Out Front

Christie Pardons Police Officer:
By Robert A Bianchi, Esq.

One of Gov. Christie’s last official acts was to pardon a number of people who were convicted of criminal offenses. A pardon excuses the conduct and releases the person from any penalties that were, or are, imposed. But, it is not an exoneration. It merely “pardons” the wrongdoing, it is not a declaration of innocence.

One of those pardons that caught my attention involved a police officer. If you have read my previous writings, you would know that I have considerable disagreement with impact of the Official Misconduct statute and how it is being applied (or misapplied in my mind) to police officers in very harsh ways. This “whopper” of a statute severely punishes government officials who commit any official use of their position wrongly. A few years ago, the penalty/punishment for this offense was raised to a minimum mandatory sentence of five years without parole!

“Wrongdoing” under that law ranges from committing a crime itself (which in the past was the place prosecutors used this statute) to now include even misdeeds that are no more than minor department rule infractions. That’s right! A violation of rule and/or regulation can be the basis of that harsh five-year period of parole ineligibility.

When this statue’s penalties were being ratcheted up when I was prosecutor, I vehemently objected, arguing that in time this statute would be abused, and police officers would bear the brunt of it. We have seen this unfortunately become a true statement.

In the Christie pardon case, the officer clearly violated the rules and regulations and ran a CCH for a friend who wanted to know if someone had a criminal background. While that is a minor crime itself, it is also an act of official misconduct if you parse out the statute’s meaning.

Here is how this kind of case plays out for cops all the time. This officer had no real defense to improperly running the CCH. While I don’t condone what he did (and had similar cases when I was prosecutor), it is still something that in my mind could as easily be punished with a strong administrative response, as opposed to a criminal prosecution.

But, here is where cops who violate even rules that are not criminal in nature are in serious danger.

I represent many cops, and it is the same drill. An otherwise good cop does a thing that violates a rule or regulation, and for some reason in many cases, the administration decides (and as we all know that is a HUGE discussion for a different day) that this is something they want to pursue with the prosecutor. Technically, the evidence shows the cop did violate a rule, but the question becomes is it worthy of criminal prosecution. In my mind, most times it is not–but again–other prosecutors seem to be pursuing official misconduct charges in such cases with greater frequency.

Prosecutors now leverage the official misconduct statute and say in essence: “If the cop pleads to a lesser offense, forfeits their job, gives up their pension, and agrees never to hold public office again, we will not file official misconduct charges. If they are unwilling to do this, we will pursue official misconduct charges with the mandatory five-year period of parole ineligibility.”

This inevitably forces many officers to (for even a minor rule infraction) plead guilty to a lesser offense, rather than face going to jail for a period of time that violent criminals many times do not get. This is exactly the kind of scenario that occurred in the case where Gov. Christie pardoned the police officer.

To me, this pardon made complete sense.

Now, many look forward to this man’s return to work as a police officer, but I am not so sure that he will get his job back, even though I don’t think he should have lost it in the first place.

A pardon is not innocence; it doesn’t mean he didn’t do it. It means the “transgression” is forgiven. But, to be rehired with this in your background is not a given. We will keep you updated as this man tries to get rehired.

Lastly, I have for years attempted to get elected officials to end this madness. While most agree the law is being abused, they fear being seen in the public as being “soft on crime” if they were to change it and make it more reasonable.

It is my hope that Gov. Murphy, who has great respect for police officers and for criminal justice reform issues, will have the courage to get this done.

Robert A. Bianchi, Esq., served as the Morris County Prosecutor from June 22, 2007 through February 8, 2013. The New Jersey Supreme Court has awarded him the distinction of being a Certified Criminal Trial Attorney, with less than 1% of the attorneys (approximately 250 attorneys) in this State who are so qualified. Mr. Bianchi is a nationally recognized TV Legal Analyist on many networks and regularly appears weekly on Fox News Network.