Buffalo Police Surprised Cop-Shoving Judge Wasn't Charged

Law360 (October 23, 2020, 3:24 PM EDT) -- Buffalo police say they were blindsided by the Erie County district attorney's decision not to charge a state judge who brawled with his neighbors before shoving an officer, according to police files obtained by Law360 and interviews with officers.

The detective investigating the June 22 incident involving New York State Supreme Court Justice Mark Grisanti wrote in his notes that he could not explain District Attorney John Flynn's decision and that he had no advance notice that Flynn would decline to press any possible charges on his case. Detective William Moretti's accounting of events assigned much of the blame for the fight to the judge and his wife, Maria Grisanti.

The police files, obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request, provide important context to raw body camera footage first released by Law360 on Oct. 13. That footage shows the judge chasing and pushing a police officer who was handcuffing his wife, then showering officers with expletive-riddled demands and threats as he touted his ties to the mayor and police.

Justice Grisanti and his wife were handcuffed and detained, but never formally arrested or charged. The judge's neighbor was left standing in his driveway with a bleeding bite mark and fractured eye socket, asking to press charges.

Taken together, the files and body camera footage reveal that the DA's decision to abruptly drop the case — and his public characterization of the events weeks later — contradicted evidence that some officers said should have made it easy to arrest and charge Justice Grisanti.

It clearly surprised the detective on the case.

"DA's office did give official statement to Buffalo News that no charges would be filed for case," Detective Moretti wrote on July 8. "I was never contacted by the DA's office nor anyone in the department to be made aware of this."

That same day, in an interview with Law360, Flynn explained his decision not to bring charges by spreading the blame around. He called all parties "equally childish" and pointed a finger at the judge's neighbors, Joseph and Gina Mele. "The audio in my opinion clearly shows that the Meles instigated the whole thing," Flynn said, calling them the "verbal initiators."

"Mr. Mele threw the first punch," Flynn said, separately concluding, "The Meles are not victims in this matter, okay? The Meles are suspects in this matter, as are the Grisantis."

In fact, the footage and police files show the detective on the scene believed that Maria Grisanti initiated the physical altercation by shoving Joseph Mele.

According to the files, two days after the DA's decision not to prosecute, Moretti said he told the unhappy neighbors who were injured in the fight, "I am unable to speak on behalf of the DA's office and it is outside of my knowledge why they made the decision that they did."

Several Buffalo police officers, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs, told Law360 it appeared the judge got special treatment. The officers said either that they believed charges should be filed or that they would have arrested the judge if he had shoved them. One believed charges had, in fact, been filed the night of the incident.

While the department's official policy is unclear and some officers say the decision to charge is situational, one officer firmly stated that using physical force against an officer would typically result in an arrest and charges.

"Everybody that touches a police officer is charged," the officer said. "To have him not charged with anything, not even a disorderly conduct or an obstruction, is disgusting, and that does not happen. Period."

The district attorney's office did not respond to a request for comment sent Thursday evening.

Justice Grisanti's attorney, Leonard D. Zaccagnino of Shaw & Shaw PC, told Law360 on Friday that Flynn was within his rights to make a decision that differed from the police perspective.

"At the end of the day, the decision is with the DA, not with the police officers. It's with the DA as to whether or not they're going to prosecute," Zaccagnino said, adding that he had never spoken with the district attorney about the case. "I wasn't really impressed with the police work that I saw there," he added, faulting one officer for taking the judge's wife to the ground as he handcuffed her and a second officer for yelling at the judge "like a crazy guy."

At the scene of the fight, the body camera footage shows the detective giving his findings to Lt. Karin Turello and Capt. Michael Walker after reviewing the Meles' home surveillance footage.

Lt. Karin Turello's body camera shows Detective William Moretti telling the ranking officers at the scene, Turello and Capt. Michael Walker, what he sees on the Meles' surveillance footage of the fight with Justice Grisanti and his wife, who live across the street.

"So the neighbors across the street definitely initiate," Moretti says, gesturing at the Grisantis' house while standing in the Meles' driveway.

"The wife, from across the street," Moretti continues, referencing Maria Grisanti as he raises his forearm with a closed fist, "kind of like jams" Joseph Mele "and pushes him away."

Moretti's case file notes appear to provide a condensed version of that narrative.

