Covid-19 In The Courts Recent News

AG Grewal Releases Guidance Addressing Municipal Court Prosecutions of COVID-19 Related Offenses

TRENTON – On June 17, 2020, Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal today released guidance addressing prosecutions of COVID-19 related offenses, which is designed to ensure that there is accuracy, uniformity and consistency by municipal prosecutors and in municipal courts throughout the state.

“While the vast majority of New Jersey residents followed the Governor’s Executive Orders and helped us to slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives, and continue to do so, some did not,” said Attorney General Grewal. “We have a duty as law enforcement officers to bring violators to justice, and to do so in a way that ensures uniformity. We also have a responsibility to exercise discretion in the interests of justice, including to use diversion programs and community court if available. My guidance today advises municipal prosecutors on the best ways to achieve those important goals of uniformity and consistency, deterrence, and responsible discretion.”

The guidance emphasizes that no municipal prosecutor may adopt a categorical policy or practice of refusing to enforce COVID-19 related charges, but provides a significant number of options for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in individual cases to achieve the interests of justice. The guidance notes that a categorical policy of refusing to enforce such charges would be inappropriate because each charge had already been reviewed and approved by a designated county prosecutor or assistant prosecutor—as the Attorney General previously required—and also that such a policy would lead to disparate administration of these laws.

The guidance does provide municipal prosecutors with significant options for using discretion in appropriate cases involving violations of the Governor’s Executive Orders.

The guidance makes clear that prosecutors may accept a plea to a lesser or other offense, move to amend an original charge, and request dismissal of a charge. While one reason to do so would be where the prosecutor believes there is insufficient evidence, the guidance adds that other factors include the individual’s age and criminal history, and the nature and circumstances of the offense, including whether the individual had been previously warned, whether their offense jeopardized the health, welfare, or safety of another person, including a minor, and whether their misconduct required a significant law enforcement or first responder response.

In general, “a municipal prosecutor may also consider the impact of adverse collateral consequences of a conviction based on the specific circumstances or factors presented by the defendant or elicited by the court.”

The guidance also emphasizes the role of condition dismissals, diversion programs and community court, whenever appropriate in the interest of justice. Factors again would include the nature and circumstances, the actions of the defendant, and the needs and interest of any victim.

The guidance addresses the impact of Executive Order 152. Last week, Governor Murphy announced that, going forward, all outdoor political activity—and all outdoor worship services—would be permitted to gather in any number, in recognition of the lower risks of COVID-19 transmission outdoors and the centrality of these activities to society.

The guidance makes clear that in order to “ensure that all outdoor political activities and outdoor worship services receive uniform treatment,” the Attorney General is directing prosecutors to dismiss the limited number of Executive Order violations that were previously filed against organizers of outdoor political protests or outdoor religious services.

Based on the information the Division of Criminal Justice has to date, five individuals have been charged with such violations, and no individual protestors or worshipers have been cited.

Click the image below to read Attorney General Grewal’s Directive:

Bright Side Feature Stories In The Courts

Cape May County Recovery Court to Graduate 49 Participants June 24

The Atlantic/Cape May Vicinage will recognize the successes of 49 graduates from the Cape May County recovery court program during two virtual graduation ceremonies on Wednesday, June 24.

“We’re looking forward to one of the largest graduations from recovery court in Cape May County’s history. We are proud, beyond belief, of our graduates, especially given the significant impacts of the health crisis on the challenges of recovery,” said Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Waldman, who leads Cape May County’s recovery court program.

Invitations for graduation ceremonies at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. will be extended to graduates, their friends and family, treatment providers, and court staff. The ceremonies mark the culmination of recovery court participants’ three-year journey from addiction to recovery and the continuation of their productive, substance-free lives.

The recovery court team, led by Judge Waldman and staffed by court personnel, attorneys, probation officers, substance abuse evaluators, and treatment professionals, have continued their efforts during this pandemic to support each participant in their individual journeys.

The ceremonies will include encouraging words from Assignment Judge Julio L. Mendez, Judge Waldman, Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland, Cape May County Public Defender Jesse Dean, and Recovery Court Coordinator Sherry Phillips. Allie Nunzi, who has supported participants’ recovery through Yoga sessions, will give the keynote address.

Consistent with virtual court sessions throughout the state, the graduations will be conducted using Zoom technology.

