First Amendment and Abuse of Subpoena
Settled May 2009
A 15-year veteran of the NPD (Newark Police Department), officer Louis Wohltman, exercised his First Amendment rights by criticizing NPD leadership on an internet bulletin board. He, along with other officers, had posted messages about "matters of public interest and concern," namely, the honesty, integrity and competence of certain NPD commanders. He did this on his own time, and not as a police officer. In response to this exercise of First Amendment rights, the NPD improperly obtained and used Essex County grand jury subpoenas, serving them on the internet site and various internet service providers. The subpoenas were improperly drawn, were not supervised by either the grand jury or a prosecutor, and were not signed by a prosecutor or issued by a court. The NPD then improperly used this evidence to bring Wohltman up on disciplinary charges, and he was then suspended for a total of nine months. Wolhtman sued in federal court (No. 07-cv-5871) and his claims were ultimately settled on or about May 19, 2009, for $147,325.22.
Other officers also brought similar claims against the City for violations of their First Amendment right to speak. These included Philip Wesley Smith, whose Complaint was filed in federal court in Dkt. No. 08-cv-1332. Two other officers, Jose Montalvo and Yessennia Montalvo, who already had a federal case pending against the City for other matters (No. 06-cv-1505) also amended their complaint to add claims about the violation of their free speech rights. On June 30, 2010, the Newark City Council approved a $185,000 settlement with Yessennia Montalvo, while Jose Montalvo's claims remain pending. Montalvo will appear on Day 6 of the series here: Day 6: Montalvo v. City of Newark.
Note: None of Wohltman's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement likely states that the $147,325 payment does not constitute an admission of liability by Newark or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Newark, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Wohltman $147,325 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial — it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened — or what consequences, if any, came to the individuals accused in the suit.