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November 5, 2015Download PDF

Internal Investigations Are Just That...Internal

In New Jersey, all law enforcement agencies within the state must adopt and implement guidelines consistent with the “Internal Affairs Policy and Procedures” promulgated by the Police Bureau of the State’s Division of Criminal Justice. Under these guidelines, each agency must establish an internal affairs function and accept reports of officer misconduct.

Internal Affairs investigations serve as a means of protecting the constitutional rights and civil liberties of citizens. The purpose of the internal affairs function is to investigate complaints of police misconduct, and to discipline and re-train officers where violations of policies and protocols are found. Where a preliminary investigation indicates potential criminal acts, the matter must be forwarded to the county prosecutor for further investigation.

While the internal affairs function exists so that police departments may investigate citizen complaints and determine whether their officers complied with the law, as well as policies and procedures, the focus of such investigations are on the internal mechanisms of the police department. According to the “Internal Affairs Policy and Procedures,” “[t]he goal of internal affairs is to ensure that the integrity of the department is maintained through a system of internal discipline where an objective and impartial investigation and review assure fairness and justice.” With that mandate in mind, the internal affairs function is best carried out with a certain degree of impartial autonomy and without interference from outside parties, while keeping the constitutional rights and civil liberties of citizens in mind at all times.

This sentiment was stated in a recent opinion by the Third Circuit,Lee v. City of Philadelphia et. al. In that case, Philadelphia police officers responded to a domestic dispute at Plaintiff’s home. Subsequently, Plaintiff alleged that police officers did not properly handle the situation because they sided with his wife and filed a false report that identified Plaintiff as the offender. Subsequently, Plaintiff filed a complaint with the internal affairs unit and hired an attorney, but his attorney was not permitted to question police officers during the internal investigation. The investigation later concluded that Plaintiff’s complaint was unfounded. Plaintiff then filed suit against the City, alleging that his constitutional rights were violated pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1983. The district court granted the Defendants’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, and Plaintiff subsequently appealed.

Plaintiff’s Complaint generally alleged violations of his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, specifically that the police (1) forced him to show his driver’s license and leave his home during the domestic dispute, (2) incorrectly listed him as the offender in a report, and (3) did not allow his attorney to question police officers during the internal investigation. The appellate court upheld the district court’s determination that the facts presented did not expressly implicate the deprivation of a federal constitutional or statutory right by the City. In regard to the City not allowing Plaintiff’s attorney to question an officer during the internal investigation, the Third Circuit held that there is no constitutional right to the investigation of another, citing Mitchell v. McNeil, 487 F.3d 374, 378 (6th Cir. 2007), and therefore, this restriction placed on Plaintiff’s attorney could not constitute the deprivation of a constitutional right. The Third Circuit also found that Plaintiff’s other allegations were not sufficient to plead a constitutional or statutory violation.

While an internal affairs investigation may become relevant evidence in a future civil litigation, a civilian’s posture as a complainant in an internal investigation serves a different purpose than that of litigant in a civil rights matter. Despite the fact that a complainant may utilize an internal affairs complaint to ripen a civil rights action, the focus of the internal investigation is to determine whether an involved officer violated any rights, policies, or procedures, and if so, what discipline is appropriate.

This decision highlights the nature of police department internal investigations, and the need for such investigations to remain in the control of the police department’s internal affairs unit without outside interference. The need for efficiency in determining whether discipline is appropriate goes hand-in-hand with protecting the constitutional rights of the citizens served by law enforcement agencies. While a Plaintiff in a civil litigation has the opportunity to interview or depose a member of a police department as part of discovery, allowing such requests during an internal affairs investigation would serve no purpose but to frustrate the function of the internal affairs process.