A jury awarded a man a half-million dollars this week after finding that Atlantic City police Officer Sterling Wheaten used excessive force in a 2008 arrest and that the city did not properly train him.
Wheaten faces additional civil lawsuits, including one stemming from a K-9 apprehension caught on video this summer.
Four other officers named in the federal suit did nothing wrong, the eight-person jury found Wednesday in federal court in Camden.
Michael Troso was a deputy state attorney general when he was arrested at the Trump Marina Restaurant on Aug. 19, 2008. Troso charged that he was beaten by the officers and falsely arrested the night of his bachelor party.
As a result of the charges, Troso lost his job and had a shadow cast over his wedding, attorney William Buckman said.
Wheaten must pay half of the award, or $250,000 in compensatory damages. The jury found he did not owe punitive damages, which are assessed to punish a defendant.
The city is responsible for the other half.
“Officer Wheaten was certainly the leader when it came to the vicious attack that was practiced on (Troso),” Buckman said.
Tracy Riley, who represented the officers and the city, said she will file a motion to set aside the verdict against the city, claiming Troso did not meet the burden of proof since the other officers were cleared.
Officers Joshua Vadell, Syed Shah, T.J. Moynihan and Joseph Kelly have counterclaims for frivolous litigation.
“I think the verdict in this case clearly exonerated four of the officers,” Riley said. “We’ll be seeking to pursue our counterclaim at this point.”
An appeal on several issues will be filed, she said.
The jury found that Wheaten falsely arrested, falsely imprisoned and used excessive force on Troso. But they found the officer was not guilty of conspiracy on those three charges, since the other officers were cleared.
A separate suit pending against Wheaten in federal court will include opening up the full Internal Affairs reports against him and another officer accused of excessive force in an incident at Caesars Dusk nightclub in 2010. That suit revealed Wheaten had 26 complaints filed against him from Sept. 19, 2008, to April 26, 2012. One was marked “administratively closed,” while he was cleared of the rest.
That does not include a videotaped apprehension Wheaten made of Connor Castellani this summer shortly after joining the K-9 Unit. A lawsuit by the family alleges the dog was put on Castellani after he was already under control by several officers and that Wheaten also punched the man. No outcome of an Internal Affairs investigation into that case has been released.
Riley said Wednesday’s jury verdict was interesting in that no punitive damages were awarded.
“Punitive has a punishment to it,” Riley said.
Buckman said he didn’t feel strongly either way about the punitive part.
“I’m pleased that the jury at least saw the core of the incident for what it was,” he said, “that Sterling Wheaten acted in an extremely violent and inappropriate way on that occasion and that the city is indifferent to how dangerous people like Wheaten are.”
At his swearing in this week, new Atlantic City police Chief Henry White addressed excessive-force allegations and talked of plans to make both Internal Affairs investigations and police work more open to the public. Plans include putting body cameras on officers, capping the time it takes to do Internal Affairs investigations and creating a new policy for using K-9 dogs.
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