Twice I’ve been convicted of crimes in the state of New Jersey based on the false testimony of police officers. The first time, 2014, I overcame the false testimony in appeals court. The second time, 2018, the court sided with the officer and I was branded with a criminal conviction. This triggers me to take a closer look as to why his happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.
Why New Jersey?
I spend a minority of my time in New Jersey yet a disproportionate amount of my legal issues over the decades are in that state. I do have a substantial legal history there. the earliest cases I served as a witness in civil cases against Donald Trump decades ago for not paying my small business clients. The most famous was a 2013 case where an elected official was charged with attempted manslaughter in a witnessed conspiracy plan to “take me out”. Despite a credible witness who cooperated with investigators and a grand jury that recommended more serious charges, the more serious crime of criminal conspiracy was not prosecuted. It was listed only as a case of simple assault by motor vehicle and the politician was never charged with a crime.
Another example was the 3rd time DUI offender who hit me, was indicted by a grand jury, admitted fault in written confession, a restitution payment was assigned. But then after politically connected people got involved, he was admitted to a first time offenders program where he failed to appear for any drug tests, did not pay restitution, and the prosecutor “lost the file” so he was escaped all consequences. I wasn’t informed of any of this and only learned the details months later. I met with the county prosecutor who denied responsibility for the failure and blamed her predecessor. My protest get the case put back on the court docket for prosecution. Then about a year later, the case disappeared from the docket again without being prosecuted. It was clear that the swamp was more than I could handle. In other instances I turned credible death threats including a record of the source telephone number that were not investigated by state police. Less than a month after one of these death threats I was actually run down in the incident above. This was not likely a coincidence. I’m not suggesting that all of these past legal issues are related, however I am saying that it is improbable that there is no connection among any of them at all.
In the years since I’ve become a vocal supporter of environmental justice in the state of New Jersey and I’ve given supporting statements to prosecutors who were (or still are?; they don’t say so publicly) investigating corruption by elected officials.
Contrast that to my record in Pennsylvania and Delaware where I have much more business exposure but little legal history. I can only conclude that the business and political corruption climate is more hostile in New Jersey. The book “Collapse” by professor Jared Diamond makes a strong case that tensions between civilians and government are heightened when environmental stress increases as it has in my region of south Jersey.
Why do officers lie?
The core question is what makes an officer lie? In both cases the officer approached me at my home to ask questions about an investigation matter that did not primarily involve me. In both cases I said that I did not have information they requested. In both cases they fabricated stories that allowed them to issue me a citation. The first happened when I was gardening in my front lawn. The second happened when I was working on my truck in the driveway. In both cases I suspect that the officer’s ego was a factor. My disinterested demeanor and refusal to engage in further conversation probably further provoked them. Coincidently, both happened on an otherwise quiet Sunday afternoon.
In both of my cases it seems unlikely that the officers did not know they were lying. In both cases the officers did not speak with me in person with the offense but inserted it later into their written incident report. In both cases, I learned about the allegation of the offense when I read the incident report after receiving the citation. In the first case, the officer told me on the scene that he was upset that I was “impeding an investigation” by refusing to talk to him. He said that he could charge me with obstruction of justice. But when the citation came in the mail some days later, it said that I was aggressive that I “assumed a boxing stance”, that he felt threatened, and the charge was disorderly conduct. In the second case the officer told me that she was investigating other people who sold crabs but when the citation came in the mail it said that I admitted to selling crabs. It is possible that the officers view the report writing stage as an opportunity to embellish and strengthen their intended case.
In both cases the police officers were in their first year of service. I don’t know if that was a factor. However, I do suspect that as the case moved along to the stage of writing a written incident report, the report would have been considered insufficient in supporting the commission of a crime by a superior without the embellished statements. So I suspect, without any evidence of course, that the desire for approval by a superior, and the strong motivation to avoid admitting improper action at this early stage of career, is a motivating factor.
Communities like Philadelphia are taking action against the longstanding abusive prosecutorial practices of police officers. The department has quality controls in place to prevent improper prosecutions. I do not see any such protections in New Jersey municipal or appeal courts.
The difference between the winning and losing case
In the first case, it was the officer’s testimony (that I was trying to punch him) against mine (that I was trying to back away and go back into my house). There was no other witness or evidence. In the second case it was the officer’s testimony (that I admitted to selling crabs) combined with Facebook and internet photos (none that were written by me or included me directly but the web pages were somehow connected to me) vs my verbal (testimony that I did not buy or sell crabs). I suspect that it was the collaborating internet pictures, even if the logic was weak, that persuaded the court.
In both cases I was represented by lawyers at the initial municipal court hearing. I understood that the court almost always sides with the officer over the civilian. That proved true. I understood that the real trial is in appeals court. In both cases I felt that my attorney was ineffective in the courtroom so I represented myself at appeal. Based on my limited track record of one win and one loss, I can’t reach any conclusion on the effectiveness of that strategy. Simply put, I lack information on whether using an attorney is productive.
Threat to CPA license
The state CPA Board can revoke a professional license for a criminal offense. It’s a bit more complicated than that; for example Delaware law states that the crime must be related to the practice of accounting. I would have the opportunity to appeal. In the first case I followed instruction of my attorney and reported is as a “No” on the legal questions asked by the Board based on the decision in appeals court. In the second case I reported it as a “Yes” to legal issues. From there it is up to the Board.
What protections are available?
How can I prevent becoming a victim to this type of bad police behavior? Avoidance and recordings are probably the best approach. If approached by an officer again, I would do my best to leave, get inside and lock up. I’ve installed home security cameras that would record the conversations that could prove me innocent in each case. Unfortunately, I didn’t have them at the time of my two legal issues. I would hope to have my wits enough to record any future interaction with police on my cell phone. An auto dash cam would be a good idea. Recently, on Memorial Day weekend, I suspected a stake out at my home/business. The word “Police” was visible on the paint of the otherwise unmarked vehicle. The police truck stayed for 90 minutes outside my home and there wasn’t anyone at my home or in my rural neighborhood except me.
In the future, I would not be willing to take a phone call from a police officer or allow them to enter my office or home without a court order.
Perhaps the local community has some resource that serves as a liaison between the citizens and the prosecutor’s office.
Finally, I should become better informed on the rights of individuals to oppose actions by officers that seem inappropriate.
In the end, there is only so much we can do as citizens to combat lies in testimony by police officers. As long as courts are willing to side with law enforcement officers over civilians, the problem will remain. The growth of video evidence seems to be our best defense. Perhaps I’m jaded but I see more misconduct among officers than among the general public. Some people, unfortunately, must live with the long term result of bad police officers. In my case the worst outcome is loss of my CPA license, but I am alive and not in prison. In other cases the victims are not so lucky. Stories of false prosecutions are in the news daily. I am reminded that some do not survive the encounter with a rogue police officer.