The detective's files also include statements from the Grisantis on the night of the altercation that show Maria Grisanti admitting she threw punches and bit her neighbor during an "even fight," and brushing off a question about any injuries. "I'm ok, just the scratches. I'm fine," she said.

She then brags that her husband is a judge.

"Joe knows Mark is a judge and the guy is jealous because he is a garbage man," Maria Grisanti said, according to the interview notes. Joseph Mele works for the city sanitation department.

Flynn pointedly told Law360 in the July 8 interview that he could have charged the Meles for making a false statement, referring to Gina Mele's statement to police in which she claimed Justice Grisanti invoked his title by saying "I'm a judge, if you don't move it, I will get it towed."

Flynn told Law360 he based his reasoning that Mele had made a false statement on the recollections of officers on the scene and his claim that audio of the incident did not record the judge saying that. But Moretti said on video that there was "no audio" at times. Law360's review of the same footage confirms that the video was choppy and audio was incomplete.

Later that evening, however, Maria Grisanti clearly brought up her husband's judgeship in her statement to police. 

Gina Mele relayed notes from two conversations with Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood, which quoted him telling her twice in one call that it was his policy to prosecute anyone who shoves a police officer.

"Everyone in my department knows that my rule is if you put your hands on officer the person has to be locked up and charged," Lockwood said Oct. 13 during a nine-minute call that began at 1:38 p.m., according to Gina Mele's notes and screenshots of her call log. "I wasn't involved in this and brought to my attention now," the notes describe the commissioner saying.

The commissioner and a spokesman did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls over the span of a week seeking an interview on the department's policy regarding officers being shoved. Law360 provided Lockwood's alleged statement alongside these requests.

Body camera footage makes clear that Moretti, Turello and Walker decided at the scene to turn over materials to the district attorney immediately, and Mele's notes appear to show the commissioner saying it was the DA's call not to arrest or charge that night. 

"The reason why not arrested is I spoke with chief and he said took them to district house, contacted DA and say don't place charges on them, we will determine that," Lockwood is reported to have said in Mele's notes of the Oct. 13 call.

Gina Mele records in handwritten notes Commissioner Byron Lockwood's statements to her on an Oct. 13 phone call.

Moretti's police files show the DA was consulted that evening but do not clearly state who made the decision not to arrest anyone.

"Called ADA Meredith Mohun for guidance," Moretti wrote, after noting he took statements from the Meles and Grisantis. "She reached out to ADA Agro and Keane but got no answer. ... It was decided no arrest would be made, that I would gather statements from all involved and conference with Mohun at later date to decide what course of action should be taken."

"Capt. Walker did respond to assist and agreed that getting DA's office involved was the right course of action," Moretti added.

Deputy District Attorney Joseph A. Agro, head of litigation on Flynn's team, was assigned the case. Moretti notes that he turned the "entire file over to him for further investigation" on June 24.

It's unclear why the case was not assigned to the public integrity unit, which handles "crimes committed by public employees, elected officials, candidates for public office and other public servants," according to the DA's website.

Speaking with Moretti, Officer Ryan Gehr appeared to downplay Justice Grisanti's shoving him while Gehr was handcuffing Maria Grisanti, who attempted "to pull away from officers at which point she was taken to the ground and cuffed."

Moretti noted that Gehr told him: "During the cuffing process Mark Grisanti grabbed/touched PO Gehr on the shoulder stating that he did not have to treat his wife that way. Mark Grisanti was then also placed in cuffs and seated in the back of a second patrol vehicle."

In fact, body camera footage shows that Justice Grisanti shoved Gehr, prompting the officer to shout an expletive while a second officer rushed in to restrain the judge. Justice Grisanti then bellowed demands and threats.

"Dude! Get your hands off my fucking wife!" Justice Grisanti yelled as Officer Larry Muhammad restrained him. "Listen, my daughter and my son are both Buffalo police officers. I'll call them right now. You arrest my fucking wife you're going to be sorry."

Many minutes later, the judge boasts of his friendship with Mayor Byron Brown and ties to police brass. He apologizes for "tackling" Gehr but then chastises the patrol officer for how he arrested his wife. Officer Richard Hy is seen on body camera footage responding with a lecture of his own, handcuffing the judge, and placing him in the back of a police SUV.

"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."

Another officer told a neighbor on the scene that the Grisantis were "intoxicated."

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

--Editing by Kat Laskowski.

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

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