Linden pays $575,000 to settle suit by Elizabeth men against municipal judge

LINDEN, NJ — Linden will pay $575,000 to two Elizabeth men who accused a municipal judge of depriving them due process rights by sentencing them to an “excessive” jail term.

The settlement stems from a 2012 federal civil suit filed by cousins Wendell and Anthony Kirkland against the city and former municipal judge Louis DiLeo. The two men claimed they were denied a public defender by DiLeo.

The NJ Civil Settlements blog first reported the settlement Oct. 5; it will be paid in part by the funds from the city’s insurance carrier, city attorney Daniel Antonelli said in an Oct. 16 email.

According to the Kirklands’ suit, the judge’s actions “transformed the role of the Linden court from a neutral and detached magistrate to a judge, jury, and executioner.”

According to the’ civil complaint, the two were convicted in 2010 of stealing five lug nuts, attempted theft of tires and possession of 50 grams or less of marijuana.

The lawsuit resulted from a court appearance April 12, 2010, when the two men appeared before DiLeo, saying they wanted to retain a private lawyer to represent them.

They claimed “DiLeo erroneously advised (the Kirklands), on the record, that by electing to retain private counsel, they had ‘waived’ their rights to the appointment of a public defender.”

After the two men were unable to retain private representation, DiLeo reiterated at a May hearing that they had “waived the public defender,” according to the cousins’ suit.

At the trial, which began after 9 p.m., only DiLeo, the arresting police officer and the cousins were present; a defense lawyer for the cousins was not present, according to the lawsuit. The cousins said DiLeo allowed them to cross-examine their arresting officer and vice versa. DiLeo also conducted a direct examination of the officer, the suit claims.

The cousins also alleged that they told the judge they had witnesses, but they weren’t present. Instead of adjourning the trial to accommodate the cousins, DiLeo moved on with the trial and sentenced Wendell Kirkland to 180 days in county jail, three consecutive one-year probationary terms and fines totalling $2,700. Anthony Kirkland received two consecutive 180-day terms, three consecutive one-year probationary terms and $3,100 in fines.

The two men won their case on appeal in Union County Superior Court; in 2011, Judge Scott Moynihan found both men not guilty of the possession charge and remanded the rest to the Elizabeth Municipal Court, characterizing their trial before DiLeo as a “perversion of justice.” The cousins’ suit called the sentence not only “excessive” but “illegal,” and the two spent approximately 60 days longer in jail than legally allowed.

Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court in 2014 reprimanded DiLeo for his “egregious legal errors” in the case, NJ Advance Media reported.
DiLeo served as a municipal judge in the city for about nine years, the suit states. Former Linden Mayor Richard Gerbounka and the Linden City Council removed him from his position in 2012.

By settling the case the city admits no wrongdoing, and all parties give up all claims they have against one another.