Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

John Oliva

Other Suffolk County, New York, Exonerations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/John_Oliva.jpg
On September 9, 2014, John Oliva, a former detective with the Suffolk County Police Department on Long Island, New York, was arrested and charged with grand larceny and computer trespass, both felonies, and official misconduct, a misdemeanor.

Oliva, who was 48 years old, pled guilty later that day to official misconduct. He received a sentence of conditional discharge and also agreed to cooperate with authorities on any further investigation. At the time, the charges were said to have arisen from an investigation into Suffolk County police officers leaking information to the media. At his plea hearing, Oliva acknowledged giving computer records to a reporter with Newsday.

On December 9, 2015, James Burke, the Suffolk County Police Chief at the time of Oliva’s plea, was arrested on federal charges of violating the civil rights of a person in custody and obstruction of justice. According to the indictment, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Burke beat up a man in custody who was suspected of stealing pornography from Burke’s police car and then spearheaded a cover-up. Burke pled guilty on November 2, 2016, and received a sentence of 46 months in federal prison.

A year later, on October 25, 2017, Thomas Spota, the Suffolk County District Attorney, and Christopher McPartland, one of Spota’s top deputies, were charged in federal court with witness tampering and obstruction of justice in the investigation of Burke’s conduct. A jury convicted them on December 17, 2019.

At Spota’s trial, a witness testified how Oliva became a target of Burke and the district attorney’s office. According to this witness, when the investigation into Burke’s possible misconduct began in 2013, Burke and others believed that Oliva was cooperating with the federal government.

After several articles appeared about problems with a joint Suffolk County-FBI task force, Spota, Burke and McPartland met to discuss how to retaliate against Oliva. They applied for a wiretap on Oliva’s phone, under the ruse of “officer safety,” according to the witness. A judge approved the wiretap, which lasted for four months.

Even after learning from the wiretap that Oliva was indeed talking to reporters, the officials maintained the surveillance and were able to learn personal information about Oliva and his family, including his brother-in-law, who was also a Suffolk County police officer.

In early 2020, after the convictions of Spota and McPartland, Oliva hired attorneys Donna Aldea and Bruce Barket to reinvestigate his case. They later took their findings to the Conviction Integrity Bureau (CIB) of then-Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini, which in August 2021 acknowledged the review.

At the time, Spota and McPartland had each just received five-year sentences for their convictions, and U.S. District Court Judge Joan Azrack said at their sentencing hearing that “retaliatory motives” played a role in Oliva’s prosecution.

On November 30, 2021, Oliva filed a motion to vacate his conviction in Suffolk County Supreme Court. The motion outlined the misconduct by Burke and Spota and noted that Oliva’s actions didn’t meet the statutory definition of official misconduct, because there was no intent to obtain a benefit or deprive another person of a benefit.

The district attorney’s office filed an affirmation on December 2, 2021, containing the findings of the CIB investigation, which supported the motion to vacate. In the affirmation, prosecutors said that Oliva’s prosecution was vindictive, and that Spota and McPartland had misled a judge in order to obtain a wiretap. The filing also said that the prosecutors threatened Oliva and his family to induce him into pleading guilty.

Even after Oliva’s plea, the CIB review said, Spota and McPartland used the case as a cudgel to deter other officers from cooperating with the federal investigation into Burke. Police officers even came up with a term – “Oliva-ed” – as a shorthand for the penalty of crossing Spota or Burke.

Justice Fernando Camacho granted the motion on December 2, 2021. Camacho had been the judge who approved the wiretap on Oliva in 2014 and later accepted his plea to the misconduct charge.

"All of those who engaged in this vindictive conspiracy became the abusers and oppressors," Camacho said. "Shame on them."

Oliva had been forced into retirement by his conviction. He told the court, according to Newsday: “I was a dedicated law enforcement officer whose focus was to protect communities and my fellow officers by holding gang members accountable for their unconscionable actions. Instead of being recognized for my commitment to the people of Suffolk County, I was unfairly targeted by the very people who were in charge of upholding the law. My reputation was tarnished and my career was cut short by a false arrest.”

– Ken Otterbourg

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 1/14/2022
Last Updated: 1/14/2022
State:New York
County:Suffolk
Most Serious Crime:Official Misconduct
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2014
Convicted:2014
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:Probation
Race/Ethnicity:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:47
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No