Civil Service Commission Can ‘Look Beneath The Surface’ Of Firefighter Applicants Criminal Diversion Agreement

When Seay Fletcher applied to be a firefighter with Newark, New Jersey, the local Merit System Board rejected his application, basing its decision in part on the fact that Fletcher was arrested on December 20, 2000 for the possession of drugs with intent to distribute in a school zone and that he was again arrested on July 25, 2006 by the New Jersey State Police on charges of racketeering in connection with a street gang, spending several months in prison for this offense before being released on $250,000 bail.

Relying on a prior court decision, the Board noted that “firefighters are not only entrusted with the duty to fight fires; they must also be able to work with the general public and other municipal employees, especially police officers, because the police department responds to every emergency fire call. Any conduct jeopardizing an excellent working relationship places at risk the citizens of the municipality as well as the men and women of those departments who place their lives on the line on a daily basis. An almost symbiotic relationship exists between the fire and police departments at a fire.”

Fletcher argued in an appeals court that since the 2000 charges were dismissed after he entered into a diversion agreement, and since the 2006 criminal charges were administratively dismissed prior to presentment to the grand jury, the Board could not rely on this history. The Court was entirely unimpressed:

“We find no merit in the argument that these agencies were required to disregard the 2000 criminal matter because Fletcher was not convicted. Arrests and not just convictions are relevant in determining a person’s eligibility to become a firefighter. It was entirely appropriate for the Board to consider that Fletcher had been arrested for drug distribution in Newark in 2000, regardless of the fact that he was admitted into diversion, a circumstance that cannot be equated with a favorable termination.”

In re Fletcher, 2011 WL 2518777 (N.J. Super.A.D. 2011).