Riverhead Teacher Pleads Guilty to Southampton DWI; Gun Charge Dropped

The DA said the legality of the gun search could not be established.

Joe Johnson Credit: SHVPD
Joe Johnson Credit: SHVPD
After months of speculation, Riverhead fourth grade teacher Joseph Johnson pleaded guilty on Thursday in Suffolk County Court to misdemeanor drunken driving, according to Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota.

Johnson was arrested by Southampton Village police at approximately 3:30 a.m. on April 21, 2012, on Hill Street in Southampton and charged with driving while intoxicated and criminal possession of a loaded gun, police said.

After his arrest, during an inventory of the car's contents, police found and seized a loaded .45 caliber pistol from the glove compartment of the car Johnson was driving, Spota said. 

According to Spota, after a review of the facts and circumstances of the arrest, and an analysis of applicable law relating to the police officer’s post-arrest search of the car and consequential discovery of the gun, the district attorney’s office determined it could not sustain the burden of proof necessary to establish the legality of the search. 

Suffolk County Judge James Hudson, presiding at the court conference, said he agreed with the DA’s office assessment of the legality of the police search of the defendant’s vehicle which resulted in the discovery of the firearm. 

Johnson, who taught at the Phillips Avenue Elementary School will be sentenced on Jan. 8.

Johnson's attorney, Hauppauge-based William Keahon, said in September that next steps could be either that his client would be offered a plea, or that the case would head to trial. 

In March, Keahon told Patch he believed his client would be found innocent on all charges.

"I fully intend to try this case," he said then. "I believe he will be found not guilty. He's an outstanding member of the community, a terrific educator, and is well-respected in the school district and community in which he lives. There is no question in my mind that if this case does go to trial, a jury will very quickly find him not guilty on all charges."

Speaking publicly to Patch for the first time since his 2012 arrest, Johnson said he wanted to set the record straight.

"A lot of what has been printed just isn't true — has never been the case," Johnson said. "All that transpired that night and since then, there are things that are wrong on every level. I'm waiting to have my turn in court so that everything can be brought to light and people can realize that this isn't all what it appears to be."

According to Bob Clifford, spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, Johnson, of Southampton, pleaded not guilty to 11 charges in a grand jury indictment.

The indictment said that Johnson was accused by the grand jury of Suffolk County with criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree, "an armed violent felony," as well as one felony count of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree, and one misdemeanor charge of criminal possession of a weapon; one count of driving while intoxicated, a misdemeanor, one count of aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, a misdemeanor.

Johnson was also charged with unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, failure to maintain lane, failure to keep right, driving on the shoulder, operating a motor vehicle while using a mobile phone, and failure to comply with a lawful order, all traffic infractions.

But Johnson said much of what has been said has been completely misrepresented. "There is something very wrong with this case," he said.

Johnson said he had a DMV hearing in the summer of 2012 and his license was returned. "They didn't find enough evidence," he said. "That's one good sign."

Without being able to discuss specifics, Johnson alluded to the fact that "damaging information" exists about an individual "with an ax to grind" that will help his case and restore justice.

When asked about the gun charge, Johnson said that while he is not able to discuss the details of the case, "It is not what it appears to be. It is a complete misunderstanding."

Johnson is hoping that as details emerge, truth will be revealed. "I'm just hoping in the days to come that, with my new lawyer, things will start to look better. My life has been upended completely," Johnson said. "It's been turned upside down. And I've just been sitting on the sidelines, just watching it happen, not having the power to stop it."

Johnson, married and the father of two small children, said at the time perhaps the most painful part had been having to stop teaching. 

"I miss it terribly," he said. "I've done it for 13 years — and I'm not losing my passion for teaching in any way, shape or form." Johnson said he has wanted to teach ever since he was 24 years old.

Johnson and his wife, he said, have been "very protective" of their children and shielded them from what has happened during the past few months.

The days since his arrest weren't  easy, Johnson said. "At one point in time, I felt really alone," he said. "I'm used to being the one who solved the problems for people — the one who has been able to connect the dots for them, showing them that there are choices. For something like this to happen to me — it's difficult to give yourself advice."

The teacher has not been back in the classroom since his arrest; he was initially placed on special assignment by the Riverhead Central School District and was later removed from the payroll.

"The district will continue to monitor the proceedings involving Mr. Johnson in Suffolk County Court and will take appropriate action upon the conclusion of the matter in criminal court," Riverhead Superintendent Nancy Carney said last year.

Johnson said he hopes his students past and present realize the true nature of his character. "If anyone knows me, and knows my passion for teaching and the community, it's the children that I work with."

mike edelson November 15, 2013 at 10:58 AM
He should be fired. And so should a lot of other Riverhead teachers/administrators. But this kind of conduct is tolerated and the administration takes no steps to correct it except "monitor" the criminal case. How about developing its own case for permanent discharge?
WR November 16, 2013 at 09:07 AM
I disagree Mike. Joe Johnson is a good man and a good neighbor. And BOTH sides agree that the charges should be dropped due to FACTS and not public opinion.
highhatsize November 16, 2013 at 11:24 AM
This case stank from the get-go. The cops charged him on eleven(!!) counts after a traffic stop? In comparison, one of their retired brethren received one misdemeanor charge after he cold-cocked a civilian and beat him while he was unconscious. Hello!---------------------------------------------------- Then, ten of the eleven charges are dismissed because of police malfeasance. Oops!-----------------------------------------------------One wonders how much the enormous expense of his defense and the fact that a trial would result in continual publicity about the (illegally discovered) firearm prompted the defendant to cop a plea on the single misdemeanor.---------------------------------------------------------------------- This case should have been dismissed in its entirety but that would have called attention to police misconduct and opened them up to a civil action. Nonetheless, the state should still investigate the incident.
WR November 16, 2013 at 11:28 AM
the facts*
mike edelson November 17, 2013 at 11:04 AM
The law is well settled that police can go thru the entire car when "inventorying" it after taking custody following an arrest so this may be the result of an improper arrest. Or made to seem like it.


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