The man says he was unlawfully charged with crimes and lost his job as a result of his arrest. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
New Jersey state troopers who stopped a motorist they suspected of road rage beat the unarmed man so badly he needed surgery to recover, according to allegations in a new federal civil rights lawsuit.
The Wayne resident accuses the New Jersey State Police and multiple named and unnamed troopers of excessive force, unlawful arrest, wrongful imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
David Vitale, 39, a longtime Spanish teacher at schools in North Jersey, was driving home on Route 80 in May 2020 when troopers turned on their emergency lights and began following him, according to the complaint filed earlier this month. The troopers were responding to a report of someone in a white SUV firing a gun at another motorist, according to the complaint.
When Vitale pulled over at the Rockaway mall, troopers swarmed his white SUV, where one punched out his passenger-side window and dove into the car to push him out of the driver’s side, without any of the troopers telling him why they stopped him, the complaint says.
A beating ensued that left Vitale with a concussion, eye hemorrhage, and nasal fracture that required reconstructive surgery, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and cognitive limitations, according to the lawsuit.
“There’s a lot of explaining they need to do as to why they felt it necessary to beat the hell out of an individual like that,” Vitale’s attorney, Robert B. Woodruff, told the New Jersey Monitor.
Woodruff said the officers removed their body cams before the encounter, which violates the Office of the Attorney General’s body-worn camera policy.
But at least one dash cam captured the incident, Woodruff said. That video caught troopers admitting Vitale’s license plate didn’t match what dispatchers reported, asking him if he was part of Antifa, making homophobic remarks, and accusing him of being drunk or on drugs and throwing a gun out of his window before the car stop, Woodruff said.
Troopers found no firearm in Vitale’s car or the roadside where they said he threw one, and Vitale had no drugs or alcohol in his system, according to the lawsuit.
The dash cam video also showed troopers picking up their body cams that had “fallen off” and reattaching them, Woodruff said.
The absence of body camera footage should be just as concerning to the troopers’ supervisors as it is to Vitale, Woodruff said. As much as body cameras can protect citizens from civil rights violations, they also can protect police from baseless accusations, he added.
“We would like to know what happened to all the body cams,” he said.
As a result of the car stop, police charged Vitale, who had no prior criminal record, with multiple offenses, and Vitale consequently lost his job as a tenured teacher at Dover High School, Woodruff said.
Court records show Vitale was charged with 12 traffic offenses that are still active in Rockaway Township Municipal Court. He also was charged with resisting arrest and aggravated assault on a police officer, but those charges appear to have been withdrawn, according to court records.
Vitale named five troopers — David Jenkins, William Duby, John Halpin, E. Clowes, and T. Walls — as defendants in his lawsuit, as well as unknown troopers and the agency itself.
The Attorney General’s Office’s use-of-force database does not show any use-of-force reports from the incident. Duby used force during an unrelated car stop last September, the database shows.
The Office of the Attorney General, which oversees the state police and handles lawsuits against the state and state agencies, did not respond to a request for comment.
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