In 2016, the Crash Investigation Unit and the Arson Task Force merged to form the Crash and Fire Investigations Unit. The Unit operates within the Major Crime Bureau and is comprised of three assistant prosecutors, one lieutenant, one sergeant, three detectives, one agent, and one detective from the Newark Fire Department Arson Unit. The unit has both an Assistant Prosecutor and an investigator on-call 24 hours a day to assist municipal, county or state police agencies when they are faced with vehicular collisions that result in death or serious bodily injury, or when faced with suspicious fires.
On the crash investigation side of the unit, ECPO detectives work hand in hand with the local municipalities to determine if vehicular collisions resulting in death or serious bodily injury were the result of criminal conduct. Each of the detectives assigned to the Unit has extensive training in accident investigation and reconstruction, as well as extensive experience in processing collision scenes. With these credentials, they frequently appear in Grand Jury and Superior Court to testify as experts detailing the circumstances and causes of major motor vehicle collisions. The Unit’s Assistant Prosecutors, working with the detectives, are routinely called upon to determine what criminal charges are appropriate or to assist in obtaining search warrants and court orders for biological samples in driving under the influence cases.
The Assistant Prosecutors and detectives investigating fatal or injurious collisions face unique circumstances that do not exist in other types of prosecutions. First, to be held criminally liable for a collision, the driver’s actions must be reckless. In many cases, a driver may be careless or negligent, but not but not criminally reckless. The focus of the unit is to determine if criminal liability exists, i.e., a finding of criminal reckless conduct. Thus, even though there are tragic results and there may be some fault on the part of the driver, it does not necessarily rise to the level of criminal conduct.
The Unit oversees or conducts every fatal motor vehicle investigation that occurs in Essex County. Therefore, even in cases where the driver is not charged criminally, the Unit is involved in extensive investigation including crime scene analysis, witness statements, forensic and evidence collection, vehicle processing and downloads, in addition to many other aspects of an investigation. The Unit is also involved in victim family contact, coordination with outside law enforcement agencies, and communication with the civil attorneys for the involved parties.
In each fatality, once our investigation is complete, a determination is made whether criminal charges and/or a Grand Jury presentation are warranted. The types of criminal conduct commonly seen in vehicle homicide and assault by auto cases include driving while intoxicated, reckless driving, eluding, leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in death and/or serious bodily injury, cell phone use including texting, and driving while suspended/revoked.
It is our aim to meet with the decedent’s family, in every vehicle death case, to explain our investigation and our position on charging or not charging. The Unit does this even in cases where no criminal charges are forthcoming so the decedents’ families are aware of the thoroughness of the investigation and the reasons for our position.
The second aspect unique to vehicle cases is that there exists significant coordination with local police and courts, as well as DMV, even if our office does not pursue criminal charges. In many motor vehicle collisions, summonses are issued to the driver. Generally, these summonses are heard in municipal court; however, during the investigation, those summonses are held in abeyance while we investigate. Ultimately, depending upon our charging decision in a given case, the summonses are disposed of in Superior Court, at the time of the criminal case, or returned to municipal court for disposition. This dual jurisdiction requires communication with the local courts as well as providing discovery to the municipal prosecutor in certain cases. Thus, in cases which we investigate, but do not criminally charge, we turn our investigative file over to the municipal prosecutor.
Simultaneous to our investigation and/or prosecution, the Division of Motor Vehicles often is conducting an investigation and ultimately a hearing through the office of Administrative Law to suspend the individual’s driver’s license. Unit detectives are often required to testify at those Administrative Law hearings and ongoing communication between our unit and the DMV attorneys, regarding discovery and other matters, occurs.
