'Intoxicated' NY Judge Shoved Officer, Invoked Ties To Power

By Frank G. Runyeon
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Law360 (October 13, 2020, 11:33 AM EDT) -- Buffalo police have released body camera footage of New York State Supreme Court Justice Mark Grisanti shoving an officer after a fight with his neighbor, then invoking his friendship with the mayor and family ties to law enforcement, before successfully avoiding arrest. Police said Grisanti was drunk at the time.

Law360 obtained the videos of the police detaining Grisanti and his wife late last week through a Freedom of Information Law request. The profanity-laced footage reveals in detail that the state senator-turned-judge used physical force against police and justified it, repeatedly threatened officers, and touted his political connections.

The Grisantis were not arrested or charged with any crime for what happened that night.

Maria Grisanti, in pink, is handcuffed and a bare-chested Justice Grisanti shoves an officer at 1:33 in this video clip from Buffalo police body camera footage of the June 22 incident.

The footage shows Justice Grisanti and his wife, Maria Grisanti, being handcuffed and detained by police outside their home on June 22, in the aftermath of a street fight with neighbors over a parking space — the latest incident in a yearslong feud.

In the video, Justice Grisanti is seen charging toward and shoving an officer trying to arrest his wife as the officer threw her down on their front lawn after she refused to stop screaming. The judge was restrained by a second officer but repeatedly demanded his wife's release, while listing his close connections to powerful people in Buffalo, notably his "good friend" Mayor Byron Brown and "cousin" Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia.

Grisanti's attorney, Leonard D. Zaccagnino of Shaw & Shaw PC, disputed the characterization that the judge had threatened officers or touted his connections to the mayor or police — although he did not dispute that the judge named the mayor and police officers he knew, or that an officer called his words a threat.

"If you had a wife that was being manhandled, you might feel the same way," Zaccagnino said. He added later, "It's a shame that the whole thing happened. It's a shame."

Mayor Brown's office did not respond to questions Monday, but issued a statement on Tuesday afternoon.

"It has been, and remains, my policy as mayor not to interfere in any police investigation. I have not spoken to the Buffalo Police Department, District Attorney Flynn, or Judge Grisanti regarding this matter. I believe that the district attorney's office is in the best position to determine the appropriate course of action," Brown said.

The judge was bare-chested throughout the incident, holding a shirt and broken gold chain in his hand with a tattered undershirt hanging off his waist. Twice the judge told police, "You arrest my fucking wife, you're going to be sorry."

"If you don't get the cuffs off her right now, you're going to have a problem," the judge shouted as his wife was placed in the back of a police SUV. Buffalo police said Maria and Mark Grisanti were only detained, never technically arrested.

"Listen, I'm good friends with Byron Brown," the judge told police. Grisanti told officers the mayor was aware of the longstanding dispute he had with his neighbors and that Brown had previously told him, "Mark, just friggin' ignore 'em." The judge would later falsely deny to a police detective that he had invoked Mayor Brown's name.

Justice Grisanti touts his friendship with the mayor, gets handcuffed and put in a police vehicle in this video clip from Buffalo police body camera footage of the June 22 incident.

Grisanti apologized to the officer for "tackling" him, but then proceeded to explain why his actions were justified, telling him to take it as "constructive criticism." Overhearing this, a fellow officer chastised the judge for abusing his connections to power, including repeatedly saying his daughter and son-in-law are police officers.

"You want to drop another copper's name? You want to scream about how you know Gramaglia or the mayor?" the officer yelled at the judge, before putting handcuffs on him. "You want to make us look dirty, is that what you want to do? So how am I helping you now?"

"You're dropping everybody's name with a badge and you're expecting special treatment. How does that look like to everybody in this environment right now?" the police officer said as he put the judge in the back of a police SUV. "You smell like cheap beer."

"It doesn't look good. You're right," the judge said quietly.

Another officer told a neighbor that the Grisantis were "intoxicated," according to the body camera footage.

A spokesman for the Buffalo Police Department said "the decision not to arrest anyone that evening was based on consultation with the DA's office" in Erie County.

"He did not actually tackle an officer nor did he injure anyone," said Captain Jeff Rinaldo, when asked why charges were not filed. "The ultimate decision not to charge anyone was based on the videos and witness statements in consultation with the DA's office."

Rinaldo added that Gramaglia, the deputy police commissioner, is not Grisanti's cousin, despite what the judge told officers.

The Grisantis were detained for what appeared to be over an hour, according to the videos. In July, Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn declined to prosecute anyone involved in the street fight between residents, saying "all parties were equally childish." When asked about claims that the Grisantis were drunk, he told Law360 he "had not heard that at all."

The body camera footage, however, shows an officer telling a captain at the scene that the neighbors' surveillance video showed it was a "mutual fight" but that the Grisantis "definitely initiated it." An officer on the scene said they were drunk.

"The people over here are injured," the officer said, gesturing to the neighbors. "The people over here are intoxicated and that's why they're in the back of the truck."

Flynn also told Law360 in July that officers said they were upset by the Grisanti's behavior, but that the actions "didn't rise to the level of criminality." The district attorney said he "took their judgment for that" and did not investigate the Grisantis' actions towards police.

Flynn did not respond to questions Monday, including whether his office reviewed the body camera videos.

"Our office has concluded our investigation into the altercation and will be making no further comments," said Kait Munro, a spokesperson for the office.

While local law enforcement has closed its investigations into the brawl with neighbors that night, the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct is in the midst of its investigation into Justice Grisanti's behavior, according to emails and letters provided by the Grisantis' neighbors, Joseph and Gina Mele, who fought with the judge and his wife. The watchdog agency has the power to discipline or remove judges who abuse their position.

The commission declined to confirm or deny the existence of any investigation.

After dark on the night of the incident, a lieutenant directed a patrol officer to hold her iPhone up to a handcuffed Justice Grisanti so that he could speak with his first cousin, Detective Mark Costantino, from the back of the police vehicle. The judge admitted he shoved an officer but denied invoking the mayor's friendship.

Justice Grisanti speaks with his cousin, a Buffalo police detective, by iPhone in the police vehicle in this video clip from police body camera footage of the June 22 incident.

"I never mentioned Byron Brown's name," Justice Grisanti told the detective.

"The thing that freaks me out is that everything you do is going to be scrutinized because of your job," Costantino said.

"Well, Mark, I never mentioned anything about my job or who I was," the judge said to his cousin, the detective. "You can ask any officer, I never mentioned anything like that."

Costantino appeared to be concerned about the consequences of the judge getting arrested.

"If you get arrested, that's going to be all over — you know it's going to be on the news," Costantino said.

"I know," the judge replied.

When asked how and why this phone call was arranged, Rinaldo, the police spokesman, stated that "it appears the detective reached out to the lieutenant on scene and she allowed him to speak with Mr. Grisanti."

The Meles told police at the scene that they were assaulted and said they wanted to press charges. Maria Grisanti admitted to Law360 that she bit Joseph Mele's arm, claiming it was self-defense because he had her in a chokehold. The Meles deny this. The man's hospital record shows he also suffered a fractured eye socket and a shoulder injury. The Grisantis say those wounds were self-inflicted. The judge claims Joseph Mele punched him. The Meles deny that.

After reviewing the body camera footage, Gina Mele told Law360 on Monday that she felt "more violated than I did when it first happened."

"I trusted the police officers to come into my home to look at my security footage and do the right thing," Mele said. "And in the end, all it shows me is that Mark Grisanti is above the law."

--Editing by Marygrace Murphy.

Update: The story has been updated with a comment from Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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