It sounded like a standard drug bust, at least according to the police report of the February 2019 incident.
Armed with a search warrant, New Brunswick Police Det. Joshua Alexander said he approached the home of a couple suspected of distributing marijuana along with a group of plainclothes cops. Alexander wrote in his report that detectives knocked on the door “several times,” and announced their presence.
Since there was no response from inside, a command was given to bust down the door.
Testifying while under oath during a hearing last October, Alexander expanded on his report. He was adamant in his testimony: He said he was the officer who knocked on the door, announced that he was a cop, knocked again and then waited 10 to 15 seconds before finally giving the command to bust down the door, according to the court transcript.
The only problem? That is not how the search warrant went down.
And unbeknownst to Alexander, defense attorney Joseph Mazraani had surveillance video of what actually happened.
The video showed that Alexander — with the warrant in hand — was one of the last officers to approach the house and that he was not near the door when officers initially barged in. The video also showed the officers busting down the door of the home seconds after they arrived — not after knocking and announcing their presence, as required by the search warrant signed by Superior Court Judge Colleen Flynn.
Once Mazraani revealed the information, the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office dropped the criminal charges against the defendants the next day.
Yet if this sounds like an instance of the criminal justice system working effectively, the story took another turn: Instead of any censure or public rebuke of Alexander for his misleading testimony, the Prosecutor’s Office instead sought to prevent the public from learning about it. Mazraani pushed for the release of this information, only to be fought at nearly every turn by the Prosecutor’s office, which repeatedly insisted that documents relating to the testimony should be sealed.
The incident highlights why attorneys and advocates have pushed for greater transparency in the criminal justice system, which they argue is often cloaked in secrecy — even as the accused people’s livelihoods often hang in the balance, based on testimony from authorities.
“Without evidence to the contrary as we had in this case, this case shows you how vulnerable the word of the public is when tested against the word of a police officer,” Mazraani said, adding the immediate dismissal of the case was an “attempted protection of that police witness.”
Alexander’s attorney did not return multiple requests for comment.
‘Seeking to quash transparency’
After the court hearing, Mazraani pushed hard to get the word out.
Six days after the court hearing in October, Mazraani sent a letter to Christopher Kuberiet, who was the then-acting Middlesex County Prosecutor, saying materials related to Alexander’s “flatly contradicting” testimony should be disseminated to county judges.
“It is my position that members of the bench in Middlesex County should be aware of these officers’ lack of candor when evaluating their testimony,” he wrote.
Mazraani distributed the documents to Superior Court Judge Alberto Rivas, two other county judges and a handful of defense attorneys. The materials included Alexander’s incident report, a copy of the surveillance video and a transcript of the October hearing, among other items.
Soon after, the Middlesex Prosecutor’s office attempted to seal the documents, bar Mazraani from distributing information related to the case to judges and other defense attorneys — and even tried to get Mazraani sanctioned by the court for his efforts to get the word out.
Acting deputy first assistant prosecutor Brian Gillet wrote to Judge Rivas in a December 2019 letter that its office had already asked two judges in November to review Alexander’s testimony and were beginning to make written notifications to all attorneys who represent defendants in cases where Alexander may be called as a witness.
“(Mazraani’s) actions are clearly designed to usurp and circumvent powers reserved exclusively to the court and forever tarnish the reputation of the law enforcement officer in question,” Gillet wrote.
The prosecutor’s office contended that at the time no misconduct finding had been made against Alexander, therefore, they requested that Mazraani, and other attorneys who received the documents, “be restrained from providing this material, in any form, to any other person or entity.”
Gillet said the New Brunswick Police Department was conducting an internal affairs investigation into the matter, and if material related to Alexander’s testimony were distributed before the unit made a finding, it could be “used to affect the credibility of a law enforcement witness, without any finding after an investigation of any wrongdoing.”
(In January, the New Brunswick Police Department’s internal affairs unit ruled that the allegations made against Alexander of giving false testimony were not sustained, though Alexander was in violation of department rules and regulations and would be disciplined and receive training, according to a copy of the report obtained by NJ Advance Media. New Brunswick police officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
In a letter to Rivas, Mazraani wrote that the prosecutor’s office attempt to block him from distributing the information was “procedurally flawed and substantively incorrect.”
Judge Rivas agreed, saying it was in the public interest for the materials to be distributed and that the prosecutor’s office had “no legal basis” to prevent the information from being public. Rivas ordered the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s office to pay Mazraani and a law associate nearly $3,500 in attorney fees for their “frivolous” attempt to gag Mazraani.
The judge said in a February opinion that Alexander’s “very detailed and specific testimony about his actions during the execution of the search warrant were undermined and contradicted” by the surveillance video, prompting the prosecutor’s office to dismiss the case.
“The MCPO dismissed the criminal case to avoid the likelihood of the investigating officer being found not credible by the motion judge, and at the same time, aborted the search for the truth regarding the investigating officer’s actions,” he said.
The prosecutor’s office appealed the decision, but Rivas remained steadfast in saying the information was of public interest and prosecutors had no legal basis to halt its distribution.
The judge said in a June court filing that the prosecutor’s office “was seeking to quash transparency and prevent the public from learning about the investigating officer’s inappropriate actions.”
The prosecutor’s withdrew their appeal on July 16 and paid Mazraani the attorney fees, according to court documents.
Kuberiet, the acting Middlesex County Prosecutor at the time, said in a statement the attempt to keep the information sealed under a court order was “made in good faith and was most assuredly not frivolous.”
Middlesex County Prosecutor Yolanda Ciccone, who took over the office in June, declined to comment.
“That office engaged in what has become an all-to-routine act of protecting one of their own to the detriment of transparency and public accountability,” Mazraani said.
‘Public is beginning to open their eyes to it’
In a time when police transparency is front and center, this case represents all that is wrong about authorities attempts to protect an officer accused of misconduct, critics say.
Even after Judge Rivas said the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office had no legal basis in their efforts and that “transparency is a keystone in the judicial process,” prosecutors continued their crusade to try and prevent the public from learning about it, they note.
“The public is beginning to open their eyes to it,” said attorney Brynn Giannullo, who represented a defendant in this case. “I think for a very long time it was this idea that what the police officer said happened is what happened.”
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued a directive in June to publicly identify officers who commit “serious disciplinary violations,” and legislation has been proposed to make police disciplinary records public.
Both efforts have been resisted by police unions, while some attorneys and advocates insist it doesn’t go far enough.
Richard Rivera, a former West New York cop, said this case “is precisely the type of case that begs why we need transparency in policing and civilian review of police.”
According to an internal New Brunswick police document obtained by NJ Advance Media, Alexander was disciplined, but the extent of the discipline is unknown. It is unclear if his name would become public under Grewal’s directive, which mandates law enforcement agencies annually publish a report of all officers who were fired, demoted, or suspended for more than five days due to a disciplinary violation.
But under Grewal’s directive, the investigation itself into officer misconduct will still remain private, which is why advocates argue it doesn’t go far enough in seeking transparency.
“This is a damning record,” Rivera said. “Had it not been for the attorney advocate, the public would never know the extent that county prosecutors cover up for local police misdeeds.”
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Joe Atmonavage may be reached at [email protected].