HILLSIDE, NJ — A judge ruled last week that the Hillside police officer who issued five traffic summonses to Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson must turn over emails and cell phone information subpoenaed by the mayor.
Garretson was issued five traffic tickets in July by Hillside police Officer Matt Casterline, former police union president.
Garretson is charged with disregarding an officer’s hand signals, obstructing passage of vehicles, improper passing, talking on a cellphone and driving through a safety zone.
The summonses were issued after Garretson allegedly drove through a township construction site that Casterline was working at as an outside overtime time job July 12. Garretson allegedly ignored Casterline’s directions as he was controlling traffic.
Garretson also sought the email and phone records of Hillside’s acting Chief of Police Louis Panarese, with whom Garretson is in an ongoing legal battle. While the judge ruled that Casterline has to hand over his emails and phone records, the judge denied Garretson’s subpoena of Panarese’s records.
The case was moved to Union in order to avoid conflict of interest.
Union Municipal Court Judge Kelly Waters denied Garretson’s request to have Panarese’s emails and phone records subpoenaed.
Garretson’s lawyers argued that both Casterline’s and Panarese’s email and phone records would show that they were colluding to embarrass the mayor, with Garretson’s citing Panarese’s demotion as a motive for Casterline issuing the tickets.
In court, Garretson’s attorney argued that the emails and cell phone information would show that Casterline and Panarese discussed the summonses before they were issued.
Waters ruled that Casterline’s emails and some of his cell phone information was relevant and should be given to Garretson’s lawyers.
Panarese’s lawyer, Christopher Gray, argued successfully that Panarese was not involved in the case and that the request for his emails and other information should be blocked.
Municipal Prosecutor Michael Wittenberg did not return LocalSource’s request for comment.
Robert Degroot, attorney for Garretson, told LocalSource that he believes the nature of the case indicates an overt attempt on the part of Casterline to persecute the mayor. “The police officers, in an ordinary course of events, don’t ticket a mayor of a town unless something is going on,” Degroot told LocalSource.
According to Degroot, animus on the part of both Casterline and Panarese resulted in the issued summonses. “That’s why we want the records,” Degroot said. “To show there are other things going on here.”
But some others have a far different take on the July incident than Degroot. According to Degroot, Garretson noticed a car in the construction zone with its hood up when she pulled up to the site and was just trying to help. “She was trying to get a sense of what was going on,” said Degroot.
But other accounts of the incident seem to contradict this, with statements pointing to Garretson’s open and willful disregard of the traffic laws at the safety zone, as well as Casterline’s directions to traffic. The account alleges that Garretson was in a line of stopped traffic at the construction zone, with one lane closed and Casterline directing the lines of traffic. At the time, the eastbound lane was stopped — the line in which Garretson was. But Garretson allegedly decided to drive despite the directive to stop, and was allegedly heading into oncoming traffic from the westbound lane. Casterline allegedly asked Garretson to stop, and the account alleges that, had he not asked her to stop, she would have kept on driving. Once she was stopped, the account alleges, Casterline then asked Garretson what she was doing, and that is when she allegedly said that she had driven over to see why the hood of a car at the site was raised. After Casterline told her why the hood was up, Casterline asked Garretson to move out of the way of traffic. It is alleged that Garretson defied his order and instead began texting on her cellphone, and continued to text, despite Casterline asking her to move repeatedly.
But Degroot said Casterline has a personal vendetta against the mayor. “He’s the union president,” Degroot said. “Go look him up online and you’ll see a whole bunch of negative things he’s said about the mayor.”
LocalSource took Degroot up on his directive but was unable to find negative or personal attacks from Casterline against Garretson. Casterline had been interviewed in the past in his capacity as union president, where he spoke with LocalSource about failing conditions at the police department, depleted manpower, and low morale due to what many at HPD cite as Garretson’s overt disregard for Hillside’s first responders.
Attorney for Panarese, Christopher Gray, of Sciarra and Catrambone, told LocalSource that the mayor is just up to her old tricks and attempting to divert attention away from the fact that she broke the law. “The mayor’s conspiracy theories and the fishing expedition by way of these subpoenas are a thinly veiled attempt to divert attention from the mayor’s blatant violations of motor-vehicle laws, which were witnessed by a civilian and the officer on the scene,” Gray said in an email.
But Degroot claims that Casterline tried to come up with as many violations as he could nail Garretson for, and ran with it. “He took Title 39 and said, ‘How many different tickets can I come up with?’” said Degroot. “It’s highly unusual, and anyone who says otherwise is full of doggy dirt.”
Most statutes that pertain to motor-vehicle laws can be found in Title 39 of the New Jersey traffic laws.
Degroot also called out Panarese, who he says had a definite motive for collusion with Casterline. “The problems started with the demotion,” Degroot said, citing Garretson’s demotion of Panarese from chief to captain.
Months ago, after Panarese sent out an email to officers in the department in an attempt to boost morale, Garretson charged him with insubordination, informing Panarese of his demotion just hours before it took effect. Hillside’s town council later reinstated Panarese as chief, after which Garretson slammed Panarese and council members with a lawsuit. Panarese later filed a lawsuit against Garretson, charging her with a laundry list of retaliatory measures taken on the part of Garretson against the department. The legal battle is currently ongoing.
Degroot cites Panarese’s ego, his position at the HPD, and his finances as reasons for the alleged collusion against the mayor. “The problems started with the demotion,” Degroot reiterated. “You can draw the obvious conclusions. We are exploring the possibility that Panarese is behind it and involved in some way. The mayor wishes to aggressively defend herself. We want to see the rest of the story.”
Garretson’s trial on the summonses is scheduled for Nov. 22.