CAMDEN A former deputy state attorney general who is suing the Atlantic City Police Department, alleging that officers beat him outside a casino hotel in 2008, testified in the opening of the trial Monday, calling his arrest and prosecution brutal and baseless.
Michael Troso, now a lawyer based in Cherry Hill, is also suing five Atlantic City officers following his arrest on the night of his bachelor party. Troso, 39, accuses the officers of excessive use of force, falsely arresting and imprisoning him, conspiracy, and malicious prosecution.
"They savagely beat, arrested, and detained him," said Troso's attorney, William H. Buckman. "Blood flowed. There was no basis for his arrest. He lost his job over the incident, because of nothing other than the desire of these defendants to wreak havoc on his life."
The defense argues that the officers did not act inappropriately and that Troso's lawsuit came about in an attempt to cover up his own bad behavior. Troso never filed a complaint with Internal Affairs or criminal charges against the men, defense attorney Tracy Riley said.
"Mr. Troso had a hope that what happens in Atlantic City stays in Atlantic City," Riley said. "This is a case about a cover-up. Not by these officers. Not by the City of Atlantic City. But a cover-up by Michael Troso based on a motive to cover up his behavior."
In federal court, jurors in Judge Renee Bumb's courtroom heard opening statements from Buckman and Riley, who represents the city and Officers Joseph Kelly, Joshua L. Vadell, Syed Shah, Thomas Moynihan, and Sterling Wheaten.
Wheaten is one of the Atlantic City officers caught on video in a June incident in which a man who was thrown out of a casino was forced to the ground and set on by Wheaten's police dog. The video prompted the mayor to ask the state Attorney General's Office and the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.
Since the charges were filed in the Troso case, Kelly has retired from the force for medical reasons.
As the first witness, Troso described how his bachelor party took a violent turn.
On Aug. 9, 2008, he said, he drove to Atlantic City with about 10 friends. Their room at Harrah's wasn't ready around 4:30 p.m., so the group headed to the Trump Marina bar.
Around 9 p.m., a fight broke out at the bar involving one of Troso's friends, who had apparently made a pass at a woman. As the bar cleared out, Troso learned that a friend had been arrested and went outside to ask police for more information and to tell them about the bar fight. He was asked "who the [expletive] he was" by Wheaten, so he produced his Attorney General's Office badge, he said.
Then, Troso said, he was hit on the side of his head by someone he did not see, blacked out, and came to lying on the hood of a car, where he was "pummeled by three officers," one of whom he identified as Wheaten.
"It was terrifying, and I had no idea what I could do to make it stop, since I had no idea what I did to make it start," he said.
Troso said he looked at the blood dripping down the hood of the car where he was pinned down as he heard friends yelling for the beating to stop. The beating ended "as quickly as it had begun," and he was put into a police car without being charged or read his rights, he said.
Although blood was "pouring out of my nose and mouth," Troso said, he declined medical attention.
The obstruction of justice charge was ultimately dismissed, but Troso said he lost his job prosecuting cases for the Attorney General's Office because of the incident.
Riley, who will cross-examine Troso on Tuesday, disputed his testimony. She said in her opening statement that when Troso heard that one of his friends had been arrested, he went outside with the purpose of using his badge to clear things up. Riley said evidence would show that Troso's behavior prompted his arrest.
"When Mr. Troso walked through those doors, he had something in his pocket. He had a badge. And he went through those doors for one reason. He was going to get his friend out of trouble," she said.
In addition to testimony, the jury will view surveillance footage of the arrest. On the stand, Troso said his wedding day and honeymoon in St. Lucia were miserable, coming one week after the incident in Atlantic City. He said he took his marriage vows with threats of losing his career looming over his head.
"I wasn't able to enjoy my wedding. I wasn't able to think about my wedding. I wasn't able to enjoy my honeymoon. This huge, crushing weight weighed on top of me the entire time. . . . I never really thought anything like this would happen."
Shortly after returning, Troso was fired and handed in his credentials, including his badge, he said.
The trial, expected to last about two weeks, continues Tuesday.