Cicero officials are prepared to agree to settle a $2 million lawsuit against the town, the chief of police and a specific police officer at the town board meeting Wednesday.
The suit was brought in federal court by Albert Merola Jr., a resident of Beach Road in Brewerton, against the town of Cicero, Cicero Police Chief Joseph Snell and Cicero Police Officer James Snell. The suit, filed in United States District Court, Northern District of New York, on March 23, 2011, stems from incidents that took place in April of 2010. The suit alleges that James Snell physically assaulted Merola during an attempt to arrest him without cause, exacerbating injuries Merola sustained in a work accident in 2000 that left him permanently disabled and wearing a neck brace. James Snell’s actions caused numerous other injuries, the suit alleges.
According to the Notice of Claim filed in New York State Supreme Court in Onondaga County on June 3, 2010, Merola was walking his golden retriever northbound along Beach Road on April 12, 2010, and called his wife, Sherri, on his cell phone. While he walked, a Cicero police car drove by, also going northbound, at a high rate of speed, and Merola heard a voice say, “Stop!” which Merola did. The police car pulled over on the west side of the road, and Officer James Snell emerged from the vehicle and ran towards Merola.
Merola alleges in the court papers that, at that point, his dog spotted a rabbit and began to pull on the leash, so he turned his attention away from the officer and toward the dog. Snell ran at Merola at full speed, knocked him to the ground and began to kick him in the back. The court papers allege that Snell then forced his knee into Merola’s back and pushed his head into the ground by pressing on his neck brace.
Merola maintains that he begged Snell to stop, but Snell continued the assault, mocking his cries. The officer then handcuffed Merola behind his back, even though Merola asked him to cuff him in the front.
The entire scene was overheard by Merola’s wife, as the cell phone connection was still open. Once Merola was handcuffed, Snell picked up the phone and said, “Hello?” Sherri Merola replied, “Hello, I’m his wife.” At that point, according to the court papers, Snell flipped the phone shut, disconnecting the call.
An unknown witness to the commotion called 911 and an ambulance responded about 20 minutes later. Emergency medical personnel transported Merola to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he was treated for injuries to his hands, wrists, face, body, head and neck.
While Merola was being treated, Snell issued him two appearance tickets, one for disorderly conduct, a violation, and one for resisting arrest, a misdemeanor.
Less than a week later, the parties met again when, according to the Notice of Claim, Snell pulled over Merola’s vehicle for “driving too slowly.” Snell allegedly attempted to test Merola’s blood alcohol content using disposable box tests three times, but all three tests were negative for alcohol. Snell released Merola and allowed him to drive home. According to the suit, “Snell had no valid reason, reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop [Merola’s] vehicle… the traffic stop was done wholly without cause or necessity and in an illegal, malicious and reckless manner for the purpose, upon information and belief, of depriving [Merola] of his constitutional and human rights, to oppress and injure [Merola] and/or for the purpose of causing [Merola] extreme humiliation, physical injury and emotional distress.”
In the suit, Merola sought $1 million in compensatory damages, as well as payment of his legal fees, and $1 million in punitive damages.
The suit gave no indication of what provoked the alleged attack.
Both Chief Joseph Snell and Cicero Supervisor James Corl said that part of the settlement involved signing a confidentiality agreement, so they could not comment on the specifics of the suit.
“The total resolution is something reached by the attorneys, and that’s all confidential,” Corl said. “We’re not able to discuss anything about the settlement. The town does have liability insurance, so the settlement is paid for. We do have insurance to cover this type of claim. The only cost was a deductible, which is something we have to resolve with our insurance company.”
Stephen L. Lockwood, Merola’s attorney, did not return calls requesting comment, nor Cicero town attorney Anthony Rivizzigno.
James Snell is still listed as a patrol officer on the Cicero police force on the department website. Because no one from the town or the police department could comment on the matter, it is unclear whether he faced any disciplinary action.
According to the agenda for the Feb. 8 town board meeting, the board is set to discuss an “approval for the supervisor to execute a confidential settlement agreement regarding Merola v. town of Cicero.” The matter is the last item on Wednesday’s agenda.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.