Discipline of Non-Civil Service Police Officers Under New Jersey Employment Law
Our society gives law enforcement officers significant power in the course of their vocation to enforce the law and protect our citizens. In return, it places great responsibility to exercise that power wisely, and places rules and restrictions on police officers that other employees do not face. Because of the importance of their jobs, the responsibilities society imposes on officers, and the strict paramilitary regulations they are required to follow, New Jersey employment law gives officers due process rights that other employees do not enjoy.
In jurisdictions that have adopted New Jersey’s Civil Service Act, those protections are found in the Civil Service laws and regulations themselves. However, in non-civil service jurisdictions officers still have heightened due process protections enacted by the New Jersey Legislature.
Due Process for Non-Civil Service Police Officers
The most important protections is found in section 40A:14-147 of New Jersey Statutes, which provides:
Except as otherwise provided by law, no permanent member or officer of the police department or force shall be removed from his office, employment or position for political reasons or for any cause other than incapacity, misconduct, or disobedience of rules and regulations established for the government of the police department and force, nor shall such member or officer be suspended, removed, fined or reduced in rank from or in office, employment, or position therein, except for just cause as hereinbefore provided and then only upon a written complaint setting forth the charge or charges against such member or officer. The complaint shall be filed in the office of the body, officer or officers having charge of the department or force wherein the complaint is made and a copy shall be served upon the member or officer so charged, with notice of a designated hearing thereon by the proper authorities, which shall be not less than 10 nor more than 30 days from date of service of the complaint.
Reasons for Discipline
The reasons a police officer can be disciplined are restricted. An officer can only be terminated “incapacity, misconduct, or disobedience of rules and regulations established for the government of the police department and force.” Misconduct also includes conviction of criminal offenses.
Moreover, officers can only be “suspended, removed, fined or reduced in rank” because of “just cause.” Just cause includes the same reasons for termination, but is broader.
The Hearing: Notice and the Opportunity to be Heard
The statute also requires that prior to final discipline being imposed, the officer must receive a written complaint advising her the charges against the officer. The officer must receive a hearing within ten to thirty days of when the complaint is served.
In the 2013 case of Ruroede v. Borough of Hasbrouck Heightsthe New Jersey Supreme Court examined the procedures to be followed in these hearings and follow-up appeals. The employer bears the burden of proof to prove the charges at the hearing by a preponderance of the evidence. The officer or her attorney can call witnesses, cross-examine the employer’s witnesses, and introduce documentary and other evidence.
Appeal to the Superior Court
After a decision is made, the aggrieved party can appeal to the Law Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey. There, a Superior Court judge will conduct a “de novo” review of the record below. This means that the judge will review the record below, including the documents introduced and the testimony of the witnesses, with a fresh set of eyes, and make her own decision based on that evidence. Generally witnesses do not testify, but the judge can allow the parties to supplement the record with new evidence, including testimony. The employer once again bears the burden of proving the charges by a preponderance of the evidence.
A losing party may appeal the Law Division’s decision to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court. This appeal is as of right.
However, the final appeal is to the New Jersey Supreme Court. There is no automatic right to appeal to the Supreme Court unless there is a dissent in the Appellate Division’s decision. If there is no dissent, the Supreme Court has the right to hear the appeal or not to hear it.
Our New Jersey employment attorneys represent police officers in disciplinary actions in employer level hearings and throughout all levels of the appeal process. Call us at (973) 890-0004 or fill out the contact form to set up a consultation with one of our employment lawyers. We can help.