On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Docket No. MA-91-2007.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Skillman and Fuentes.
Richard Wright was formerly employed by the Township of Piscataway as a police officer. He was terminated from that position after he was found guilty of taking illegal substances and lying to investigators about his drug use. Wright now appeals from the judgment of the Law Division, entered after a de novo proceeding pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40A:14-150, sustaining his removal from office. We affirm.
We gather the following facts from the evidence presented during a departmental disciplinary hearing conducted before a hearing officer to adjudicate the charges against Wright. The Law Division relied upon these facts when it conducted its de novo review pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40A:14-150.
The Piscataway Police Department hired Wright as a police officer on May 16, 2005. On June 11, 2007, Wright's estranged wife Cheryl Wright met with Captain Rick Ivone and the chief of police to discuss her suspicions that Wright was abusing steroids illegally. Mrs. Wright brought with her to the meeting prescription bottles, a handbook on steroids, syringes, and a letter envelope containing handwritten notes on steroids, presumably written by her husband.*fn1 She told Ivone that Wright had began working out at a local gym in the last year and "became big at one point"; he also had acne on his back.
Mrs. Wright produced news articles from the internet stating that the doctor who prescribed her husband these medications, Dr. Claire Godfrey, had recently been arrested and charged with steroid distribution and writing false prescriptions. It is undisputed that Wright obtained a prescription*fn2 over the internet written by Dr. Godfrey for Nandrolone, an anabolic steroid. It is also undisputed that Wright never had a face-to-face meeting or consultation with Dr. Godfrey in New Jersey or anywhere else. All of his interactions with this Florida physician were conducted over the internet.
Armed with this information, Ivone formally began an internal affairs investigation to determine whether there were grounds to charge Wright with violating department regulation Article 7E, which states: "Permanently appointed officers who produce a positive test result indicating unlawful drug use or who refuse to submit a urine sample will be dismissed from employment." On that same day, June 11, 2007, Ivone notified Wright of the investigation. He then asked Wright to produce a urine sample and complete a medical form to disclose any medications he was taking that might appear in the test results.
Wright listed two prescription medications for hypertension, Toprol and Triamterene, and Excedrine, an over-the-counter pain medicine. The results of Wright's urine sample taken on June 11, 2007, were positive for the steroid Nandrolone, also referred to in the record as Anadrol. Ivone confronted Wright the following day with the test results and showed him the drug vials Mrs. Wright had given to him earlier; Wright's PBA representative was also present at this meeting.
Ivone gave the following description of what occurred next:
[a]t that point [Wright] stared at the vials. He wanted to know if we were charging him criminally. He was very quiet, didn't say anything. He indicated that possibly these drugs were for his dad, then backed off of that, you know, kept asking about the criminal charges, then he said - then he came out, you know, some of them might be for sexual dysfunction. He kept saying that he took any medication in good faith. He said that, you know, he had high blood pressure and he had sexual dysfunction, so that he was taking some of those other medications and that these medications could be there.
But we repeatedly asked if these were his and he would not answer and then right before the end of the interview, he kind of nodded that, yeah, they were his.
Ivone's investigation also revealed that Wright had not purchased the Nandrolone through his employer-provided prescription plan. By contrast, when Wright sought treatment for erectile dysfunction he was treated by two New Jersey physicians and the cost of the treatment and the medication ...