Manhattan prosecutors have done something rare indeed: indicted a cop for allegedly falsely arresting someone and lying about it. NYPD Officer Jonathan Munoz, 32, was arraigned this morning on two felony charges of filing false reports, and three misdemeanor charges of official misconduct and false statements.
"Had this officer’s attempts to conceal his alleged misconduct succeeded, an innocent man may still be facing charges for a fabricated crime," Manhattan DA Cy Vance said in a statement.
Munoz's prosecution stems from his role in arresting Jason Disisto, then 21, in the spring of 2014. From our report this April:
Disisto was standing outside of a Puerto Rican restaurant around 1 a.m. when he saw Officer Jonathan Munoz reaching into his friend's pocket. Disisto asked a friend to give him his phone so he could record, but as he lined up the shot, Munoz spotted him and rushed over to grab him. A brief struggle for the phone ensued, with two other officers joining in, and it ended with Disisto in cuffs in the back of a police car.
Before the officers drove away, one threw the cellphone out the window.
Munoz, a nine-year NYPD veteran, and officers Daniel Cross and Edwin Florez made the arrest. On the strength of a police report written up by Munoz, prosecutors charged Disisto with obstructing governmental administration, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. In his report, Munoz wrote that Disisto lunged and took a swing at him. It would have been hard to disprove had the interaction not been caught on surveillance camera, from three different angles.
Prosecutors dropped the charges against Disisto in July 2014, and he is now suing in federal court. His lawyers are in settlement negotiations with the city, court records show. One of Disisto's lawyers, David Rankin of the firm Rankin & Taylor, praised the grand jury's decision, and the DA's Office for bringing the case.
"Mr. Disisto is definitely pleased that the grand jury voted to indict Munoz, and we're heartened the New York County District Attorney's Office has taken this matter so seriously," he said. "We hope this indictment sends a message to the members of the NYPD, and that they'll think twice about fabricating statements against people in the future."
Rankin's firm's primarily handles police misconduct lawsuits. He said he sees clearcut instances of officers lying "with some regularity," but can recall "only a handful" of instances where lying cops were prosecuted.
"It’s so rare that an officer will actually get charged with filing a false instrument," he said.
Rankin said it helped that the video in this case was so clearcut, and that it shows the scene before the action begins.
"The evidence was just so strong," he said. "You can’t look at this video and think anything other than it just didn’t happen" the way Munoz said it did.
Munoz, who lives in Orange County, New York, was released without bail and ordered to surrender his passport. His lawyer Stephen Worth told the Daily News Disisto's collar was a "routine arrest" and that "Officer Munoz acted properly."
Munoz faces as many as 11 years in prison if convicted. An NYPD spokesperson said he has been suspended without pay. Officer Florez was previously placed on modified duty. NYPD Internal Affairs is also investigating the incident.
Lying in a criminal complaint, as it says at the bottom of each complaint form, is considered perjury, at least a misdemeanor punishable by a year imprisonment. Filing a false instrument requires prosecutors to show more intent, and is a felony punishable by as many as four years.
In October, a judge found NYPD Officer Michael Ackermann guilty of filing a false report after he arrested a New York Times photographer and falsely claimed the photographer blinded him with a camera flash and injured another officer while resisting arrest. The Manhattan DA's Office has won perjury or false report convictions against at least five cops since 2010, and brought charges against a sixth who was acquitted.
A Manhattan DA's Office spokeswoman declined to comment on whether it is pursuing charges against Florez or Cross, and why police are not prosecuted for lying more often.