On July 28, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Monmouth County case of Christopher J. Gramiccioni v. Department of Law and Public Safety. This case dealt with the standards for holding prosecutors and other members of law enforcement civilly liable with regard to actions that touch upon their official employment functions. A case involving a local police officer that killed his wife after his firearm was returned to him with the knowledge of local law enforcement officials was the basis for the case.
Justice LaVecchia wrote for a unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court in relevant part: In these consolidated appeals, the Court examines whether the Department of Law and Public Safety’s (Department) four final agency determinations regarding defense and indemnification for federal civil rights claims filed against the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office and its employees were in keeping with Wright v. State, 169 N.J. 422 (2001). This case stems from the 2015 murder of Tamara Wilson-Seidle by her ex-husband, Philip Seidle, an off-duty sergeant with the Neptune Township Police Department, using his service weapon. Wilson-Seidle’s estate and survivors filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court, naming several defendants, including the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office (MCPO) and Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni, and an amended pleading that added as defendants three former MCPO assistant prosecutors.
The Complaint alleged that defendants were aware of Seidle’s history of domestic violence and brought claims for damages based on assertions that defendants knew Seidle was unfit for duty, failed to properly investigate Wilson-Seidle’s domestic abuse complaints, improperly returned Seidle’s weapon to him, and failed to seize it when it should have been taken from him. Because the domestic violence that gave rise to this matter involved a law enforcement officer, the MCPO defendants were subject to certain duties pursuant to Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive No. 2000-3 (the Directive).
The Seidle family’s attorney’s knowledge of what constituted an administrative function would have been crucial to pursuing the best strategy in the underlying civil case. Creating a dynamic wherein the defendant faces financial ruin is a key to maximizing recovery. Without indemnification from the Attorney General’s Office via New Jersey taxpayers, there is a chance that the individual defendants would not have the assets to pay the potential damages.