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Whistleblowers could have criminal defense issues

When a worker suspects that illegal activities are taking place within the workplace, they have the right, and many feel the obligation, to report those activities to the proper authorities. This act is known as whistleblowing, and is protected under law. A recent court ruling, however, may cause some workers to question whether turning their employer in could lead to legal troubles and the need to mount their own criminal defense.

The case went before the New Jersey Supreme Court, and centered on whether an employee who took files from the workplace in order to support claims of wrongdoing could be charged with a crime. The whistleblowing act was in regard to accusations of discrimination and retaliation for reporting the matter. The employee in question removed confidential documents from her workplace in order to support those claims, but the employer argued that such an act constituted theft.

The worker in this case was an employee of the North Bergen Board of Education. Because she removed files from a government office, she was indicted for official misconduct and unlawful taking. However, the prosecutor who went before the grand jury failed to tell the participants that the documents were taken in an effort to support the worker's civil case against the Board. The worker sought to dismiss that indictment, but the courts ruled to uphold it, stating that the prosecutor had no obligation to disclose the reason behind the removal of documents from the workplace.

In earlier cases, the court has ruled that the act of taking documents for use within litigation is a protected act under the Law Against Discrimination. However, this recent ruling demonstrates that a New Jersey employee is at risk of criminal charges if documents are improperly removed from the workplace. The lack of clarity on the matter may leave many within the state unsure of what action to take when considering whether to report employer wrongdoing. The best way for workers to avoid the need for a criminal defense strategy in such matters is to consult with an attorney prior to removing any documents from the workplace.

Source: The National Law Review, "New Jersey Whistleblowers May Face Criminal Charges for Theft of Company Documents", June 26, 2015

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