|"Be Careful Who You Pick On"|
James J. Binns, Philadelphia trial lawyer and longtime cop booster, is a good friend of David Wolfson, Chief of the Margate City Police Department.
The friendship dates back to 2007. That's when Binns, who lives a half a block away from the Margate City Police Department, donated to the local cops four bicycles and four Harley Davidson police motorcycles. Binns also dedicated two "hero cop" plaques in memory of Sgt. Richard Himber and Patrolman John J. Donnelly, two Margate officers who died in the line of duty.
A year later, a grateful Chief Wolfson appointed Binns as honorary chief of the department.
That's why the chief was so surprised on Dec. 13, 2011 when he stopped by the Margate police station and discovered that one of his officers had arrested the 72-year-old honorary chief and locked him up in jail on a charge of criminal mischief.
That prompted the chief to start his own investigation. When it was over, the charge against Binns was dropped and subsequently expunged. Meanwhile, the cop who arrested Binns, Officer Christopher Taroncher, got hammered by a hearing officer for being dishonest and untrustworthy, and was suspended without pay for six months. He was also the subject of a civil rights lawsuit filed by Binns.
"We're good friends," Chief Wolfson testified about his relationship with Binns on July 9, 2012 at a police department disciplinary hearing.
"So needless to say I was upset," the chief said when he found out that Binns was a prisoner at his police station. The chief, who was off duty the day Binns got arrested, said he asked Sgt. Mark Ciambrone what happened. The sergeant replied that the officers had "just merely followed procedure."
The chief suspected that the arrest was not only an attempt to embarrass the honorary chief, but also the chief. "Forgive my language, but I think the matter was done to break my balls," Wolfson testified.
The hearing officer reached the same conclusion.
Jimmy Binns "has a reputation for flamboyance and, although an attorney by profession, he has even appeared as an actor in the 'Rocky' series of motion pictures," wrote Richard J. Williams, a retired judge who formerly served as acting administrative director of the Atlantic City-Cape May N.J. courts. The "appearance of special status for Mr. Binns did not sit well" with Officer Taroncher, who "believed that the courtesies shown to Mr. Binns by the department were inappropriate," the judge wrote.
Whether Officer Taroncher was justified in his feelings "is not pertinent to this case," the judge wrote. "What is pertinent is the fact that police officers cannot misuse their official powers as an outlet to express their displeasures or personal feelings. That is what Officer Taroncher did."
Officer Taroncher declined comment, referring questions to his attorney, James J. Leonard Jr. of Atlantic City.
"Our position has always been that Officer Taroncher did what he thought was appropriate based on the information that was available to him," Leonard wrote in an email. "This was an honest officer just trying to do his job, not a witch hunt to persecute Mr. Binns."
"While Mr. Binns has a very honorable and distinguished record of being an avid and passionate supporter of police officers in our region, Chris Taroncher proudly serves the City of Margate with honor and distinction," Leonard wrote. "It's unfortunate that this incident could not have been resolved in a different way not involving litigation and hearing officers."
Jimmy Binns lives on the 9200 block of Amherst Avenue, on the end unit of a three-unit townhouse development. The center townhouse was owned by Allen and Barbara Ginsberg. It was a civil dispute between Binns and the Ginsbergs that resulted in Binns being arrested. The dispute was over two air conditioning condensers that serviced the Ginsberg's house but were improperly located on Binns's property.
"During the summer of 2011, a dispute arose between Binns and the Ginsbergs over those condensers," Judge Williams wrote. "Binns claimed that the condensers belonging to the Ginsbergs were unduly noisy, vibrated excessively and disturbed his sleep."
"Asserting that the condensers were located on his property without proper authorization, Binns filed a claim with his title insurance company," the judge wrote. "This resulted in a letter dated Oct. 28, 2011, from the claims counsel for the title insurance company to the Ginsbergs asserting that the units were improperly located on Binns's property."
The letter notified the Ginsbergs that the builders of the subdivision "neglected to create an easement for your condenser units and located them on the property owned by Mr. Binns." The title company requested that the units be removed from Binns's property or that an easement be purchased from Binns.
By December 2011, when the dispute had not been resolved, the judge wrote, Binns "hired an HVAC contractor who disconnected the two units and placed them on the driveway in front of the Ginsbergs' garage. The copper tubing extending from the units had been crimped and the electric wires were capped."
On Dec. 12, 2011, at approximately 3 p.m, Officer Taroncher, a seven-year veteran, was dispatched in response to a call to the police station from Barbara Ginsberg. While Officer Taroncher was at Ginsberg's townhouse, Chief Wolfson stopped by and "cautioned the officer that the matter was probably civil rather than criminal in nature," the judge wrote.
