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County attorney drops eight criminal cases due to an illegal search by New Jersey cops

The officers’ credibility is under fire.

The Bergen County Courthouse in Hackensack, New JerseyFlickr

Gurbir S. Grewal assumed his role as the top prosecutor in Bergen County, New Jersey in January, and he’s already making headlines for doing what too few county and district attorneys are willing to do: emphasize justice instead of the fierce desire to convict. According to court records obtained by The Bergen Record, Grewal dropped eight criminal cases against 17 defendants in July, because of alleged officer misconduct.

The legal drama began in December, when seven officers from the Hackensack Police Department allegedly investigated “narcotics activity” in an apartment building and broke into a unit “without a search warrant or other legal justification,” the records say. All but one were in plainclothes, and they were not sent there by a dispatcher. The group entered the unit after an officer picked open the lock on the front door. Surveillance later showed the group improperly handling evidence as well.

The sequence of events differed drastically from the one described by an officer who was at the scene.

After the search was conducted, Detective Mark Gutierrez submitted an investigation report that was ultimately found to contain falsified information. He said he and other narcotics officers were looking into possible drug activity at an apartment building when the group was informed by an anonymous source that a child may have been alone in one of the units there. Gutierrez also wrote that the officers entered the apartment when they realized it was unlocked and nobody was coming to the door. His report was verified by a colleague who was also present during the illegal search.

The Internal Affairs office within the police department later discovered those details to be untrue. It launched an investigation of the search when a letter from an anonymous source was found in the office’s mailbox. “Captain Riotto and his boys covered up 64 Prospect Ave, the reports are full of lies!!!” the source wrote. “You think your guys got away with it, we know what really happened.” After some digging, Internal Affairs investigators discovered various inconsistencies between Gutierrez’ telling of the story and what actually happened. In May, the officers were suspended for launching the illegal search, lying about it, and mismanaging evidence at the scene.

The illegal search cast doubt on the integrity of other criminal cases the officers had a hand in. As a result, Grewal ultimately decided that those cases had to be thrown out altogether.

“We do not take the decision to dismiss criminal charges against seventeen criminal defendants lightly, but the conduct of the Subject Officers leaves us no other choice,” Grewal informed the police department last month. “Simply put, their conduct undermines their credibility as law enforcement witnesses.”

Police officers and prosecutors have a co-dependent relationship, working together to make arrests, gather evidence, and build criminal cases against defendants. It is a partnership that requires trust, and often results in one group turning a blind eye when the other breaks the rule of law. The decision to drop criminal cases and question the credibility of police officers in such a public way is a bold one for Bergen County’s top prosecutor, who has only been in office for seven months.

The eight criminal cases weren’t the only ones to be thrown out due to officer misconduct this summer. A similar decision was recently made by County District Attorney Kristen Barnebey in Aransas County, Texas. Barnebey announced her office will not accept any criminal cases from the Rockport Police Department due to evidence suppression. She will only take cases when Rockport officers show a commitment to the rule of law.

But even though it is the responsibility of all prosecutors, including district and county attorneys, to ensure that criminal cases are fair and just, both Grewal and Barnebey are the rare ones willing to do so — despite possible fallout.

In Bergen County, one of the officers accused of misconduct, Det. Rocco Duardo, is suing Grewal and the Prosecutor’s office, Hackensack police, and the City of Hackensack for allegedly labeling him a “Brady officer.” It’s a label used to describe officers who are dishonest on the job and consequently flagged for prosecutors as people who could undermine a case.

“This is just a hang-job,” Duardo’s lawyer told the news organization. “The worst-case scenario for these cops is they were over-zealous in engaging in their police mission … no one’s alleged to have stolen anything, no one’s alleged to have engaged in any kind of personal gain with this.”