ALBANY — He once let an innocent suspect stay in jail for a crime he knew the man had not committed.
Now, Nicholas Lemma, a former Nassau County police detective, is asking New York’s highest court to shield him from paying upward of $300,000 in costs associated with a malicious prosecution lawsuit that was filed in the case.
Lemma, 60, will make his claim in oral arguments Wednesday at the state Court of Appeals that as a police officer, he was indemnified from having to personally pay damages or attorneys’ fees in the lawsuit filed by Raheem Crews, the man wrongly accused in a 2005 robbery.
Any costs, Lemma’s attorney has argued, should be paid by taxpayers. In going to the Court of Appeals, the former officer is seeking to overturn rulings by lower courts that said he wasn’t entitled to be covered by taxpayers because his conduct amounted to a “negligent act.”
The case traces back to May 2005 when Crews, then a 19-year-old Roosevelt resident, was arrested in connection with an alleged street robbery that occurred two months earlier. Lemma was the lead detective on the case, according to court records.
Trouble was, on the day of the robbery, Crews was in the Nassau County jail in East Meadow on another charge. Still, Crews spent 125 days in jail before prosecutors discovered there was no way he could have committed the crime.
Crews sued and Lemma, in a deposition, admitted he learned about the airtight alibi five days after Crews was arrested. Instead of acting on the information, “I kept it to myself and said, ‘Let the chips fall where they may,’ ” Lemma testified.
Eventually, Lemma was charged with official misconduct, but pleaded guilty to a noncriminal violation, said his attorney, Mitchell Garber of Manhattan.
Crews asked for $2.5 million, but a jury awarded him $175,000. He also asked for coverage of his attorneys’ fees, which could be as high as $300,000. Garber said the county would be liable for the damages and Lemma for the attorneys’ fees, adding that’s all on hold while Lemma fights for legal coverage.
Based on Lemma’s admission, the Nassau County Police Officer Indemnification Board said it would not cover him because his actions didn’t fall within the “proper discharge of his duties.”
Lemma filed suit to overturn that decision — and so far, two lower courts have sided with the county.
“This was not an ‘unintentional lapse’ in the discharge of his duties but a conscious choice,” the state Supreme Court ruled in 2013.
“The key is ‘proper discharge,’ ” said Robert Van der Waag, an attorney for the indemnification board based in Mineola. He declined to comment further Tuesday.
Garber contended state law mandates a police officer must be indemnified as long as he was acting “within the scope of his employment” and doesn’t hinge on whether he was acting “correctly” or “inappropriately.”