Legal fight sparked by N.J. lawmaker's DUI arrest 5 years ago is reignited
Litigation sparked by the DUI arrest of a New Jersey lawmaker who refused to take a breath test 5 years ago is seeing a fresh round of court claims and could lead to reinstatement of the patrol officer, who was fired for misconduct in the arrest, and then acquitted. The charges against the lawmaker were also dropped.
The ugly legal battle began in 2012 when a New Jersey lawmaker was arrested for drunken driving and refused to take a breath test despite voting for a law that required motorists to cooperate or face the loss of driving privileges.
The high-profile traffic stop sparked a clash between two strong personalities as Assemblyman Paul Moriarty and Washington Township Patrolman Joe DiBuonaventura accused each other of wrongdoing and fought for nearly five years in federal and state courts.
Both men were vindicated through the legal system despite their widely divergent stories of what happened July 31, 2012, in the parking lot of a Chick-Fil-A in the Gloucester County Township. First, the county prosecutor dropped all charges against Moriarty, 60. Then, a jury acquitted DiBuonaventura, 46, of criminal misconduct charges and false arrest.
Now, a new round of clashes is gathering steam.
The township could be ordered to pay about $500,000 in back wages and accrued time to the officer, who was fired, if a judge decides he should be reinstated. He is now an on-call limousine driver in Atlantic County, where he lives with his wife and two children. His lawyer expects a ruling soon.
That amount would be on top of the $50,000 the town's insurer paid to Moriarty last year in a settlement after he sued the officer, claiming he suffered humiliation and loss of reputation.
"It's politics. All of this happened because I wrote a ticket. They tried to put me away for 75 years for writing that ticket," DiBuonaventura said in his first in-depth interview since the traffic stop. He was charged with 14 counts, including falsifying records.
He insists that Moriarty was inebriated. Moriarty's refusal "to blow in the box was proof he was drunk," DiBuonaventura said. "Anyone who refuses is drunk."
Moriarty, a Democrat who was the township mayor three years before the traffic stop, did not return calls in recent weeks. Moriarty's lawyer, William Popjoy, said the officer lied when he said his client had been intoxicated.
In September, Popjoy issued a news release that said Moriarty would receive financial consideration from DiBuonaventura and that Moriarty was "pleased" with the settlement.
DiBuonaventura complained that he had never paid Moriarty and that he wanted to contest the matter in court. "I didn't do anything wrong," he said, "and a jury found me innocent."
The settlement document was released months later, after John Paff, an open-government watchdog, filed an open-records request. It revealed that the town's insurer had paid the sum.
Popjoy said recently that he "would have loved to try the case but they [the insurer] offered a settlement. ... This was never intended to be a situation where Paul was holding his own town hostage. It was to recoup the cost he expended to clear his name."
When Moriarty testified at DiBuonaventura's trial in 2015, he said that the officer had targeted him and that he had not been drinking that day, though he does drink "responsibly, socially." He refused the breath test because he said he "had no faith in the process." He said he was worried because a former police chief had told him the breath test could be manipulated.
The Alcotest is used in New Jersey; it is considered reliable. The accuracy of the Breathalyzer, used nationally years ago, had been disputed.
According to a transcript of Moriarty's court testimony in the officer's trial, he said he had voted a few years ago in favor of the law that required New Jersey motorists to consent to the breath test in DUI arrests. The law also offers motorists the option to follow up with a privately paid independent test.
Moriarty could not give a reason for the officer's targeting him. He testified that the two had never met, though he had lived in the town since 1996 and the officer had been with the 75-member department for 17 years. But Moriarty said that when he was mayor, he had been involved in police contract negotiations that had caused some friction between him and the department.
DiBuonaventura said in his interview with the Inquirer that the only time he had contact with Moriarty was when he was helping other officers inflate a large rubber rat on a grassy area in the town during a union protest of the stalled contract talks. Moriarty came out of a nearby shop and "yelled at us and said we were being disrespectful," DiBuonaventura said, adding that that had occurred many years ago.
He said that on July 31, 2012, he had learned from police detectives that two employees in a car dealership had reported that Moriarty appeared to be drunk while he was there. They said that Moriarty was just leaving the parking lot in his Nissan Murano.
DiBuonaventura said those reports gave him legal grounds to look for Moriarty's vehicle while out on patrol. Then, when he saw Moriarty's vehicle make "an unsafe lane change" onto a jughandle, he said, he followed him and pulled him over a few minutes later when he turned into the parking lot. He also gave Moriarty sobriety tests and determined that Moriarty was intoxicated.
The Gloucester prosecutor, however, found the traffic stop to be illegal and dropped the charges against Moriarty based on the video from the patrolman's dashboard. In the video, DiBuonaventura tells Moriarty he pulled him over because Moriarty "cut him off." The video appears to contradict that claim.
The officer was traveling directly behind Moriarty's car and could not have been "cut off" when he turned into the restaurant.
DiBuonaventura, who did not testify at his trial, said that he had made an off-the-cuff remark and that he was referring to what had happened earlier, when Moriarty had abruptly "cut over" to get into a jughandle, a few minutes before he had turned into the parking lot. The officer said that he wrote "unsafe lane change" on the ticket and that the comments he made at the scene were not important.
The jughandle segment of the video does appear to show Moriarty changing lanes quickly.
The prosecutor, however, said that the traffic stop was illegal and that the legal doctrine of "fruit of the poisoned tree" required the charges against Moriarty to be dropped.
DiBuonaventura said the handling of the case had been political.
Last year, he filed a whistleblower case against the town, former Police Chief Rafael Muniz, and former Town Administrator Robert Smith, saying that they had retaliated against him by helping Moriarty file the misconduct charges against him.
DiBuonaventura said Muniz was seen on a police station video greeting Moriarty at the locked back door – normally reserved for police — the day Moriarty came in and filed 27 criminal charges against DiBuonaventura. Muniz "provided improper and unusual assistance to Moriarty," the suit says, adding that Moriarty had been there for "several hours."
Before the traffic stop, DiBuonaventura had complained to Smith and others that Muniz and a former police captain had improperly handled some investigations, according to the lawsuit. The suit also alleges that the chief failed to immediately refer one case to the county prosecutor when he had a conflict of interest.
Muniz, who was appointed chief by Moriarty, could not be reached for comment. He retired last month. Patrick Gurcsik, the current chief, and Smith both declined comment on the suit.
The whistleblower suit asks for unspecified damages and lawyers' fees.