NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A Middlesex County Sheriff’s Officer and former Milltown Council President was tried on criminal charges in the same court where he has worked since 2002.
The decision to keep the cases against Officer Neil Raciti in Middlesex County Superior Court has raised questions about conflicts of interest and political favoritism.
"This is extremely strange considering every county worker has their case whether civil, criminal or domestic heard out of county for conflict of interest," said one source with knowledge of the deep-seated corruption here.
The Judge who handled one of Raciti's cases has a son-in-law who works for the Middlesex County Sheriff's Office (MCSO), a husband who works for the County Counsel's office, and a mother who has served as the elected County Clerk since 1996.
Meanwhile, officials were clueless about Raciti's job status at the January 18 meeting of the county's elected Board of Chosen Freeholders, nearly three months after Raciti was convicted of criminal mischief for smashing the windshield of a motorist in a March 29, 2015 "road rage" incident.
"Officer Raciti is suspended without pay and will remain suspended without pay until the conclusion of the criminal proceedings in Middlesex County," said County Sheriff Mildred Scott.
Based in New Brunswick, the MSCO's primary task is providing security at the county's two downtown courthouses.
It also has a close relationship with the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office (MCPO), which brings forth thousands of criminal cases in the same buildings each year.
But that didn't stop Superior Court Judge Colleen Flynn from presiding over one of Raciti's cases last summer, where he was found not guilty after waiving his right to have a jury trial.
Raciti has been suspended without pay ever since he was charged with breaking his wife's arm in September 2015. Flynn found him not guilty in that case.
But one week after that initial charge was filed, apparently not the first time he had been charged with assault, the MCPO filed an additional case against Raciti, charging him with illegal possession of AR-15 assault rifle.
A spokesperson for the prosecutor's office did not answer our questions about what happened to that case. After striking out in at least three different attempts to convict him of indictable offenses, the MCPO is currently fighting a decision that could allow Raciti to return to duty.
The sole conviction against Raciti came in a case that originated with an incident where he was off-duty and a passenger in a car driven by his wife.
"As they were driving on Dunhams Corner Road traveling from East Brunswick into South Brunswick, four teenagers were tailgating in a car behind the couple," reads a September 2017 press release from the MCPO.
"Raciti… got out of his car at the light on Cranbury and Dunhams Corner Roads, and approached the car behind him while shouting profanities. With his hand, Raciti smashed the windshield of the other car."
Police from both East Brunswick and South Brunswick responded to the scene, and charges were ultimately filed against one of the teens by Raciti, but those were later dismissed.
A military veteran, Raciti joined the Sheriff's Office in 2002 during the heyday of notoriously corrupt Sheriff Joseph Spicuzzo, who was convicted and jailed for selling police jobs after 30 years in office.
Spicuzzo also led the Middlesex County Democratic Party and its powerful political machine until the day he surrendered to authorities.
Since 2011, the MCSO has been run by Spicuzzo's handpicked successor Mildred Scott.
The initial charges against Raciti came during a heated local election campaign which Raciti lost after switching political parties.
Raciti, whose father was a well-known Democrat and county government worker in charge of purchasing, left the Democratic Party and ran for re-election to the Milltown Borough Council as a Republican.
"Emphasize on the fact of the wrong doing and justice being delivered through treacherous times," Raciti told this reporter after the not guilty verdict.
He had previously indicated that he thought the charges against him were politically motivated.
But the MCPO wasn't done with Raciti, having secured a "direct indictment" against the suspended officer for making false statements and filing false criminal charges related to the road rage incident that took six months before he was suspended.
Ironically, the only charge that stuck came not from prosecutors, but from the young man whose car windshield was smashed during the March 2015 altercation.
New Jersey law allows any person to sign a criminal complaint against another, and the court determines whether there is probable cause to charge the suspect.
In September 2017, Raciti's lawyer was arguing in favor of not having any jury seated in the false statements case, pushing for a "bench trial" where Judge Flynn would be the sole person to decide whether his client was guilt or innocent.
Jeff Farmer, an attorney for Raciti, explained to Flynn that he thought it would be impossible not mention the domestic violence incident for which his client was acquitted in his defense in the road rage incident, arguing that finding a jury that would not be biased against Raciti would be a challenge.
"The general attitude towards domestic violence is not very good," said Farmer. "In other words, they hear that a man put his hands on a woman, they really don't want to hear everything else."
Raciti separated from his wife after the domestic violence incident, and she went on to change her story regarding the road rage incident.
Flynn granted the request for a bench trial on September 5, but recused herself from the case three days later, raising questions about why she presided over one of Raciti's cases but not the other.
"The judges don't do interviews," said a member of Judge Flynn's staff who we asked about the curious distinction between the cases. "It's all on the record."
On September 8, Flynn insisted on transferring the case to a different Judge during a quick hearing on the fifth floor of the Courthouse where Raciti was not present.
"When I looked at [prosecutor's] letter and there was mention of County Counsel being involved, that's a red flag for me because my husband is one of the Assistant County Counsels there," Flynn told the attorneys.
Flynn's husband is Edward Testino, a lawyer who runs his own private practice, works for the county government, and also represents the Middlesex County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund, the Old Bridge Municipal Utilities Authority, the Perth Amboy Housing Authority, and the Rahway Housing Authority.
