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Fired N.J. cop sues chief and prosecutor: They 'ruined my life'

A veteran Washington Township, N.J. cop who was fired for misconduct after he stopped a N.J. lawmaker for DUI five years ago has filed a civil lawsuit against his chief and the prosecutor who charged him with making a false arrest in a volatile, high-profile case.

A veteran Washington Township police officer who was fired for misconduct after he stopped a New Jersey lawmaker for DUI five years ago has filed a lawsuit against his former chief and the prosecutor who charged him with making a false arrest in the volatile, high-profile case.

Among the details in the court document that ex-patrolman Joseph DiBuonaventura filed late last week are allegations that:

  1. Politics led to his firing.

  2. The chief used a private email account to ask the county prosecutor for permission to investigate him.

  3. The prosecutor ignored advice from the state Attorney General's Office on how to proceed with the investigation.

  4. The chief mishandled an investigation of theft charges against his own son.

The 13-page lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in Woodbury, also sheds light on the latitude prosecutors and high-ranking police supervisors have when they investigate their own, out of public sight.

The suit names Prosecutor Sean Dalton and former Police Chief Raphael Muniz, saying they improperly handled the investigation of DiBuonaventura after he charged Assemblyman Paul Moriarty with drunken driving and refusing to take a breath test after a July 31, 2012, arrest in a Chick-Fil-A parking lot.

Patrick Madden, Muniz's attorney, declined to comment on the suit. So did Dalton, who said he does not comment on "allegations contained in a civil complaint."

DiBuonaventura, 46, is now a limousine driver who lives in Atlantic County. He expects a court ruling soon on whether he will be reinstated to his police job of 17 years. Two years ago, a Gloucester County jury acquitted him of misconduct and 13 other charges stemming from his encounter with Moriarty, a former Democratic mayor of Washington Township, which has about 49,000 residents.

Moriarty, 60, also was cleared of the charges against him, by Dalton.  Dalton 20 years ago was an assemblyman in the South Jersey district now represented by Moriarty.

The officer said he wants his job back and wants to hold Dalton and Muniz accountable.

"They ruined my life. Who is going to hire me once I'm done being a police officer? They came after me because I stopped a politician, one of their buddies," he said.

DiBuonaventura is seeking compensatory and punitive damages for economic loss and emotional pain and suffering.

After Moriarty was arrested, he signed a 27-count complaint against DiBuonaventura. Muniz, who retired as chief in January, asked Dalton to investigate the complaint due to the appearance of a conflict of interest. Moriarty had appointed Muniz as chief of the 75-member department in 2006, when Moriarty was mayor.

But before Muniz made this request, he helped Moriarty file the complaint, authorized a police lieutenant to "refrain from asking Moriarty any questions about his complaint," contrary to state rules on internal affairs investigations, and ordered a probe of DiBuonaventura's dashboard video recorder,  the lawsuit says.

After consulting with the state Attorney General's Office, Dalton agreed to take on that investigation, in the fall of 2012.  But after the officer was acquitted in 2015, the chief wanted to take up the internal affairs investigation against DiBuonaventura and contacted Dalton "through a private email server instead of his authorized township email account," the suit said.  The internal affairs investigation had been on hold pending the trial's outcome.

Dalton gave permission to the chief to take up that investigation, the lawsuit said, and the Police Department filed administrative charges against DiBuonaventura. He was fired in 2016.  The lawsuit says the chief's conflict still existed and the dismissal was improper.

The dashboard video persuaded Dalton's office in 2012 to pursue the investigation against DiBuonaventura and drop the charges against Moriarty.

But the Attorney General's Office, in a Sept. 4, 2012, letter to Dalton, had cautioned him to wait until the DUI charges were resolved in court before launching the investigation of the officer.  "The factual determinations made by the court in adjudicating the [DUI] case will have a direct bearing on the validity of the assemblyman's claims" and will guide the prosecutor on whether to investigate the officer, the letter said.

No hearing was ever held on the DUI charges.  Dalton determined that the arrest was illegal, and that the charges against Moriarty should therefore be dismissed.

In the video, DiBuonaventura tells Moriarty that he stopped him because Moriarty had cut him off on the highway, but that didn't appear to be the case.

DiBuonaventura later said he meant to say Moriarty "cut off" and left the highway when Moriarty abruptly entered a jughandle from the center lane, several minutes before the stop. The ticket cited Moriarty for an "unsafe lane change."

The officer did not take the stand at his trial, but a state police expert testified that the sudden lane change was captured on the video.

During that trial, Moriarty testified that he had not been drinking and that the officer had targeted him for political reasons. When he was mayor, he had been involved in tense contract negotiations with the police union, he said.

Jacqueline Vigilante, who represents DiBuonaventura, also said politics played a role in the case, but to the detriment of her client.  "Joe had the audacity to arrest an assemblyman, a former mayor, on suspicion of DUI, and I guess politicians look down on that, and they wield the power," she said this week.

Moriarty's lawyer, William Popjoy, declined comment.  Moriarty had sued the officer for emotional distress and the case was settled for $50,000, which the town's insurance carrier  paid.

DiBuonaventura's lawsuit also contends Muniz had another reason to side with Moriarty – retaliation.  DiBuonaventura said that weeks before the Moriarty arrest, he told then-township administrator Robert Smith that Muniz should be investigated for misconduct for mishandling charges lodged against Muniz's son, who was not named in the suit, in the theft of $7,000 worth of jewelry in April 2012.

DiBuonaventura said the chief should have promptly referred the charges to Dalton.

While DiBuonaventura was being investigated, Dalton reviewed the case against Muniz's son and sent a letter in November 2012 that said the chief's handling of the case was proper, according to DiBuonaventura.

A few weeks after Dalton sent the letter -- and about seven months after the theft was reported -- the son was charged with theft and was admitted to a pretrial intervention program for first offenders, DiBuonaventura said.

A search for court records on that case did not produce any documents. Dalton's spokesman  said the Prosecutor's Office had no information.

Last year, DiBuonaventura filed a separate whistle-blower lawsuit against the chief, Smith, and the township, saying he suffered retaliation because of his complaints about the chief's handling of the matter. The whistle-blower case is scheduled for trial in the summer.