrived, they exchanged words with Austin Rolnick, who was on the lawn of the property. The exchange escalated into an argument.
“There’s nothing illegal about having words with the police,” said DiGioia.
The argument awoke Sorrentino in her upstairs bedroom, and she came downstairs to check on her son, according to DiGioia. Austin and Sorrentino entered their home and were standing in the foyer when, according to Sorrentino, the officers began pounding on her front door, DiGioia said. She partially opened the door and the officers “push through the door, knock her down,” DiGioia said.
“My position was that it was illegal and unconstitutional to go into that house without a warrant,” he said.
Next, the police took Austin Rolnick out into the street and arrested him, according to DiGioia.
“The police say both of these people resisted them,” he added, referring to Austin and Ramon Martinez. “But throughout this whole thing, no neighbor ever said that Austin was being disorderly.”
DiGioia noted that during the incident, the officers failed to activate their sound or video equipment.
While Austin Rolnick and Ramon Martinez were taken to the police station, an ambulance arrived to take Sorrentino to Overlook Hospital for injuries sustained when the officers entered her home according to DiGioia. Meanwhile, Lawrence Rolnick drove downtown to the police station.
Rolnick waited a couple of hours to see his son, who he was told was being processed, according to DiGioia. Around 4:30 a.m., he left to visit his wife in the hospital and returned at 6:20 a.m. to check on his son, according to DiGioia.
By that time, a new watch commander, a lieutenant, had come on duty according to DiGioia. DiGioia said that this watch commander “comes roaring out” into the corridor and “put his finger in Lawrence’s chest and arrests him” for disorderly conduct.
Under the law, police officers cannot make an arrest for disorderly conduct unless they have witnessed the behavior in person, DiGioia said. During the deposition, the lieutenant who approached Rolnick claimed that he did not make the arrest, but video footage of the police department corridor showed something different.
“Ultimately, we get the video opened, and it corroborates exactly what I told you,” DiGioia said.
Criminal charges in this case were heard in Clark municipal court in February of 2011.
The municipal court ruled in DiGioia’s favor, throwing out the criminal charges. The prosecutor moved to dismiss charges against Lawrence Rolnick. The judge let stand the charges against Austin Rolnick and Martinez, but the state later agreed to amend the charge from disorderly conduct to a township ordinance violation, DiGioia said.
Austin Rolnick and Ramon Martinez were represented by Vincent J. LaPaglia of Hoboken.
Lawrence Rolnick eventually filed an Internal Affairs complaint with the Westfield police department. The captain of Internal Affairs later concluded the police committed no wrongdoing.
DiGioia said that Sorrentino and Rolnick, both attorneys themselves, have suffered “a lot of grief and hardship” in the aftermath of this incident.
“My clients were courageous enough to be willing to go to trial,” he said. “They wanted to make sure that the world knew that they did not break the law.”