August 25, 2023
TRENTON – A state grand jury has voted not to file any criminal charges at the conclusion of its deliberations regarding the death of Atiba Lewis, 45, of Plainsboro, N.J., who was fatally shot by Officer Phillip Nguyen of the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office.
Mr. Lewis’s death was investigated by the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA) and presented to New Jersey residents serving on the grand jury in accordance with the Independent Prosecutor Directive of 2019. In July 2021, OPIA issued standard operating procedures (SOPs) to ensure these grand jury presentations are conducted in a neutral, objective manner, with appropriate transparency regarding the process, consistent with the directive.
The investigation included interviews of witnesses, photographs, review of body-worn camera footage, and autopsy results from the medical examiner. This evidence, including video of the incident, was presented to a state grand jury. After hearing the testimony and evidence, the grand jury concluded its deliberations Monday, August 21, 2023, and voted “no bill,” meaning the grand jury concluded no criminal charges should be filed against Officer Nguyen.
According to the investigation, the shooting occurred shortly after 11:30 a.m. on February 16, 2022. A civil order for possession (eviction/ejection) had been authorized to remove Mr. Lewis from an apartment on Ravens Crest Drive in Plainsboro. The Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office executed the order with assistance from other law enforcement agencies on the morning of February 16. During the execution of the order, Middlesex County Sheriff’s officers observed firearm paraphernalia in the residence. They were aware that Mr. Lewis was a certain person statutorily prohibited from possessing those firearms. A state Superior Court judge thereafter authorized a search warrant for the apartment. Four firearms were retrieved from Mr. Lewis’s residence and secured.
Law enforcement executed the order and search warrant while Mr. Lewis was out of the apartment. At approximately 11:30 a.m., after Mr. Lewis had arrived back at the apartment complex, law enforcement officers attempted to arrest him for unlawful possession of the firearms.
When the officers approached Mr. Lewis, he pulled out a knife and ran away from them. He continued to threaten the officers with the knife. Several officers deployed Tasers in an attempt to disarm Mr. Lewis, but the Tasers were ineffective. Mr. Lewis presented as being agitated and advanced at officers several times. At approximately 11:35 a.m., with a knife in his hand, Mr. Lewis advanced directly toward Officer Nguyen, who then fired his weapon, fatally wounding Mr. Lewis.
Officers and emergency medical personnel rendered first aid to Mr. Lewis, who was transported to Princeton Hospital, where he was pronounced deceased at 12:10 p.m.
A 2019 law, P.L. 2019, c. 1, requires the Attorney General’s Office to conduct investigations of a person’s death that occurs during an encounter with a law enforcement officer acting in the officer’s official capacity or while the decedent is in custody. It requires that all such investigations be presented to a grand jury to determine if the evidence supports the return of an indictment against the officer or officers involved. The grand jury is instructed on the elements of the potential criminal offenses, including criminal homicide offenses, that could be brought and, as required by statutes, the grand jury is instructed on self-defense and other forms of legal justification.
A conflicts check was conducted pursuant to the Independent Prosecutor Directive and no actual or potential conflict of interest was found involving any individual assigned to the investigation. Prior to presentation to the grand jury, the investigation was reviewed by OPIA Executive Director Thomas Eicher in accordance with the policies and procedures established for these presentations in the SOPs.
At the conclusion of these investigations, pursuant to the Independent Prosecutor Directive and SOPs, OPIA determines whether any principal should be referred to the appropriate law enforcement agency for administrative review in accordance with the AG’s Internal Affairs Policy & Procedures. OPIA monitors any resulting review and takes such actions as are necessary to ensure that the review is completed in a timely fashion, and that appropriate actions are taken based on the results of the review.
The Independent Prosecutor Directive is posted on the Attorney General’s website at this link: https://www.nj.gov/oag/dcj/agguide/directives/ag-Directive-2019-4.pdf
Further information about how fatal police encounters are investigated in New Jersey under the directive is found at this link: https://www.njoag.gov/independent-prosecutor/