In the matter of O’Rourke v. City of Lambertville, Docket No. A-0481-07T3, the Defendants appeal the trial court’s decision: (1) reversing the Lambertville City Council’s decision removing Plaintiff, Michael O’Rourke, from his position as a police officer; (2) reinstating Plaintiff to his position; and (3) denying their motion for reconsideration. Defendant, Bruce Cocuzza, is the city’s civilian police director. Plaintiff, a sergeant first class, was the police department’s Terminal Agency Coordinator (“TAC”) for the National Crime Information Center (“NCIC”) system, which contains a wide array of law enforcement information.
The city charged Plaintiff with conducting unauthorized and improper employee background investigations, in defiance of Cocuzza’s direct order, and engaging in conduct subversive to the good order and discipline of the department in doing so. At the disciplinary hearing, Cocuzza testified that he and Plaintiff were discussing the temporary transfer of an employee from city hall to the department when Plaintiff told him that the employee would have to submit to a background check or be fingerprinted for security purposes. Cocuzza said he told Plaintiff that no action should be taken until Cocuzza received written authorization from “somebody in authority” and spoke with the city attorney regarding same. Later, Cocuzza learned Plaintiff had performed background investigations of five civilian employees of the department, including Cocuzza, without authorization.
After the officer assigned who was assigned to the department’s internal affairs unit declined to investigate because of his long-term social relationship with Plaintiff, Cocuzza decided to conduct the investigation himself. In his report, Cocuzza wrote that Plaintiff had been insubordinate and that his actions constituted a serious breach of discipline and a flagrant abuse of authority.
Plaintiff testified that he performed the checks under his authority as TAC officer, indicating that under the State’s security policy anyone with access to the NCIC system had to have a background check and fingerprints taken. He also stated that he understood Cocuzza to mean that he should not ask anyone for their fingerprints, which he did not do. He did concede that he did criminal checks on five employees, including Cocuzza.
The City Council found plaintiff guilty of insubordination and ordered his removal. Plaintiff then filed this action seeking a de novo review of the city’s action. He alleged that Cocuzza exceeded his authority by conducting the investigation and, in doing so, violated the department’s internal affairs procedures, the attorney general’s guidelines, N.J.S.A. 40A:14-181, and his right to due process. The trial judge found that regardless of whether plaintiff violated Cocuzza’s order or any other department rule, the investigation was not conducted in conformity with the rules and regulations adopted by the city and the attorney general’s guidelines and, as a result, Plaintiff’s due process rights were violated. The trial judge reinstated Plaintiff with back pay and awarded him attorneys’ fees and costs. This appeal followed.
The Appellate Division held that when a law enforcement agency adopts rules pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40A:14-181 to implement the attorney general’s guidelines, it has an obligation to comply with those rules. Since the department failed to do so and deficiencies tainted the entire disciplinary process, the city’s decision to remove Plaintiff cannot stand. The Court further noted that Cocuzza’s failure to comply with the city’s rules does not rise to the level of denying Plaintiff’s constitutional rights to due process, but the failure warrants affirmance of the trial court’s order reinstating Plaintiff.
The rules at issue were adopted pursuant to 40A:14-181, which requires every law enforcement agency in this state to adopt guidelines that are consistent with those promulgated by the attorney general. The guidelines require every law enforcement agency to establish an internal affairs unit to receive, investigate and resolve complaints of officer misconduct. They also detail the procedures to be followed in investigating such complaints, including that serious complaints must be investigated by an internal affairs investigator, who must conduct a thorough and objective investigation and submit an objective report.
In this case, the City Council adopted rules governing the operations of the city’s police department in accordance with the guidelines. When Cocuzza undertook the investigation himself, he failed to adhere to the city’s rules. Moreover, the city’s rules require that the investigation be undertaken in a fair and objective manner. Since the principle allegation was that Plaintiff acted in defiance of Cocuzza’s directives and Cocuzza was the focus of one of the background checks, he could not be expected to perform the kind of objective investigation required by the attorney general’s guidelines and the city’s rules. In addition, Cocuzza wrote a report that was not objective. It contained his “opinions, conclusions and personality” in violation of the rules.
Based upon this, the Court indicated that the deficiencies in the investigative process were not trivial and not cured by the evidentiary hearing provided by the City Council. Cocuzza’s lack of objectivity in the investigation undermined the fairness of the entire proceeding and required reversal of the decision to remove him.