Nancy Genovese, an East Quogue woman who complained that she was treated like a terrorist when she was jailed for four days for taking pictures of a helicopter at the Air National Guard base in Westhampton Beach, will get $1.055 million in a federal court settlement with Suffolk County.The settlement came to light Tuesday when the county legislature’s budget committee voted unanimously to authorize borrowing to pay her in her federal civil rights lawsuit. The trespassing charge was dropped several months after her arrest. Now as someone who has worked on wrongful conviction and false arrest cases for nearly all of my 30 years of practice, I am the first person to say that large sums of money should be awarded to folks whose civil rights were violated or who were wrongfully incarcerated. But this case raises some questions about the County’s decision.
Genovese, 60, a retiree with no prior record, was arrested for trespassing in 2009, strip-searched and jailed for four nights before she could raise $50,000 bail. Genovese had taken photos from outside the air base, which she said she intended to use for a website to support the troops. She was held outside the air base for six hours while police searched her car. The vehicle contained a shotgun, an assault rifle and several hundred rounds of ammunition. Genovese owned the weapons legally and had them at a shooting range earlier. She also had $6,000 in cash in her possession. But Ms. Genovese was not trespassing at all as she was taking her photos from a public highway and not from the air base itself, which is what arresting police officer Robert Carlock falsely reported. Carlock also participated in drafting a press release that said Ms. Genovese was a suspected terrorist which undoubtedly led to the high bail for this misdemeanor charge. After hiring high-profile lawyer Robert Gottlieb,the charges against her were dismissed in the interest of justice after about four months.Four nights in jail,four months of prosecution and no trial or appeal. Also, when they came upon the guns in the trunk, the cash and that her last name is the same as the crime family that orchestrated the Lufthansa heist at JFK airport, that’s a lot more suspicious evidence than they have had in other wrongful conviction cases for sure. I’m not saying its enough -after all, the whole search was premised on a lie since she was on public property- I’m just saying. Federal Judge Joseph Bianco reduced a jury’s $1.1 Million verdict to $700,000 which Ms Genovese and her lawyer accepted. In reducing the award, the court did state that it recognized that this was a lot of money for the short length of time Genovese was held and prosecuted but said the large award was justified for her being labeled a “terrorist.” But folks wrongfully labeled as murderers or rapists routinely are awarded about $150-$200K for every year of incarceration. And that’s what Suffolk County’s Marty Tankleff got in a settlement after he was falsely labeled as the ruthless killer of his parents. Is that so much better than being labeled a terrorist?
So if the judge said the case was worth $700,000 why did cash-strapped Suffolk County pay over a million? According to Newsday, legislative officials said the county made the settlement as a way of avoiding another trial in which Genovese could seek punitive damages and recover legal costs. “With punitive damages, it could have been the sky is the limit,” said Legis. Louis D’Amaro (D-North Babylon), budget committee chairman. OK but just one thing – it is nearly impossible to get punitive damages against a municipality; the law only allows it for a repeated pattern of unconstitutional activity and that was not even part of Ms Genovese’s claim. Furthermore, the County could have filed an appeal arguing that Bianco was wrong to value the case at $700K especially since most of the cases he relied upon awarded far less for similar periods of time in jail. The appeal would have held off payment of the judgment for years (and no interest runs against the county while the appeal is pending). The whole thing makes me shake my head in wonder a little bit. I think because Ms. Genovese was an older white woman, everyone involved could empathize with her more and therefore understand the stigma, pain and stress one faces when false charges are being leveled against you. She was hit particularly hard – having to be placed on suicide watch while she waited to be bailed out.
On another note, perhaps this settlement will set the bar for others who have been wrongfully arrested and prosecuted in Suffolk County and other parts of the State. At the least, the case points to the need to see each case individually and not apply a cookie-cutter formula in trying to address these wrongs. Kudos to Ms. Genovese and her lawyer Frederick Brewington for pursuing this case and getting this result. Let’s hope it sends a strong message about the harm that false arrest and imprisonment cause.