WESTFIELD, NJ — (Updated on Aug. 20) Attorneys are anticipated to exchange settlement positions this month in a lawsuit claiming that three Westfield police officers forced their way into a Mountainside woman’s home, humiliated her and wrongly arrested her in an incident the department has failed to properly investigate.
Stephanie Branna claims in the federal lawsuit that Officers David Went, Nicholas Bagan and Lt. Frank Padovano “responded” to her home in Mountainside on a report of an alleged “assault” stemming from an argument between Branna and her ex-boyfriend, Joseph Pardo of Cranford, who started the fight there on the evening of July 23, 2018.
“Our client was treated with rank unfairness by the police department and dismissiveness by the police department, which was not even operating in its own jurisdiction,” said Branna’s attorney Dean Bennett in a phone interview. “These were the Westfield police coming to her home in Mountainside, NJ. The fact that they would go out of their way to arrest someone as they did outside of their jurisdiction does not speak well of the police department.”
The complaint filed in the April 2019 lawsuit alleges that police came to Branna’s home around 9 p.m. and found her “unarmed, dressed in a bathrobe and brushing her teeth.” According to the complaint, police arrived an hour-and-half after the fight with Pardo, who is “well known to various members of the Westfield Police Department by virtue of his ownership of Westfield Collision Center,” which sponsors the Westfield Police PBA Local 90.
“Admittedly aware that plaintiff did not wish to speak to them, the officers nonetheless forcibly prevented the plaintiff from closing her door, entered her home without warrant, arrested and handcuffed her,” the lawsuit says. “Plaintiff was then transported to a holding cell ... and then to the Union County Jail; in all, she was confined for two nights.”
A spokeswoman for the Town of Westfield declined to comment. “The town does not comment on pending litigation,” said the spokeswoman, Kim Forde, in an email. Court records show the town has denied at least 27 of the allegations in the lawsuit, including the claims that the officers were acting outside their jurisdiction and forced entry into Branna’s home.
“Defendants are not liable to claimant since at the time of the acts complained of, they were acting in good faith,” attorney Richard Guss writes in a response to the complaint. “Defendants’ actions/conduct did not violate plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.”
The lawsuit claims Branna had been getting ready for bed, and the officers watched her change from a bathrobe into her clothing.
“Plaintiff was wearing nothing underneath her bathrobe and was afforded no privacy when she went to change into appropriate clothing,” the suit states. “In fact, the male officers continued to observe plaintiff while she changed, causing her great humiliation.”
Branna is the owner of an insurance agency in Mountainside and serves on the board of directors of the Great Westfield Area Chamber of Commerce.
When she filed an internal affairs complaint against the officers, the lawsuit claims, police in their reports painted Branna in a negative light, “in an obvious effort to rationalize their behavior.”
“The Westfield Police Department has engaged, and indeed continues to engage in a continuing and deliberate effort to stonewall any investigation into the plaintiff’s complaints of their misconduct,” the suit claims.
Last week, the town denied TAPinto Westfield's Open Public Records Act request for police investigation, arrest and computer aided dispatch reports of the incident on the basis that such records “shall be confidential” under New Jersey's Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 1991.
According to the lawsuit, police turned over the investigation to Capt. John Ricerca, who is a friend of Pardo, something Branna's attorney objected to.
“On Nov. 14, 2018 counsel advised the Westfield Internal Affairs Bureau that plaintiff objected to the assignment of Capt. Ricerca in view of his obvious conflict of interest in the matter,” the lawsuit states.
On April 4, 2019, Branna “received a terse letter from Capt. Ricerca ‘exonerating’ his officers. The letter contained no explanation of findings and, significantly, was not even copied to counsel,” the lawsuit says.
“The investigation has, to date, been hindered by the dubious claim of Lt. [Jason] Carter that he is ‘not comfortable’ investigating a member of similar rank and by the bold attempt to transfer the investigation to Pardo’s friend,” the lawsuit says.
The incident at Branna’s home occurred seven days before officials announced the abrupt retirement of then Chief David Wayman and the appointment of Capt. Christopher Battiloro to the then role of acting chief.
While neither chief is named in the complaint, Bennett said, his client reserves the right to add additional defendants to the case. A court order shows that discovery in the case is due by Aug. 31, and the judge has set a telephone status conference for Aug. 27.
“It was a classic case of where the police took the word of the guy over the gal,” Bennett said. “They didn’t take her complaints seriously.”
Email Matt Kadosh at email@example.com | Twitter: @MattKadosh
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