Family awarded $75,000 in settlement over police raidSubmitted by HigherSociety on Mon, 03/11/2013 - 20:26
A West Hazleton family was awarded a $75,000 settlement in a lawsuit filed against more than a dozen state, local and federal law enforcement officers.
The suit was filed more than five years ago by the Taveras family of West Monroe Avenue in the aftermath of a drug bust conducted by law enforcement officials working in conjunction with the Luzerne County Drug Task Force, according to Larry Norton, an attorney with the Harrisburg office of the Community Justice Project, a non-profit public interest law group that represents low-income families in the Hispanic community in civil rights matters.
Norton represented Wilian Taveras Gomez and three members of his family in the lawsuit - his mother, Barbara Gomez; his son, Wilfredo, and his daughter, Wiliana.
According to Norton, officers conducting the drug sweep served a warrant on apartment 11 in the early morning hours of Sept. 5, 2007. While searching apartment 11, Norton said police broke down a secured interior door that leads from apartment 11 to apartment 9, where the Taveras family lives.
Dressed in SWAT gear that concealed their faces and with weapons drawn, police entered the Taveras home where Wilian, his mother, son and daughter were sleeping, Norton said.
Police handcuffed Wilian and did the same to his son and before taking him to a detention facility off the premises, Norton said. They detained the family for three hours while searching their home, including a search with a police dog, Norton said. During the search, police seized $605 in cash from the home, Norton said.
"Although the officers had clearly made a mistake by invading and searching the Taveras home, and although no drugs or other contraband was found in the Taveras residence, none of the officers admitted a mistake was made and no one apologized for the violent invasion of the home," Norton said.
The suit, which alleged police exceeded the scope of the warrant by expanding the search beyond apartment 11 and violated the Taveras family's constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizure, originally named each of the 19 individual law enforcement officers who were at the scene on the morning of the raid. But a March 30, 2012, opinion filed by federal Third Circuit Appeals Judge Jane Richards Roth upheld a lower court ruling that granted immunity in the case to all but one of the law enforcement personnel involved in the raid. Only the case against Butler Township police Cpl. William Feissner, a member of the county task force, was remanded to U.S. District Court in Wilkes-Barre.
According to Roth's March 30 opinion, 18 of the 19 law enforcement officials involved in the raid had "qualified immunity" because of their limited role in the events.
Under the doctrine of qualified immunity, government officials are shielded from civil damage liability for official conduct as long as it "does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known."
The judge's opinion said Feissner did not have immunity regarding the allegation that he searched Taveras home even though the warrant authorized search of the neighboring apartment, from the Taveras claim of being involuntarily detained by Feissner or the officers under his command, or from the allegation that he violated the Taveras' Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable seizure when he searched their home and seized $605 without a warrant.
With the $75,000 settlement, each of the four members of the Taveras family received an $8,000 check from the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General. The balance of the settlement goes to the Community Justice Project legal aid network.
Norton said attorney Patrick Cawley from the attorney general's office personally distributed the settlement checks to the Taveras family and issued apologies as well.
The attorney general's press office was not immediately able to provide comment on Tuesday's event.
Speaking from The Dominican House in downtown Hazleton on Tuesday at a press conference arranged by Norton, Barbara Gomez said the five-year ordeal was a learning experience that began on a morning she will never forget.
"When this happened so early in the morning when I was sleeping, I heard so much noise and I saw people with masks on. I was so scared I threw myself on my knees on the floor, praying," Gomez said, speaking in Spanish with translation assistance from an interpreter by telephone.
"What hurts me most," Gomez said, "my granddaughter was sleeping with me in the same bed. She woke up scared, like me, crying 'Mamma, Mamma, what's happening?'"
Gomez said she is grateful for the settlement, "not for the money, but to expose what happened."
She said she has pledged a portion of her financial settlement to a cause benefitting children with cancer.
Wilian Taveras said the Community Justice Project helped his family through the experience.
"They helped us understand what was going on, what was happening to us. We were able to prove to the officers that we are innocent," he said.
Taveras said he will use of portion of the settlement "to make my house safe, so I feel safe again."
Fourteen-year-old Wiliana, who was 9 years old when the raid happened, said she will put her share of the settlement toward her college education. Wiliana said the events of that morning in 2007 have not instilled her with a fear or distrust of police officers. In fact, she hopes her college education will lead her to a future career in law enforcement or with the FBI.
Just 16 years old when police handcuffed him and took him from his home in 2007, Wilfredo is now 21 and employed full-time at the Amazon distribution center in Humboldt Industrial Park. Wilfredo attended the press conference with his family, but quietly declined comment.
Efforts to reach Feissner for comment on the settlement were unsuccessful.