Erie County will provide $1.1 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a former University at Buffalo student whose civil rights were violated when a sheriff’s deputy beat him outside a Buffalo Bills game in 2017 and threw him in jail.
The money will go to Nicholas Belsito, who now lives in North Carolina, and the lawyers who filed the case against Deputy Kenneth P. Achtyl, his partner James W. Flowers and Sheriff Timothy B. Howard.
As Howard watched, an Orchard Park jury convicted Achtyl in 2019 of reckless assault, official misconduct and falsifying business records after body camera video of the unprovoked attack was played time and again.
Achtyl and Flowers were part of the regular security squad patrolling stadium grounds. As tailgate parties raged before a game against the New England Patriots, Belsito approached Achtyl with a question but was repeatedly told to "beat it."
The UB student walked off, then hurled a curse word at the deputy, who chased after him, broke his nose, gave him a concussion and placed him under arrest, even though it is not a crime to swear at a police officer in New York.
The guilty verdicts in the criminal trial hamstrung the county's ability to defend itself from the lawsuit alleging, among other things, that Belsito was arrested unlawfully. This past summer, a federal magistrate judge ruled Achtyl violated Belsito’s Fourth and 14th Amendment protections from unlawful arrest and seizure, and that Achtyl was liable for battery.
The ruling meant that if the case went to trial, a jury could focus only on the compensation Belsito was due, not on whether the county should compensate him.
Insurance pays most of settlement
Erie County is self-insured and pays most monetary settlements from taxpayer dollars. However, the Bills long ago insisted Erie County carry insurance for stadium security. The insurer – AXA XL Insurance, according to court documents – has provided $1 million of the settlement amount. County government will pay the remaining $100,000.
The Buffalo News ascertained the settlement amount through a Freedom of Information request after lawyers on both sides vowed to keep terms of the accord private.
Belsito, according to the deal, cannot talk to the news media about the lawsuit's resolution and the facts of the settlement. The same goes for his lawyer, Aaron F. Glazer.
“I am bound by a confidentiality agreement and therefore cannot comment on the resolution of the claim with any specificity," Glazer said. "With that being said, the Belsito family is satisfied with the resolution of the claim and pleased that the policies of the Sheriff's Office have been altered as a result. At the end of the day, Nick is glad to have the matter behind him.”
During a deposition, Howard told Glazer the Sheriff's Office has informed deputies that being sworn at does not, on its own, violate the law. The state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, said as much in a decision issued two years before Belsito was beaten.
Achtyl resigned from the Sheriff's Office soon after he was found guilty. Flowers remains a deputy. Meanwhile, Howard leaves office at the end of the year with one of the most visible entanglements of his incumbency settled. Howard sat in on the trial, criticized the district attorney for allowing the video to go public, lamented the verdicts against his deputy and asked the judge to go easy when sentencing Achtyl, who received no jail time.