"Officer Taroncher responded by indicating that he didn't know because he hadn't completed his investigation," the judge wrote. Before he left, Officer Taroncher took pictures of the condensers and a voluntary statement from Barbara Ginsberg. She also gave Officer Taroncher a copy of the letter from the title insurance company that stated there were no easements that permitted the condensers to be located on Binns's property. The officer, however, "never followed up" by contacting the title company, the judge wrote.
When Officer Taroncher returned to the police station, a superior, Lt. Kenneth Bergeron, asked whether the copper lines on the condensers were crimped and the wires capped. Taroncher's reply was yes on both counts.
"Lt. Bergeron then told Taroncher that, from his experience, the disconnection of the units was professionally done," the judge wrote. "Because of that he [Bergeron] said he didn't think there was any basis for a charge of criminal mischief."
Officer Taroncher called the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office to obtain authorization to issue an arrest warrant. While on hold, waiting for the prosecutor to come to the phone, Officer Taroncher had a conversation with Sgt. Ciambrone and Officer Michael Edge in the squad room, a conversation that was recorded on tape by the Margate City Police Department.
"Although no advice from the Prosecutor's Office had been received as to whether criminal charges were warranted, Officer Taroncher was eager to make an arrest," the judge wrote.
Officer Taroncher told the other police officers that "he wanted to act quickly before someone 'upstairs' in the department arrived and told him 'no,'" the judge wrote. The officer "mockingly suggested that they ride up on motorcycles to arrest Binns," referring to the police motorcycles that Binns had previously donated to the department.
During the conversation, Sgt. Ciambrone asked Officer Taroncher how far he intended to take his investigation of Binns. "Until I get a round of golf," Officer Taroncher replied. It was "a sarcastic comment mocking a senior officer," the judge wrote, a senior officer who had been the guest of Binns at a "high-end golf course."
"Give me that round of golf -- I'll make the file disappear," Officer Taroncher wisecracked while on hold with the tape running.
When Officer Taroncher finally spoke to Assistant Proseccutor Erica Halayko, he told her he wanted to know if he could charge Binns with criminal mischief. The officer said that two condensers had been removed, the pipes cut, the wires "ripped out," and the condensers "thrown behind the garage."
Officer Taroncher told Halyako that Binns admitted that he had the two condensers removed. The officer told the prosecutor the condensers had been there for eight years, had permits from the city, and that there was an easement in place permitting the condensers to be located on Binns's property.
In his ruling, the judge laid out what Officer Taroncher didn't tell the prosecutor. "Officer Taroncher did not tell the assistant prosecutor that there was a legal opinion [from the title company] that the condensers were improperly located on his target's property," the judge wrote. The officer also didn't tell the prosecutor that the easement that he referred to did not mention condensers, "or that the units had been professionally removed by a contractor and placed on the neighbors' driveway rather than being 'ripped out' and 'thrown' behind the garage."
After he talked to the prosecutor, Officer Taroncher called a plumbing and heating contractor to obtain a damage estimate. The officer falsely stated that the two air-conditioning units had been "ripped out," with cut pipping and ripped wires. He asked for a "ballpark" estimate, and was "particularly concerned about whether he costs would be over $2,000, the legal threshold for a criminal mischief complaint, the judge wrote.
The contractor supplied an oral estimate of $7,000 if the units were not removed properly, the refrigerant wasn't pumped out, the valves weren't closed and if moisture had penetrated the units.
Officer Taroncher called the Atlantic County prosecutor's office again, this time speaking with Assistant Prosecutor Lauren Kirk. Officer Taroncher told the prosecutor that Binns had decided to "cut the piping and rip out the air conditioning unit," the judge wrote. The officer "emphatically told [Kirk] that the condensers were supposed to be on Binns's property, stating there was an easement and permits allowing them to be there."
Kirk asked about damages and Taroncher told her about the $7,000 estimate. In response to a question from the prosecutor, the officer stated that the $7,000 was a written estimate when it was an oral estimate, the judge wrote.
Armed with a criminal complaint authorized by the Atlantic City Prosecutor's Office, "Sgt. Ciambrone and Officer Taroncher proceeded to Binns's home where they arrested him," the judge wrote. "Binns was handcuffed, placed in the back of the patrol car and transported to police headquarters." At the police station Binns was placed in a holding cell until he was photographed and fingerprinted, and subsequently released on his own recognizance.
