Jose Rodriguez, a police officer in New Jersey, was involved in an off-duty collision with a pedestrian in November 1999. After hitting the pedestrian, Rodriguez did not stop his car, but instead turned off his lights and continued to drive a short distance to a parking garage near his residence. Witnesses followed him to the garage and then told the police who responded to the scene about where Rodriguez could be found. The victim was transported to the hospital where he died of his injuries.
Rodriguez was indicted for manslaughter, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, hindering apprehension or prosecution, obstruction of justice, and driving while intoxicated. Following a jury trial, Rodriguez was found guilty only of leaving the scene of a fatal accident and reckless driving. The judge sentenced him to probation. As part of the sentence, the judge also ordered that Rodriguez forfeit his position as a police officer and be disqualified from public employment in the future.
The Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court upheld the judge’s sentence. The Court found that under New Jersey law, “when the infraction casts such a shadow over the employee as to make his or her continued service appear incompatible with the traits of trustworthiness, honesty, and obedience to law and order, then forfeiture of employment is appropriate.” The relevant statute provided that “any person convicted of an offense involving or touching on his public office, position or employment shall be forever disqualified from holding any office or position of honor, trust or profit under this State or any of its administrative or political subdivisions.”
Rodriguez argued that the statute did not apply to off-duty conduct and that, in any case, the basis for his convictions (reckless driving and leaving the scene of an accident) were not the sort of offenses that justified the forfeiture of his job. The Court disagreed. The Court found that Rodriguez’s conviction of leaving the scene of a fatal accident “was based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew there had been an accident and that he knowingly left the scene. Although the State, in order to secure Rodriguez’s conviction, was not required to prove he also knew that a pedestrian had been killed, the fact was one the judge could permissibly consider as part of the future disqualification analysis. In light of the fact that reporting to accident scenes and attending to the safety of the public are important parts of any police officer’s duties, we think it plain that Rodriguez’s off-duty behavior that resulted in his conviction of this offense sufficiently involved and touched upon his position that future disqualification was appropriate.”
State v. Rodriguez, 2006 WL 587608 (N.J.Super. A.D. 2006).
This article appears in the May 2006 issue