Handicapping the state criminal charges that could result from the politically motivated closing of the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey.
In a nice piece in Talking Points Memo, the possibility of criminal charges is discussed. But I have yet to see any kind of comprehensive list of state charges that might be considered against the co-conspirators in Bridgegate. When you are party to a conspiracy — and this appears to have been a criminal conspiracy — you are considered equally guilty of anything done by any participant in the conspiracy, whether you had actual knowledge of a specific act that grew out of the conspiracy or not.
I took a look at New Jersey Title 2C, The New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice, for some answers. The charges range from the serious to the petty. Petty in the sense of childish but also in the sense of a minor crime. Here is my partial list:
2C:33-7. Obstructing highways and other public passages
It is a crime in New Jersey for a person, with no legal privilege to do so, to purposely or recklessly obstruct a highway or other public passage, whether alone or with others. “Obstruct” means renders impassable without unreasonable inconvenience or hazard. It appears that all the elements to prove at least this petty offense are there. The key is going to be whether the persons “with legal privilege to do so” acted outside of their legal authority in closing the bridge for political reasons. It seems that they did.
There are a number of other petty “disorderly conduct” type crimes that could be charged in connection with the extra-legal bridge closing. Harassment might work. A person commits a petty disorderly persons offense if, with the purpose to harass another, he engages in any course of alarming conduct with the purpose to alarm or seriously annoy another person. Based on the complaints of Fort Lee Mayor Lee Sokolich, frightened parents whose children did not arrive at school on time, emergency first responders who were delayed and had to abandon their vehicles to do their jobs on foot, the distress of the guy who was 40 minutes late to his first day on the job, the people awaiting first responders, and other; I would say a whole lot of people were either alarmed or seriously annoyed.
2C:33-14(4) and (5). Interference with transportation.
Did Christie’s employees obstruct the safe operation of motor vehicles by using a traffic control pre-emption device to interfere with or impair the operation of a traffic control signal? It depends on what the term “traffic control pre-emption device” means. It is also a crime to unlawfully disrupt, delay or prevent the operation of any vehicle, including a bus (listed twice), a jitney (a word many of us learned on Sex and the City), or other “facility” of transportation. Given that school buses were involved, this is a no-brainer. This can be anything from a petty offense to a second degree felony, depending on the financial loss and the level of injury, if any, caused to another person. All it takes is one victim.
2C:33-21. Interception or use of official communications
It does appear that official communications were used and abused to facilitate a crime.
All of the charges above could arise out of just one section of the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice, which is their penal code. These are all disorderly conduct violations, which one normally considers the province of drunks, stalkers, and troublemakers. There are other possibilities within the chapter on disorderly conduct, but I think these make the point sufficiently. Other possibilities include:
2C:30-2. Official misconduct
A public servant is guilty of official misconduct when, with the purpose to obtain a benefit to himself or another or to injure or to deprive another of a benefit, he commits an act relating to his office but constitutes an unauthorized exercise of his official functions, knowing that such act is unauthorized or he is committing such an act in an unauthorized manner. If he refrains from doing something he should do, like re-opening an illegally closed bridge, that is a crime, too. This crime can be anything from a second degree felony to a third degree felony. There is also 2C:30-6, Crime of official deprivation of civil rights, which can be a third degree felony up to a first degree felony. And 23:30-7, Crime of pattern of official misconduct, which includes two or more criminal acts, a second degree felony. When you break out all the separate offenses committed during the course of Bridgegate, it looks like a regular crime spree, like drunken monkeys took over the Governor and his staff for a wild and crazy week of hooliganism.
2C:29-1. Obstructing administration of law or other governmental function.
This statute appears to be crafted to apply to people trying to prevent law enforcement officers from doing their duty. But it is a crime to purposely obstruct, impair, or prevent a public servant from lawfully performing an official function by intimidation or physical interference or obstacle. Like maybe a giant traffic jam. Is an emergency medical technician considered a public servant in New Jersey? Is a call from a higher up in the Governor’s office with instructions to commit an illegal act intimidation? If so, this is a problem for the Governor’s staff of co-conspirators. This is another disorderly conduct offense, unless someone was prevented from detecting or prosecuting a crime, in which case it is a second degree felony.
I’m skipping 2C:28, the section dealing with perjury, tampering with evidence, and tampering with public records or information. But I have a sense that proof of these types of crimes is coming. I think that because, while this was going on, actors were encouraged to conceal who was up to what. Nothing says bad faith like a fictitious traffic study.
2C:27-12. Corruption of public resources.
They seem to be talking about money here, unless a bridge is a public resource that is supposed to be used for a specific governmental purpose.
2C:21. Forgery and related offenses.
I’m skipping the fraud statutes, some of which were undoubtedly violated when constructing a fictitious traffic study. But at least it is a crime to practice law without a license in New Jersey, unlike Arizona. 2C:21-22. Go Garden State! The Guidos of New Jersey have nothing on the Thugs of Maricopa County, AZ.
2C:13-3. False imprisonment.
I know it’s a stretch, but I’ll bet a lot of people felt restrained so as to interfere substantially with their liberty to move about New Jersey. For the children of those “Buono voters,” who Christie staffers cared nothing about, it probably felt like a small eternity. Kid time feels about ten times longer than adult time. Remember when a three hour drive to Grandma’s house was a thing to be dreaded? Did any of those kids, especially the little ones, desperately need to use the potty? I hope not.
It is clear, due to the warnings given by various officials about problems with emergency response times, that officials had reason to know they were being reckless about the danger to human life cause by Bridgegate. Thanks to Authority Executive Director Patrick Foyes’s e-mails, we know reckless endangerment to human life was specifically contemplated during this fiasco:
“This hasty and ill-advised decision has resulted in delays to emergency vehicles,” he wrote, “I pray that no life has been lost or trip of a hospital or hospice-bound patient delayed…I believe this hasty and ill-advised decision violates Federal Law and the laws of both States.”
Under the circumstances, it is of course possible to argue that the Christie or his staff “recklessly caused a death under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life.” However, charges of this severity may go too far afield. A charge like manslaughter is reserved for things more directly tied to a death, like pointing a loaded gun at somebody you don’t really mean to shoot. Prosecution under the New Jersey Terrorism statute falls all the way under the heading of fantasy. 2C:38-2.
As my criminal procedure professor Irene Rosenberg said more than 20 years ago, the only criminals who get caught are the unsuccessful criminals. Most crimes are the result of criminal stupidity. If there is a bright spot in all of this, it is section 2C:11A. Cloning of human being, first degree crime. None of these criminal idiots can be cloned under New Jersey law, although there is nothing to stop them from passing on their corrupted DNA for poor judgment in the usual way, through procreation and bad parenting practices. Immaturity is a bar to a criminal conviction in New Jersey; unfortunately for Christie and his staff, that only applies to actual children and not child-like adults. 2C:4-11.
Since I am an actual criminal lawyer in multiple state and federal courts, I suppose I should add the caveat that I am not an expert in New Jersey criminal law, and this article is no substitute for actual legal advice on criminal law in New Jersey; unlike, say, anything Nancy Grace says about any jurisdiction in the country.
Edited/Published by: SB