On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Civil Part, Gloucester County, Docket No. L-606-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted: April 21, 2008
Before Judges Collester, C.S. Fisher and C.L. Miniman.
Appellant Sgt. Jacqueline Smith (Smith) appeals from a de novo judgment of the Law Division concluding that she violated the Rules and Regulations (Rules) as well as the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) of respondent East Greenwich Township Police Department (Department) and imposing two concurrent thirty-day suspensions. We affirm.
At 9:00 p.m. on July 4, 2003, Smith was at the police station starting her work as shift supervisor while two patrol officers on her squad, John Seas and William Crothers, were on patrol. At 9:24 p.m. Seas stopped a vehicle on Matuna Road for a traffic violation and discovered that there was an active $2500 arrest warrant against the driver. Seas arrested the driver and placed him in his car to take him to the station. Smith was in contact with Seas over the radio and learned about the arrest.
In the meantime, at approximately 9:15 p.m. that night, Crothers encountered a line of cars partially blocking East Cohawkin Road at Jessup Mill Road to watch a fireworks display. Crothers instructed the drivers to clear the road before proceeding to the source of the fireworks at 309 Barbara Drive. He found a party at which guests were drinking and setting off fireworks. Crothers located the homeowner and told him to stop setting off the fireworks and turn them over to him. One of the guests helped Crothers gather the fireworks to be confiscated. As this was happening, other guests became angry at Crothers and shouted profanities at him. Crothers radioed for help, but Seas was occupied and there was no response from Smith, who explained later that she did not hear the call. One of the hosts, Rosemary Lee, was heard to say that she would "get Jackie out here." This was a reference to Smith with whom Lee was friendly. Crothers returned to the station with the fireworks, making no arrests.
Lee apparently called the police station because the county dispatcher contacted Smith to tell her that Lee had called to ask her to come to the house on Barbara Drive and that it was not an emergency. Smith suspected that it was related to Crothers's action in confiscating the fireworks at the party. She told dispatch that it was July Fourth in an admittedly "comical" manner. Smith left the station at approximately 9:33 p.m. to help Seas. She spoke to him on the radio to let him know that she was on her way, but Seas replied that he had already made the arrest and was heading back to the station. Smith mentioned to Seas that Crothers had confiscated her friend's fireworks and suggested that he had overreacted. Instead of returning to the station to help Seas with the prisoner, she drove to 309 Barbara Drive. Smith spoke to Lee for a few minutes without exiting her car. Lee complained that her fireworks had been confiscated. By the time Smith returned, Seas and the prisoner had been in the station for approximately four minutes. Without her supervision, Seas violated police procedure by not using the "sallyport" to bring the arrestee into the police station, by handcuffing him in front of his body and by processing the arrestee at Seas's desk rather than in the cell block.
Smith spoke with Crothers at the station and told him that he should not have confiscated fireworks at a Fourth of July party. Crothers then wrote up a report describing his encounter at 309 Barbara Drive. He submitted it to Smith and she asked to speak to him about it. Smith asked Crothers to alter the report to remove references to the partygoers' intoxication and use of profanity. Crothers said that he made the changes, believing Smith's request to be an order. Smith acknowledged that she spoke with Crothers about the incident but denied that she asked him to alter the report.
Smith received multiple disciplinary charges stemming from complaints by Seas and Crothers. The police department conducted an internal investigation and on September 17, 2003, Smith received eleven administrative complaint forms alleging thirty-five violations of the Rules and SOPs.
The hearing officer, who was a municipal court judge, presided over a hearing which began on July 6, 2004, continued for eight additional days and ended on October 27, 2004. On February 23, 2005, the hearing officer issued a decision sustaining only two of the charges: violating the Cell Block Facility Management Policy, SOP 39:4-10.2(b), and falsifying a report in violation of Rule 5.3.3. The first violation found by the hearing officer was based on Smith deviating from her obligation to assist a subordinate officer with an arrest, instead driving to respond to a call from Lee. The second violation was based on Smith pressuring Crothers, a subordinate officer, to alter his report of the incident with Lee. On March 15, 2005, the hearing officer imposed concurrent ninety-day suspensions for each violation. Smith appealed this decision to the Law Division on March 31, 2005.
On October 3, 2006, the Law Division judge conducted a de novo hearing pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40A:14-150. He issued a letter opinion on May 4, 2007, sustaining both of the charges but reducing the penalty to concurrent 30-day suspensions.
First, the judge found that Smith's conduct on July 4, 2003, violated SOP 39:4-10.2(b), which requires a patrol supervisor shift commander to assist an arresting officer and oversee "all aspects of prisoner and detainee custody while a prisoner or detainee is in headquarters." The judge determined, based on Smith's own testimony, that she knew Seas had made an arrest and that he was returning to the police station with the arrestee, but she was not present when Seas arrived at the station. By detouring to speak to Lee when Smith knew that Seas was returning with a prisoner to the station, she violated the SOP.
Second, the judge found that Smith's conduct violated Section 5.3.3 of the Department's Rules. This rule forbids officers from knowingly falsifying a report or causing false, inaccurate or improper information to be entered in a report. The judge based this decision on Seas's testimony in which he stated that Smith had apologized to Crothers for not warning him about the party in advance and explained that she did not want to have to sign criminal complaints. Further, the judge cited to Smith's testimony in which she acknowledged telling the county dispatcher that it was July Fourth in a "comical" manner. The judge concluded that this was evidence of a concerted effort to influence Crothers's report, ...