Skip to the main content.
4 min read

Criminal Law: Murdered Informant's Estate Stake Claim

When (if) the state creates a risk to ones safety, the State may be liable. It's a basic premise and here the Court sees that a good claim may be made.   Whether it is ultimately successful is another question.  However, our public officials/police/prosecutors should not engage in risky behavior to thereby cause risk of harm to others.  I ask the question , what if an innocent 3rd party had been hurt due to the state revealing information in a reckless fashion?

Have you been charged with a criminal act? Speak with a NJ Criminal Law Attorney today for your free consultation 800-709-1131

Murdered Informant's Estate May Claim State-Created Danger

, New Jersey Law Journal

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has reinstated a suit filed against the Bergen County Prosecutor’s office on behalf of Frank Lagano that alleges the organized-crime figure was murdered after he was revealed to be a confidential informant by someone in the office.

The ruling allows Lagano’s estate to bring claims over his April 12, 2007, murder in front of the Seville Diner in East Brunswick, N.J., of which he was part owner. No one was ever charged in the shooting of Lagano, then 67. The suit claims that disclosure of Lagano’s status as an informant established a state-created danger in violation of his due process rights.

The Third Circuit said the Prosecutor’s office and Michael Mordaga, a co-defendant in the suit and the former chief of detectives for the office, are subject to claims under state and federal civil rights laws, because each met the definition of a “person” under those laws. U.S. District Judge Faith Hochberg of the District of New Jersey, the judge below, had dismissed the suit after finding Mordaga and the Prosecutor’s office were not persons under those laws.

The estate claims Mordaga and Lagano were longtime friends, even as the Prosecutor’s office conducted an organized-crime investigation focusing on Lagano. In December 2004, Lagano was charged with racketeering, promoting gambling, criminal usury and conspiracy.

After Lagano was charged, the estate claims, Mordaga met with him and instructed him to hire a particular attorney, who could “‘make his legal problems go away.’” But Lagano refused to hire the attorney and unidentified people in the Prosecutor’s office told some of his co-defendants that he was a cooperating witness, the suit claims.

The estate says it based its allegations “in substantial part” on another suit against the state filed in late 2010 by James Sweeney, a former investigator in the Division of Criminal Justice, since deceased. Sweeney claimed he was fired in retaliation for investigating corruption in an unspecified county prosecutor’s office. He described actions by parties designated “FL” and “MM” that were similar to those attributed to Lagano and Mordaga.

In dismissing the suit in March 2013, Hochberg said the Prosecutor’s office and Mordaga were not subject to liability under federal civil rights laws because they are arms of state government, and therefore are not persons under federal law.

But the panel of Judges Michael Chagares, Joseph Greenaway Jr. and Thomas Vanaskie said the Prosecutor’s office and Mordaga were subject to suit under federal civil rights law because they were not acting as arms of state government when Mordaga allegedly urged Lagano to hire a particular attorney or at the time of the alleged disclosure of Lagano’s status as a confidential informant. Mordaga and the Prosecutor’s office were also subject to suit under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act for the same reasons, the appeals court said.

Hochberg also wrongly concluded that the Prosecutor’s office was entitled to sovereign immunity, the appeals court said. To decide that question on remand, the lower court should analyze whether the state is the real party in interest, as determined by whether the money to pay for the judgment would come from the state; the status of the agency under state law; and what degree of autonomy the agency has, the Third Circuit said.

The panel also said Hochberg failed to apply the proper standard in concluding that Mordaga is protected by qualified immunity. She concluded that no Third Circuit law had extended to confidential informants the right to a claim based on a state-created danger. But the appeals court said that a state-created danger has been established as a violation of due process for nearly two decades.

Have you been charged with a criminal act? Speak with a NJ Criminal Lawyer today for your free consultation 800-709-1131

Link to Article

Have you been charged with a criminal act? Speak with a NJ Criminal Law Attorney today for your free consultation 800-709-1131