“I am proud of each participant. Although they are graduating, each has had his or her own recovery journey. They should take pride in how far they have come and have confidence in how far they can go,” Phillips said

In The Courts Police & Fire Recent News

Trenton Man Charged in Magnolia, Somerdale Armed Robberies

Camden, N.J. – A Trenton man has been charged in two armed robberies, according to Acting Camden County Prosecutor Jill S. Mayer, Magnolia Police Chief Scott Paris, and Somerdale Police Chief Anthony Campbell.

Gregory Fisher, 49, of Trenton, has been charged with the following in connection to armed robberies in Magnolia and Somerdale:

  • Two counts of first-degree Armed Robbery
  • Two counts of third-degree Criminal Restraint
  • Two counts of third-degree Theft
  • One count of second-degree Possession of a Weapon
  • One count of second-degree Unlawful Possession of a Weapon
  • One count of second-degree Certain Persons

Detectives said Fisher was first captured on surveillance cameras robbing the 7 Eleven on the 600 block of the N. White Horse Pike in Magnolia on May 31 around 9:30 a.m. The next day around 2:15 p.m., police said he was also captured on surveillance cameras robbing the Rite Aid on the 600 block of N. Warwick Road in Somerdale.

After the footage was released to the public, investigators said Fisher was identified by multiple witnesses and charged on June 11.

He is currently being held in the Camden County Correctional Facility awaiting a pre-trial detention hearing.

All persons charged with crimes are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

Feature Stories In The Courts News

Letter From Law Enforcement to our Community: We Are Here to Listen, and to Learn

By Scott A. Coffina

The horrific and inexcusable killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer while three of his fellow officers watched and did nothing as a subdued man’s life was being choked out of him has started a passionate national conversation about the relationship of police officers and the communities they serve.

New Jersey’s police officers and State Troopers are among the best trained in the nation, and our residents every day benefit from the most progressive policing policies in the country.  It is gratifying to see the various reforms being proposed across the country and be able to say repeatedly that in New Jersey, “we already do that,” keeping in mind that we can always do more.  Policies and training programs instituted over the past four years include the following, which are specifically aimed at making police encounters safer for everybody and improving Law Enforcement’s relationship with our communities:

  • Training on Police Response and De-escalation Techniques for Individuals with Special Needs
  • Training on Cultural Diversity, De-escalation, and Bias Crime Reporting
  • Training on Use of Force, twice annually
  • Training on Vehicle Pursuits, twice annually
  • Crisis Intervention Training to de-escalate situations involving people experiencing a mental health crisis; Burlington County has been conducting this training for 10 years; more than 350 of our officers and troopers have received this week-long training
  • Policies and training on the safe use of CED’s (Conducted Energy Devices, commonly known as “tasers”), less-than-lethal force that can prevent the escalation of a confrontation to the point where deadly force might be necessary by police to protect themselves or others
  • A policy requiring the expedited release of video recordings of deadly force incidents involving the police, to increase transparency
  • The implementation of mandatory “Early Warning Systems” to identify potential “red flags” in an officer’s performance and allow for early intervention by their department to get them counseling, training, or whatever other assistance they might need
  • Updated statewide Internal Affairs practices and procedures, including a mandate that departments provide access to the Internal Affairs file of an officer who has applied to another department, to enable the hiring agency to do its due diligence in hiring officers with integrity
  • Implementation of the Attorney General’s 21/21 Community Policing program, through which County Prosecutor’s Offices regularly engage with the public on subjects of community interest; in Burlington County, we have hosted community programs on use-of-force investigations, bias crimes, juvenile justice and the opioid crisis
  • A 2019 that law placed the investigation of all fatal use of force incidents under the authority of the Attorney General’s Office.

Despite the understandable anger by people of all backgrounds at the merciless killing of George Floyd, the many protests throughout our State – in big cities and rural towns alike – have been passionate but mostly peaceful.  I do not believe this is by accident, but rather reflects a reservoir of goodwill between New Jersey residents and our law enforcement agencies resulting from the substantial investment made in training, policies, and community outreach that have produced law enforcement conduct that is overwhelmingly fair.  This is not to suggest that bad incidents do not happen – police officers, like the rest of us, can make grievous mistakes or break the law in ways that could lead to tragic outcomes, and when they do, we hold them accountable.  No one is above the law.   

