Considering a rarely invoked provision, the Delaware Superior Court interpreted a Delaware Constitutional provision prohibiting individuals convicted of certain crimes from holding elected office. President Judge Jan R. Jurden granted the State of Delaware’s motion to bar former Town of Newport (“Newport”) Police Chief Michael Capriglione from taking office as a Newport Town Commissioner despite his election to the position earlier this year in State of Delaware, Ex. Rel. Kathleen Jennings, Attorney General v. Michael Capriglione, and Town of Newport, C.A. No. N21C-04-091 JRJ (Del. Super. May 4, 2021). [1] She ruled he was ineligible for the office because his prior conviction for misdemeanor Official Misconduct was an infamous crime under Article II, Sec. 21 of the Delaware Constitution.

On April 5, 2021, Newport elected Michael Capriglione to serve as a Commissioner.  Newport has a Council-Manager form of government with five Commissioners forming the town council, including the Mayor.  On May 19, 2018, while serving as Police Chief and on his way to teach a defensive driving course, Mr. Capriglione backed his police car into a parked car in the police department’s parking lot.  A surveillance camera recorded the collision, and Mr. Capriglione later ordered the deletion of the surveillance video capturing the collision.  As a result, a grand jury indicted him, and he eventually pleaded guilty to Careless or Inattentive Driving and Official Misconduct (resulting from the deletion of the surveillance video), both misdemeanor convictions.

The night before Mr. Capriglione was to be sworn into office, the Delaware Attorney General filed a Petition for a Writ of Quo Warranto to prevent him from taking office. [2]  The State argued that the Delaware Constitution prohibited him from serving in that position and asked the Court to prevent his swearing in until it ruled on the constitutional question.  The Court stayed the swearing in and acted swiftly to resolve the constitutional question.

The Delaware Constitution provides:

No person who shall be convicted of embezzlement of the public money, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime, shall be eligible to a seat in either House of the General Assembly, or capable of holding any office of trust, honor or profit under this State.

However, no Delaware Court had previously found a misdemeanor to be an infamous crime.  The question for the Court was “whether Official Misconduct qualifies as an ‘infamous crime.’”  Id. at 2.  The State did not contend that Carless or Inattentive Driving was an infamous crime.

President Judge Jurden deftly covered both Supreme Court and Superior Court decisions under the above-referenced provision of the Delaware Constitution.  Despite some prior decisions suggesting misdemeanors were insufficient to invoke this Constitutional bar, the Court determined that the language in the prior decisions was dicta (not binding on the Court).  Accordingly, the Court determined, based on Supreme Court precedent rather than relying on a felony-misdemeanor distinction, it must “assess the relevant facts and the context surrounding a conviction” and apply “a totality-of-the-circumstances analysis.”  Id. at 17.

The Court first looked to the charge to which Mr. Capriglione pleaded guilty, Official Misconduct, which requires an individual,  “while being a public servant, intending to obtain a personal benefit, [to] commit[] an act, constituting an unauthorized exercise of official function, knowing that the act is unauthorized.”  Id. at 17.  The Court determined this description of his behavior “evoke[d] the term crimen falsi,” the longstanding definition of infamous crime.  Id. at 18.  “Crimen falsi is a ‘crime in the nature of perjury’ or any ‘other offense that involves some element of dishonesty or false statement.’”  Id.  The Court found Mr. Capriglione’s Official Misconduct offense breached the public trust and called his character into question.  Id. at 18-19.  Because the Delaware Supreme Court views the Constitutional provision at issue as a “‘character provision’ that demands that ‘all candidates for State office possess high moral qualities,’” the Court ruled that Mr. Capriglione’s Official Misconduct was an infamous crime based on the totality of the circumstances.  Id. at 19-20.  Accordingly, the Court held that Mr. Capriglione may not hold any “office of trust honor or profit under this State” and may not be sworn in as a Commissioner.  Id. at 20.

Two days after the Court’s ruling, Mr. Capriglione filed a notice of appeal with the Delaware Supreme Court.  This battle is to be continued and may prove helpful in assessing similar constitutional provisions pertaining to elected officials in other state constitutions as well.

UPDATE: On July 16, 2021, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court decision barring Commissioner-elect Michael Capriglione from taking office as a Town Commission in Town of Newport. He may be sworn into office. The Court issued a brief order, but will provide a more detailed ruling in due course.

[1]   Newport did not take a position in this matter.
[2]   In general, quo warranto is a remedy to remove someone from office, not to prevent them from taking office.  Accordingly, the Court determined the appropriate vehicle for this matter was a motion for declaratory judgment and treated the State’s motion as a motion for summary judgment seeking declaratory judgment.