HILLSIDE, NJ — A Superior Court judge cleared Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson of three traffic summonses issued to her by the former president of the township’s police union.
The ruling overturned the decision of a Union Municipal Court judge, who originally found Garretson guilty of three violations. Garretson was elected Nov. 7 to the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders.
Officer Matthew Casterline last year issued Garretson a total of five summonses for disregarding an officer’s hand signals, driving over a center line to pass, using a cellphone while driving, obstructing traffic and driving through a safety zone.
According to Garretson’s lawyers, Casterline issued the tickets as retribution for the mayor demoting former police Chief Louis Panarese and promoting Vincent Ricciardi to top commanding officer.
“The municipal court just looked at it as a traffic occurrence when it wasn’t just a traffic occurrence,” said Robert DeGroot, one of Garretson’s lawyers.
Garretson’s case was initially heard in Union Municipal Court in March, where Judge Kelly Waters found Garretson guilty of three tickets but innocent of obstructing traffic. Waters dismissed Casterline’s summons for driving through a safety zone.
On appeal, Superior Court Judge Frederic McDaniel on Oct. 30 overturned the remaining three guilty verdicts for driving over a center line, disregarding an officer’s signals and using a cellphone while driving.
“We were always confident that justice would prevail in this case,” Garretson said in a statement. “I commend the decision of the Superior Court for correcting errors made by the Union Township judge and prosecutor in failing to dismiss all of the tickets.”
A second lawyer for Garretson, Oleg Nekritin, said the mayor will not receive any points on her license, nor will she have to pay a $717 fine ordered by the lower court.
Casterline testified that on July 12, 2016, he was working a traffic construction detail, when he put up his hands to stop traffic in one direction to let the other side pass, McDaniel’s decision summarized. Casterline said that when he put up his hands to stop a car — later identified as Garretson’s — it initially did not stop, the summary said.
Casterline said he and the mayor exchanged words over why his patrol car’s hood was up and he then instructed Garretson to move her vehicle, according to McDaniel’s decision. Casterline said Garretson initially ignored his request, but eventually pulled over.
The officer radioed Hillside Police Headquarters and said to contact the mayor’s office to advise her that she “can’t just drive through construction zones as she pleased,” McDaniel said in his decision, and Casterline issued the five traffic summonses the next day.
The municipal court also heard testimony from a construction worker who was on the scene and said he “saw a white SUV coming against traffic” and that “she came to the other side against the traffic,” according to McDaniel’s summary.
McDaniel, in his review, said Garretson’s lawyers had argued that Casterline’s testimony was “not credible” and “untrustworthy.”
Casterline declined to comment when reached Nov. 22.
Garretson testified that on July 12 she noticed a township car stopped at an intersection with its hood up. She said she tried to approach the vehicle to see if there was a problem and that she drove past the few cars in front of her without crossing the double yellow line, according to McDaniel.
Garretson said she saw Casterline and that he “began to become very erratic and he was yelling, being very, I thought, disrespectful and it made me very uncomfortable,” according to court documents.
Garretson said Casterline yelled about the vehicles being messed up and she denied seeing any incoming traffic or construction workers.
McDaniel, in his conclusion, said that he also questioned Casterline’s “credibility” since the two have had disagreements in the past, related to Casterline smoking within 100 feet of a government building.
“Whether or not the officer held a substantial grudge against the mayor for political reasons does not necessarily mean that he was not justified in issuing a summons,” McDaniel wrote. “It might mean that he relished the opportunity to do so out of his contempt for her, which would indeed be unprofessional and even unbecoming (of) a sworn law enforcement officer.”
The Union County Prosecutor’s Office represented the state in Superior Court. A spokesman for the Prosecutor’s Office said it “respects Judge McDaniel’s decision.”
Chief Ricciardi, who was appointed by Garretson, said the Hillside Police Department will conduct an internal affairs investigation into Casterline.
“Judge McDaniel’s findings do warrant and will cause an internal affairs investigation of the circumstances surrounding the issuing of those summonses,” Ricciardi said.
Panarese, Hillside’s former police chief, retired from the police department in the midst of a lawsuit against the township after Garretson demoted him. His lawsuit for damages is currently pending. Hillside police Capt. Nicola Lomonte also filed a lawsuit in July alleging that he was passed up for the chief position out retaliation.