On March 23, 2010, the Appellate Division decided In the Matter of Keith Curry, Vernon Township, Docket No.: A-4662-07T2. In the case, Keith Curry, a police officer with the Vernon Township Police Department (“the Department”), appealed from a final decision of the Merit System Board (“the Board”) rejecting the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) initial decision reducing his suspension to 15 days and imposing a 30 day suspension for conduct unbecoming a public employee.

On March 31, 2005, a murder-suicide occurred in Vernon Township. Detective Sean Talt participated in the crime scene investigation and took a photograph of the suicide victim on his cellular telephone. Although not involved in the investigation, Curry asked Talt if he could view the photograph, as he had never been involved in such an investigation. Talt forwarded the photograph to Curry via cellular telephone and advised him not to share the photograph with anyone else, describing it as “for police eyes only.” Despite these instructions, Curry forwarded the photograph to a civilian female friend and told her to view it and delete it. However, before being deleted, this individual’s brother viewed the photograph, forwarded it to his own cellular phone, and shared it with several other members of the public.

Curry was charged with conduct unbecoming a public employee and violation of departmental rules and regulations. As to the latter, the ALJ concluded that the Department had not demonstrated a violation of a rule or regulation, but the ALJ concluded that “appellant’s conduct constituted conduct unbecoming a public employee, as it clearly signaled poor judgment.” 

On appeal, Curry does not challenge the finding, but argues that the 30 day suspension imposed by the Board was excessive. The Appellate Division rejected Curry’s argument and affirmed the Board’s determination. After carefully reviewing the record, the Court found no abuse of discretion and was satisfied the Board’s decision was not arbitrary or capricious and the suspension imposed was justified. According to the Court, the police investigation and the rights of the family may have been compromised by the unlawful distribution of the photograph.  Specifically, the Court indicated that there is a significant difference between sharing evidence with a fellow police officer and exposing the same evidence to the public for no good or valid reason.

The case illustrates the importance of law enforcement officers to not disseminate case evidence to the public and be guided in their use of cellular telephones. Though the technology age and the use of cellular telephones has no doubt aided law enforcement and streamlined certain investigations, they have also increased the exposure of law enforcement officers and increased the likelihood of investigations being compromised.