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A Little Too Close for Government Work? High Court Lets Cop Return to Job After Sex Crime Conviction

The New Jersey Supreme Court held 3 to 2 last week that a Hunterdon County Sheriff's officer may not be barred from government service in spite of his January, 2008 conviction for fourth degree criminal sexual contact.

The case has drawn attention to what some consider to be the shortcomings of the state's "forfeiture of job" statute. The statute requires that a government official -- at any level of government in the state -- resign when s/he has pleaded guilty to or been convicted of a crime of the third degree or above or a crime involving dishonesty. New Jersey statute 2C:51-2 also "forever disqualifies" that person from holding any "office or position of honor, trust or profit."

When Jeremiah Hupka pled guilty, he voluntarily resigned. The judge in the case ordered that Hupka be barred from government service in the future, apparently following the law.

The catch is that a public employee can only be required to resign if the offense is connected to the offender's job.

And former officer Hupka was off duty when he assaulted his girlfriend.

According to the court, "there was no relationship between [Hupka's] employment as a police officer, the trappings of that office, or his work-related connections, and the commission of the offense to which he pled guilty."

The "direct, specific link" language was added by the legislature in 2007, in part as a reaction to the Supreme Court's 2001 decision in McCann v. Clerk of City of Jersey City (167 N.J. 311). The plaintiff in that case had been convicted of mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax offenses while he was in office, but the actual criminal conduct had occurred before he became mayor. McCann had resigned and, after he'd completed his sentence, sought re-election. The city barred his candidacy under the statute.

Interestingly, the court in that case noted added that the plaintiff could not be barred from seeking public office, even though the "conduct leading to convictions revealed qualities relevant to candidate's fitness for office of mayor."

The Hupka decision worries some members of the New Jersey legal community. First, the decision signals to law enforcement officers that they can commit not just these kinds of crimes but any crime and still stay on the job. And, the decision opens the door to anyone convicted of, for example, a sex crime who wants a government job.

Hupka's attorney stated that the appeal was aimed at clarifying the language of the statute, rather than having Hupka reinstated as a cop. 

Still, Hupka is free to go back to his job.  As Hunterdon County assistant county prosecutor Bennett Barlyn pointed out, "One can wonder whether an ordinary citizen would want Jeremiah Hupka to investigate crimes relating to a member of their family or themselves."

Resource: NJ.com "NlJ. Supreme Court Rules Officer's Groping Conviction Does Not Bar Him from Public Work" 8/3/10

 

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