That said, while our protests, thankfully, have not been violent, they certainly have been passionate, exuding anger, frustration and sadness.  We as leaders in the law enforcement community must come to terms with these raw emotions displayed by the people we have sworn to protect and serve, and ask ourselves how we can do better.  Because for all of our training, all of our progressive policies, all of our careful hiring, and all of our community policing activities, I nevertheless have African American moms telling me they are afraid that their sons will be hurt, or worse, in an encounter with the police. 

As a law enforcement executive who has seen countless acts of compassion, heroism and respect by police officers towards members of the community, this is heartbreaking.  It is heartbreaking that anyone should fear that their loved one will have an encounter with the very people whose sworn duty – and natural inclination, for almost all officers – is to protect them. 

We as a community need to grapple with this startling disconnect.  Because even when law enforcement officers’ actions are just, justice is imperfect unless people not only are treated fairly, but that they feel they are being treated fairly by those who have been entrusted to enforce our laws.

Law Enforcement needs to ask these moms “why” they feel this way and we need to listen to the answers.  Accordingly, in the upcoming days, I will announce our next 21/21 Community Policing event, which will be an online town hall forum for members of our community to speak directly to a panel of police chiefs, police chaplains and me.  I frequently have invited the public to raise any complaints about police conduct with the local chiefs, or with me directly, at 609-265-5034.  At this upcoming listening session, it is not just “formal” complaints we want to hear, but rather the conversations at the barber shops, nail salons and neighborhood barbecues about police use-of-force or other actions that may not be misconduct, but that nevertheless feed this fear.  In short, we want to know what are the concerns in our communities about the police – not in Minneapolis, Louisville, or Baltimore, but right here in Burlington County – that make parents fearful for their black sons, and your ideas for how we can do better.   

We are fortunate to have come far enough with our policies and training to be able to take that next step into exploring this persistent disconnect between law enforcement’s perception of ourselves as professionals deeply committed to protecting and serving all people of the community, and that portion of our community that does not trust police officers to protect them.  Accordingly, I am working towards arranging implicit bias training for all law enforcement officers in Burlington County.  We all carry unconscious biases with us, shaped by experience, family, news, friends, education, pop culture, and countless other inputs.  Not necessarily limited to race, hidden bias also could shape one’s view of people of a certain socioeconomic status, religion or sexual orientation.  It even shapes how people view others who look like themselves.  Everyone has unconscious biases, and if we are being honest, these hidden perceptions by a civilian can shape an encounter with a police officer as much as the officer’s unconscious biases do. 

However, there is little doubt that unconscious bias can be an impediment to impartial policing and perhaps contribute to the distrust of the police that exists by some members of the community.  Bringing these biases out of the recesses of an officer’s mind can help them assess a situation more objectively, and enhance their decision-making and interactions with the public.

Already, all our State Troopers, Prosecutor’s Office Detectives and Assistant Prosecutors, and some of our local police departments have had implicit bias training during the past few years.  Will having all 900 sworn officers in Burlington County also receive that training be a panacea to Law Enforcement’s strained relationship with some members of our community?  I don’t know.  But it will be one more tool to enhance the already-outstanding professionalism of our police officers.  And we should use every tool at our disposal to put those moms’ minds at ease. 

Scott A. Coffina is the County Prosecutor for Burlington County.

Covid-19 In The Courts News

Supreme Court Approves Post-Pandemic Plan

On June 10, 2020, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and the Supreme Court have approved a plan for the gradual resumption of certain in-person court events, as recommended by the New Jersey Courts Post-Pandemic Planning committees.

The plan outlines the precautions being implemented before court buildings are opened for any in-person proceedings in any court.

While criminal jury trials will remain suspended, the following criminal matters may, consistent with Supreme Court guidance, be handled in person:

  • Completion of suspended jury trials with the consent of all attorneys and parties and approval of the Chief Justice
  • Sentencings
  • Guilty pleas
  • Final Extreme Risk Protective Order (ERPO) hearings where there is no consent to proceed remotely
  • Violation of monitoring
  • Violation of probation for defendants in custody
  • The precautions also include requirements for the public and judiciary employees to wear masks in non-private areas and to maintain social distancing.

Members of the public should not come to court unless they have been notified that a matter has been scheduled.

To view the Court’s Post-Pandemic Plan, click the image below: