Atlantic City Police Officer Sterling Wheaten faces allegations of excessive force and civil rights violations for the second time in a month, court documents show.
Wheaten is accused of assaulted Janine Costantino, of Bayonne, as she used a camera phone to record an altercation last summer between relatives and police inside an elevator at Caesars Atlantic City, according to a civil suit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Camden.
The lawsuit claims Wheaten illegally confiscated the phone before passing it to an unidentified third party who "either destroyed or secreted the evidence."
Costantino's attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, also filed last month's excessive force suit involving 20-year-old Linwood resident David Connor Castellani. Castellani was removed from Tropicana Casino and Resort for underage drinking on June 15. A short time later, surveillance video showed Castellani was tackled by police, with Wheaten releasing a police dog on him.
Bonjean said she intends to file at least three more suits against Atlantic City police in the coming weeks. Since the Castellani case garnered national attention, she said, a number of similar incidents have developed showing a department that's "out of control."
"You have no police department to protect you from the police," she said in a phone interview. "What Atlantic City has done now is create a massive civil liability that taxpayers are going to be stuck with."
Willie Glass, the city's public safety director, said the six officers named in the Castellani case, including Wheaten, are still on duty while the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office investigation continues.
"We have complaints from time to time against police officers," he said. "The vast majority of those complaints are found to be without merit and the officers continue to work."
While he's aware of the Costantino case, Glass said, he could not comment on the details. Chief Ernest Jubilee and Mayor Lorenzo Langford did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. Langford previously called on federal and state authorities to oversee the Castellani investigation.
The lawsuit states that on July 20, 2012, 11 months before Castellani's arrest, Costantino and several relatives went to Dusk nightclub in Caesars to celebrate her brother's 21st birthday. According to the suit, Costantino and her sister returned from the bathroom sometime after midnight to find officials physically removing her brother and brother-in-law.
Ten people, including the four clubgoers, police and security guards, "jammed into an elevator" leaving Dusk. Once inside, two security personnel, who aren't identified in the suit, held Costantino's brother-in-law in a headlock and the group engaged in "pushing and shoving" within the confined space.
"As full on chaos developed inside the elevator, (Costantino) began to video the incident with her cell phone," the suit reads. When the elevator doors opened, Wheaten allegedly shoved Costantino out and she fell into a wall. He then allegedly grabbed her brother by the head and tackled him to the ground.
At some point during the altercation, Costantino told the crowd she was recording the incident "in an effort to stop the assault on her brother."
"Give me the phone, you (expletive)," Wheaten said, according to the suit, turning his attention to Costantino.
With one security person pinning Costantino's right shoulder, Wheaten pulled her left arm and smashed her head against the ground while continuing to yell expletives at her, the suit alleges. Costantino let go of the phone after Wheaten began twisting her left hand.
"Wheaten continued to force his knee into (Costantino's) back while attempting to review the footage on the phone," the suit reads.
He then allegedly threw the phone against a wall, but it ricocheted back and was retrieved by Costantino. At that point, Wheaten began to beat her again and, again, she relinquished the phone, according to the suit.
"Wheaten stood up and handed the phone to a smaller man in a plaid shirt and said, 'you got this?'," the suit reads. "To which the man in the plaid shirt said in sum and substance, 'yah, I'll take care of it. Don't worry'."
That man, also unidentified in the suit, allegedly put the phone in his pocket and walked away. The phone was never recovered after the arrest.
After Wheaten handcuffed Costantino, she was sat up against the wall with her breasts exposed. According to the suit, several security personnel refused her requests to cover herself until one of them came and pulled up her top.
Later, while Costantino was being processed, the suit alleges Wheaten returned to tell her that her phone had been "taken care of" and that she would go to jail with the other "animals."
According to the suit, Costantino sustained bruising, lacerations and a sprained arm over the course of the incident, but her requests for medical attention were denied. She was released on $16,000 bond the next morning and went to the hospital.
Costantino was charged with attempting to prevent a public servant from performing an official function by means of physical interference, aggravated assault on Wheaten and resisting arrest. All charges were later dismissed, according to the suit.
It is unclear whether Wheaten was operating as a municipality-paid police officer at the time of the incident, but the suit alleges that the department's policy allows "police officers to moonlight as security personnel at night clubs" where they can abuse their power.
Glass said some officers are hired by third parties, such as the casinos, through the department's Special Employment Section. He also said there is no specific departmental policy regarding filming a police officer.
"Unless the filming and the person involved was interfering with the police operation, the action at the time, the police officer would not normally stop them," he said.
At least eight civil lawsuits, including the two by Bonjean, filed in the last three years allege Wheaten has abused his power during the course of arrests. Internal affairs documents obtained by an attorney in one of those cases show 21 complaints against Wheaten between 2008 and 2011. None of them was sustained.
Bonjean said she believes departmental policy and a lack of oversight has created a culture that's permissive of police misconduct in Atlantic City.
"It's statistically not credible that every civilian who comes into the Atlantic City Police Department is lying," she said. "To me, the numbers speak for themselves."
"The burden (of proof) is high, but it's not that high," she added.
Tracy Riley, Wheaten's attorney, did not respond to a request for comment. A Caesars spokesperson also did not respond to request for comment.
In addition to attorney's fees and compensatory and punitive damages, Costantino is seeking injunctive relief finding the defendants' policies and practices are illegal and unconstitutional as well as the preclusion of the individual officers from serving as law enforcement officers.
Bonjean, meanwhile, appears on a state Supreme Court list of attorneys ineligible to practice law effective Monday due to failure to comply with the state's Interest On Lawyers Trust Accounts law. Bonjean said it was a matter of incomplete paperwork that was resolved Thursday. She had paid into the fund in July.
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