The township agreed Feb. 3 to a $950,000 settlement with 22-year-old Michael Lionelli, according to his attorney, Thomas J. Mallon of Freehold.
Lionelli had been charged in association with the 2016 armed robbery of a CVS Pharmacy—charges that were later dropped by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office due to a lack of evidence.
“We can confirm, after years of litigation, this case was settled on the advice of our attorneys,” said Bianca Jerez, chief of staff for Hamilton Mayor Jeff Martin. The lawsuit was filed in March 2018, during the administration of former Mayor Kelly Yaede.
The township and Hamilton Police Department offered no further comment on the settlement. The department admitted no wrongdoing in settling the suit.
Lionelli’s ordeal started when he and two juveniles were stopped by Lawrence Township Police. The car he was driving matched the description of a vehicle that Hamilton was seeking in association with a robbery that took place earlier that evening.
In that incident, an employee of the CVS located at the intersection of Route 33 and Whitehorse Avenue said that the store had been robbed by a mask-wearing white male brandishing a handgun.
During the stop, Lawrence Police had found a CVS Pharmacy shirt in a duffel bag inside Lionelli’s vehicle. He was also charged with possession on marijuana as a result of the stop.
Hamilton Police considered Lionelli and the juveniles—a 17-year-old Hamilton male and a 16-year-old Lawrence female—to be suspects in the CVS robbery. They transported the robbery victim to the location where Lionelli had been stopped in Lawrence.
“The victim was unable to identify Lionelli as the person who committed the robbery; however, an officer wrote a report which stated that a positive identification had occurred,” Mallon said.
He said that Hamilton Police also relied on shoe prints left in the snow at the scene by the alleged robber. A N.J. State Police Analyst later confirmed the shoes were not a match to the shoes Lionelli wore at the time of his arrest.
According to Mallon, Lionelli was implicated in the robbery by the two juveniles after interrogation, but “the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office declined to prosecute Lionelli because of coercive techniques that were used during the recorded interviews.”
“These kids initially told police detectives that they knew nothing about a robbery,” Mallon said. “The officers then spoon-fed them the narrative they wanted to hear and threatened the juveniles with immediate juvenile detention. They were also told they would be prosecuted as adults if they did not tell the officers the story that the officers wanted to hear.”
The two juveniles later recanted. Both were charged as accomplices, but the charges were dismissed 6 months later.
Lionelli was charged by Hamilton with robbery, possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, unlawful possession of a weapon, and use of a juvenile to commit a crime.
“Lionelli’s charges lingered for 25 months,” Mallon said. “He was facing a 20 year prison sentence if he had been convicted and would not have been eligible for parole for 85% of that time.”
He added that the Hamilton Police Department never turned the footprint analysis, which exonerated Lionelli, over to Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office.
He alleged: “They fabricated evidence to support their complaint and made Lionelli’s life miserable for 25 months until the charges were finally dismissed, and he now experiences post-traumatic stress disorder.”
The attorney outlined a number of ways that the arrest allegedly impacted Lionetti’s life.
He said that his client was not permitted to complete his senior year at Hamilton West High School. He spent 11 days in jail, and even though his bail was reduced from $250,000 to $125,000, his parents had to pay a nonrefundable $12,500 fee to a bail bondsman to get him released.
His college career was delayed by 2 years while the charges were pending.
“The Hamilton Police publicized Michael Lionelli’s arrest in a local newspaper causing him to suffer incredible public humiliation” Mallon said. “They ignored very obvious evidence that Michael was not the robber. They rushed to judgment twisting facts, fabricating evidence and lying about evidence in their reports.
“They withheld evidence that would clearly have exonerated a young man who was only 18 at the time of his arrest. They have never apologized or admitted to any wrongdoing. Michael and his parents hope they learn a lesson from this so it does not happen again to somebody else.”
Lionelli’s lawsuit alleged fabrication of evidence by the Hamilton Police, false arrest, violation of the N.J. Civil Rights Act and false imprisonment. He was seeking compensatory and punitive damages and a trial by jury.
The suit also alleged that Hamilton Officer Peter Frascella fabricated evidence by saying that CVS had identified Lionelli as the perpetrator of the robbery.
“We want to set the record straight at this point,” Mallon said. “At this point in time Mr. Lionelli is getting on with his life, going to college trying to put all of this behind him.”