But that's not all. Flynn admitted on the record that she has a son-in-law who works for the Middlesex County Sheriff's Office.
"Those two things together are problematic, which makes the prospect of a bench trial also problematic," she said, indicating that Judge Dennis Nieves would handle the matter.
But one of Raciti's lawyers pushed for Neives to recuse himself as well.
Attorney Joseph Mazraani pointed out that Nieves' daughter had previously worked for the MCSO, though he had thought she still was on the payroll.
When Mazraani tried to argue that Nieves also had a friendship with Sheriff Scott, Nieves pushed back.
"The other issue we have is… your closesness with Sheriff Scott," said Mazraani.
"You're friends with Sheriff Scott and my client and I don't feel comfortable with that relationship because there's a lot at play here, Judge."
"Listen to me. Millie Scott is not my friend," Nieves shot back.
"A friend is somebody who I have a relationship, somebody who I want to have a drink with."
"Nobody influences me Joe Mazraani!" exclaimed Nieves. " It's incredible to me that you would make this argument."
The case ultimately ended up going to Judge Benjamin Bucca, who granted the request for a bench trial.
Bucca, who hails from New Brunswick and represented the city's Planning Board for thirty years before Governor Chris Christie made him a Judge in 2016, ultimately acquitted Raciti on all of the charges brought by the MCPO.
However, the criminal mischief charge filed by the victim whose windshield was smashed, led Bucca to find Raciti guilty of a disorderly persons offense on September 21.
After the five-day bench trial, Bucca acquitted Raciti of one count of falsely incriminating another in the fourth degree, and four counts of unsworn falsification to law enforcement in the fourth degree.
"Our system of justice recognizes that two people can observe the same set of facts and have different perceptions and recollections," said Bucca during Farmer's closing statement.
"Every time, then, there's a not guilty, we prosecute [for false statements]?" Bucca asked the defense counsel, before admitting it was a "lay-up" of a question.
"If you're asking me where the line should be, I don't think there should be a prosecution… unless there is specific, irrefutable evidence that that person lied with the specific intent to implicate somebody else," responded Farmer.
Bucca found Raciti was acting as a private citizen and not a law enforcement officer when he smashed the windshield in violation of the law, saying there was not "any legal justification as a result of his being a law enforcement officer to justify his actions."
"There was a legitimate argument, a confrontation that was aggressive in nature with both sides yelling at one another. Ultimately, though, I find that Mr. Raciti was the aggressor," said Bucca.
"To this Court's opinion, he reduced himself to a shouting and cursing match with a bunch of teenagers on the road at night when it so easily could have been avoided," said Bucca.
Before Raciti could be sentenced, his attorneys argued that the criminal mischief charge should not have been
Bucca found that joinder the cases "was totally appropriate…because the facts were completely intertwined."
"Ultimately, if joinder did not occur, on a best case scenario there would have been two trials on the same set of facts," said Bucca.
"On a worst case scenario… there would have been substantial prejudice to the State," the Judge continued, saying that the concept of "double jeopardy" would have prevented a trial on the criminal mischief charge if there was a not guilty verdict on the indictable offenses Raciti had been charged with.
Raciti faced up to 180 days in the Middlesex County Adult Correction Center, but Bucca opted to sentence him to probation. He also denied the State's motion to require him to forfeit his public job.
"This request is meant to protect the society, protect the citizens from further actions like this from the defendant," said MCPO Assistant Prosecutor Amber Gibbs.
Under case law, a Judge can order a public official to forfeit their public position if their crimes "touch upon" their office.
"We all know that the primary job, by statute, of a Sheriff's Officer, is to facilitate operations in the courthouse," said Bucca, indicating he was not convinced that Raciti's conduct was related to his job.
Gibbs also brought up Raciti's prior criminal record, which she said consisted of arrests on nine different offenses that "have to do with assault, harassment, aggressive behavior."
"It's not the first time or the fifth. It is the ninth time the defendant has been arrested for losing his temper," said Gibbs. "At what point do we now invoke the fact that under 2C:51-2 this individual should forfeit his right to be a public employee?"
But Bucca was not convinced, saying Raciti was acting as a private citizen.
"He was not in uniform. He was on his own personal time," said Bucca. "He never mentioned his position up through the time that he damaged the vehicle."
"The facts presented at trial are clear that he only displayed his badge and made reference to his badge after he damaged the window," the Judge continued.
"This Court finds the criminal offenses did not directly and specifically relate to the defendant's position as a Sheriff's Officer, and thus, pursuant to State v. Hupka, forfeiture of public employment is unwarranted."
Bucca ultimately sentenced Raciti to one year on probation, fined him a total of $875, and ordered him to complete an anger management course and pay $300 to the victim whose windshield was smashed.
During sentencing, Bucca said that he felt Raciti had "done a lot of good in the world."
"You ran and you worked as a Councilman, and that's selfless work," Bucca told the defendant. "You gave back to your community and I'm sure you also gave back to your community in terms of your work as a Sheiff's Officer."
According to our sources, the MCPO has filed a motion to reconsider asking Bucca change his decision on the forfeiture of public employment and Raciti plans to appeal the decision to convict him.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and was an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in 2018.