Because the offense Binnns was charged with was "not a serous nature," and the suspect was "not at risk,"the judge wrote, "standard police procedures" would have called for having the suspect surrender at police headquarters.
Nobody was worried about Binns fleeing the jurisdiction. When the Margate cops sought an arrest warrant for Binns, Sgt. Ciambone told the judge, "I'm not looking for bail. We know who he is. He's not going anywhere . . . I know he's going to appear."
"Despite this, however, Officer Taroncher was adamant in his desire to go out and arrest Binns," the judge wrote.
At his disciplinary hearing, Officer Taroncher testified that "allowing Binns to surrender himself would be a privilege and show favoritism to him," the judge wrote. "He [Taroncher] was determined that he would not let that happen."
Officer Taroncher testified that he "wanted to act quickly to arrest Binns because he was concerned that if the chief of some other superior officer knew an arrest was imminent, they would prevent him [Taroncher] from going out and instruct him to have Binnns surrender himself at the station," the judge wrote.
The day after Officer Taroncher arrested Binns, Chief Wolfson reviewed the investigative file and listened to recordings of Officer Taroncher's phone calls to the prosecutor's office, including his conversation with his fellow officers. The chief called the prosecutor's office and notified them that he believed "Officer Taroncher has mislead the prosecutors," the judge wrote.
The chief was upset that when Officer Taroncher prepared a discovery package for the prosecutor's office, the officer withheld the letter from the title company that stated there was no easement that would have permitted the condensers to be located on Binns's property.
The chief gathered all materials in the case against Binns, including the letter from the title company, and personally delivered them to the prosecutor's office. The prosecutor immediately dismissed the charge against Binns.
At the July 9, 2012 disciplinary hearing, Officer Taroncher testified that Binns was "very cooperative" during his arrest. Asked if it was true that he arrested Binns to "bust the chief's balls," Officer Taroncher replied, "It's not true. My feeling is that before this ever happened, there's been a lot of problems."
"He's friends with the chief," Taroncher testified about Binns. "He has a bit of influence in the department . . . I feel the relationship with the police department is improper."
When asked why he made the crack about showing up to arrest Binns on a motorcycle, Taroncher replied, "It was inappropriate, but just a joke."
In his ruling, Judge Williams wrote that it was "particularly disturbing" that Officer Taroncher "wanted to make the arrest before any top leaders of the department found out about his plans to do so." The officer "was afraid" that his superiors would have allowed Binns to "surrender himself," the judge wrote. Instead, "Taroncher wanted to go out to make the arrest of Binns so he could handcuff him and place him in a holding cell."
"I find the violations herein to be serious," the judge wrote. "They involve issues of honesty and trust which are essential requirements for law enforcement officers."
Judge Williams ruled that Officer Taroncher would suffer the strongest possible penalty short of termination, a six-month suspension without pay. The judge also warned Officer Taroncher that he would be terminated for a "further violation of a similar nature."
Officer Taroncher wasn't the only Margate police officer that the judge criticized. Judge Williams also faulted "a lack of guidance on the part of Officer Taroncher's supervisor, Sgt. Ciambrone," whom, the judge found, "joined in" Taroncher's misconduct.
"The investigation of Jimmy Binns was a hot potato in the Department and Sgt. Ciambrone made no secret of the fact that he wanted as little to do with it as possible," the judge wrote. "But when you are a supervisor, the nature of the position requires that you be willing to deal with a hot potato and not simply leave it for your subordinate."
On Dec. 1, 2014, Binns sued Officer Taroncher and the Ginsbergs in U.S. District Court in Camden N.J. for violations of his civil rights that included false arrest and false imprisonment. The lawsuit was settled out-of-court. In the settlement, the City of Margate paid Binns $105,000; the Ginsbergs paid him $12,500. Then the Ginsbergs sold their house and moved away.
Binns has been a trial lawyer for more than 50 years, handling some prominent cases involving cops. He won a $4.7 million verdict against Officer Frank Tepper, who shot and killed an unarmed 21-year-old man. Binns also successfully defended pro-bono a decorated Philadelphia narcotics officer accused by the federal government of engaging in a RICO conspiracy to beat and rob drug dealers. The verdict in that case -- all six accused officers were found not guilty by a jury on all 47 charges of a 26-count RICO indictment.
Binns also happens to be a cop himself, having graduated from the Police Academy last year as the oldest graduate ever, at 74. He currently serves as a highway patrol motorcycle police officer for the Darby Township Police Department.
So, from one cop to another, Binns has some advice for Officer Taroncher: "Don't ever misuse your badge."