Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Plainfield cop acquitted of charges arising out of off-duty "laundry-room etiquette" fight.

On August 7, 2017, a three-judge Appellate Division panel acquitted a Plainfield (Union County) police officer of all charges that arose out of an off-duty altercation he had in a Jersey City apartment building's laundry room that left another man unconscious on the floor.

According to the Appellate panel's opinion, Officer Eric Groething and Nicholas Garret engaged in a physical confrontation in a laundry room that was captured on tape by the building's security cameras.  The panel said that the reason for the altercation was best described as a "violation of laundry-room etiquette."  After an investigation by Jersey City police, Garret was charged with aggravated assault against a police officer although the panel later found that Groething's "status as a police officer played no role in this matter [because he] was off-duty, wore civilian clothes, and was performing a purely personal task when he engaged Garret."  The Hudson County Prosecutor downgraded the charge against Garret to simple assault a few days later. Garret filed citizen complaints against Groething for simple assault and harassment.

After a two-day trial in Jersey City municipal court, both men were found guilty of the lesser offense of engaging in a fight or scuffle entered into by mutual consent and also found Groething guilty of harassment.  On appeal, a Hudson County Superior Court judge, after finding that Groething was the aggressor and that Garret merely defended himself, acquitted Garret.  The judge found Groething guilty of simple assault and dismissed the harassment conviction.  The judge also required Groething to take "anger management and/or cultural sensitivity [training] . . . as a result of the assaultive behavior in this particular matter."

The Appellate panel ruled that once the Jersey City municipal court found Groething guilty of engaging in a fight entered into mutual consent, that finding operated as an acquittal of the simple assault charge because the fighting charge is a "lesser included offense" of simple assault.  The Appellate panel found that Groething suffered double jeopardy when the Superior Court judge imposed a simple assault conviction after the municipal judge implicitly acquitted him of that charge by finding him guilty of a lesser included offense. Accordingly the panel vacated Groething's simple assault conviction. Also, since the Superior Court judge found that Garret was not guilty of the fighting charge because he did not give his consent, the Appellate panel reasoned that Groething must also be not guilty of the fighting charge because, absent Garret's consent, there could have not been mutual consent.

Garret has sued Groething, the City of Plainfield and his apartment building in Garret v. City of Plainfield, et al Docket No. HUD-L-2896-16.  That civil case is still pending.