Motorist In Controversial Police Stop Cleared Of Most Serious Charges

A controversial police stop in Bridgeton and captured on video will now move to federal court after the motorist faces sharp questioning in a criminal trial.

You'll remember the startling video broadcast by FOX 29 Investigates in November.

Now, Investigative Reporter Jeff Cole has an update on the heated fallout from a judge's decision.

The 44-year-old Seabrook, N.J., motorist who battled with Bridgeton officers in a raucous police stop has been cleared of the most serious charges she faced.

"You began to cry, immediately. Why?" Cole asked the woman after the trial.

"Because I'm relieved to know that justice, you know, it does serve," Marella Lawson answered.

Lawson and her lawyer will now press ahead with a potentially big-bucks federal lawsuit against Bridgeton and the officers she tangled with.

"I'm thankful for the judge. She made a very good decision," Lawson said.

But the ruling by Millville Municipal Court Judge Lauren Van Embden has outraged Bridgeton's chief of police and silenced its mayor on "advice of counsel."

It was early evening on the last day of March 2015 when Lawson was pulled over for driving while suspended.

Officer Shane Sawyers, a 14-year veteran, approaches Lawson's vehicle after being directed to it by the officer who spotted her.

He's not heard on tape asking for her license or registration.

Sawyers bangs on the window a few times, and realizing Lawson is refusing to open the car, he pulls out his baton and strikes.

"Ma'am, open the car! Open the car!" the officer says. "Open the door! I'm going to break the window!"

About one minute after approaching the vehicle, Sawyers is seen walking to the rear passenger window and begins to try to smash it.

He also calls a supervisor for approval and gets it

"I am going to force entry now … unless you want me to code 9," Sawyers says into the radio.

The supervisor responds in part, "Take your steps and, uh, do what you got to do…"

Lawson calls 9-1-1 from inside the car on her cell.

"Can you please call a --- state trooper, please? Sir, he is trying to break my window. He is trying to break my window," Lawson tells the dispatcher.

"They're going to break my window," she adds. "I'm scared for my life."

In court, Lawson testified she opened her window a crack and asked for state police to be called. Why? Because she and Officer Sawyers had scuffled two years earlier during an arrest in her Seabrook home.

Lawson had filed a federal lawsuit against the city and Sawyers based on that 2013 incident and claimed she was frightened to see him standing at her car window.

"You actually believed that your life was in danger?" Cole asked her.

"Yes," Lawson said.

"And that possibly you were going to be killed as a result of this?" Cole asked.

"Yes sir," Lawson replied.

On the dashcam video, the officer shouts, "Stop resisting! You are under arrest!"

"He's hitting me!" Lawson can be heard screaming. "He's hitting me! Help me, Jesus, he's hitting me!"

Later, she tells the officers, several times, "my arm is messed up, my arm is messed up," as they try to get her into custody.

Under aggressive questioning from Lawson's defense attorney, David Bahuriak, Sawyers testified he recognized Lawson only after he busted her window and entered the car.

And Sawyers argued he "had no obligation to withdraw" once Lawson was resisting arrest, he had to "maintain control at all times" and "act quickly."

Sawyers said he was "frustrated" with her, but not angry.

Police command Lawson on the video: "Stop resisting!"

"I'm not resisting, sir!" Lawson answers.

"You are, put your hands behind your back, now," police order.

"They won't go behind me. I've got a frozen shoulder," Lawson says. "Please, Jesus!"

Lawson testified her shoulder was frozen from life-long diabetes.

She said she did not strike the officers, as they claimed, and she did not know her license was suspended.

The dashcam video shows Lawson was pepper-sprayed. The group ends up on the pavement.

"You know what? Take her down," Sawyers says in the video as they go to the ground.

After long testimony, Lawson was fined for a broken tail light and found guilty of driving while suspended, fined and hit with 10 days in jail for repeatedly driving unlicensed.

She'll do the time in an alternative program.

"What's your reaction to being convicted on the suspended driver's license?" Cole asked Lawson.

"Let's not go there," an attorney says.

"Can you talk to that in anyway?" Cole asks.

"No," the attorney says.

But on the more serious charges of harassment, hindering, obstruction and resisting arrest, Judge Van Embden ruled she was not guilty.

The judge said she found Officer Sawyers' testimony "contradictory" and "not entirely credible."

Bridgeton Chief of Police Michael Gaimari refused an on-camera interview. But, for the record, he said he found the ruling ridiculous. He said he supports the system but not the ruling, and he says that convicting Lawson of resisting arrest should have been a no-brainer.,

Lawson's attorneys say justice was served.

"I think the judge was under considerable political pressure here," Bahuriak said. "I think she was really in the spotlight, and I think it took a whole lot of guts to do what she did."

Lawson's civil attorney, Gregory Zeff," said, "We think justice was done, and we're excited to move on to the civil."

While Lawson and the lawyers left court through the front, Bridgeton police went out the way they came in, the back door, with an escort from local police - and no comment.

Cole reports the state of New Jersey has now appealed the ruling.

Meanwhile, the officers have been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, but still face an ongoing internal affairs probe.

RELATED REPORT: Bridgeton Mayor Reacts To Police Traffic Stop Video

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