Third, collision investigations regarding death and/or serious bodily injury require communication with a decedent’s civil attorney as well as insurance carriers for the drivers. We strive to be responsive to the requests for discovery from civil counsel and provide what we can, without compromising the criminal investigation, in a timely manner. Ultimately, once our investigation and/or prosecution is completed, we provide discovery to civil counsel. Oftentimes, we prepare a consent order which is executed by either the criminal Assignment Judge or the civil judge who is handling the civil case. We are frequently served with requests for discovery under the Open Public Records Act or the common law. In addition, once a case is completed, our detectives are often required to testify at a deposition and/or trial in the ongoing civil matters.
Fourth, most of these cases require the detective to render an opinion based upon expertise in accident reconstruction. Our investigating detective is both the lead detective in an investigation, overseeing all aspects of the investigation, and an expert in accident reconstruction, rendering an opinion as to the cause of the collision.
In addition to the crash investigations, the Unit also assists local and state authorities in the investigation of suspected acts of arson. The Unit is responsible for the investigation of suspicious fires in Essex County and the successful prosecution of individuals responsible for arson-related criminal offenses. Arson detectives work hand in hand with municipal arson investigators and firefighters to determine the origin and cause of suspicious fires and, with regards to incidents of arson, conduct the necessary investigation to determine the responsible party. Additionally, the Unit responds to and conducts the origin and cause investigations on all fatal fires within the county regardless of whether the cause is criminal in nature. The Unit also responds to fires in houses of worship, schools, and government property, and either conducts or oversees the investigation. Unit detectives have received extensive training regarding fire investigations and are qualified to testify in court as experts in that determination.
In 2016, the Unit investigated collisions which resulted in 36 motor vehicle fatalities. In addition, the Unit conducted 26 Motor Vehicle Special Investigations including but not limited to crashes relating to vehicle pursuits, pedestrian collisions, and industry working hazards, drunken driving related accidents, and other matters involving serious bodily injury. The Unit is involved, along with the Professional Standards Unit, in the investigation of any case involving death where a police vehicle was involved in a pursuit.
Prior to any response by the Unit, the request is screened by the on-call unit supervisor, who confers with the on-call Assistant Prosecutor to determine if a response is warranted. The screening of the requests for assistance with respect to Motor Vehicle Special Investigations has significantly improved resulting in reduction in Unit responses to scenes where the investigations are well within the capabilities of the parent investigating agency.
Screening cases allows the Unit to concentrate on criminal investigations and prosecutions as opposed to automobile accidents with no criminal liability. Finally, in addition to the actual cases open for potential criminal prosecution, the detectives and Assistant Prosecutors in the Unit are consistently working with officers from local police departments on a variety of matters concerning DWI related cases, search warrants, and general advice in on-going investigations.
On the arson side, in 2016, the unit investigated 40 structure fires in Essex County. The structure fires resulted in nine fatalities. These investigations often include an origin and cause determination, crime scene analysis, collection and submission of evidence to the NJ Regional Forensic Science Laboratory, obtaining communication data warrants and search warrants, as well as additional investigative actions.
With respect to vehicle fires, the geographical location of Essex County, comprised of its network of municipal, county and state roadways, offer easy access and egress for individuals seeking a place to burn a vehicle. Due to the nature and complexity of these investigations and the extensive cooperation needed between the Unit, the agency in which the incident occurred, and the private insurance carriers, the prosecution of these cases is highly technical and time consuming. The Unit detectives are experienced and have demonstrated a professional working relationship with outside police and fire agencies as well as private insurance carriers to complete these investigations and provide a successful prosecution.
Unit detectives routinely interact with independent investigators for various insurance companies who conduct parallel investigations with regards to incidents of arson, specifically but not limited to attempts by claimants to fraudulently obtain proceeds, via mortgage fraud, vehicle claims, and property damage claims. This results in a close working partnership with insurance companies and the utilization of the documents collected by the insurance carriers for criminal prosecutions.
Many of the referrals for potential criminal liability are referred to ECPO by the insurance company investigator after the preliminary investigation reveals possible fraudulent activity. In incidents of both structure and car fires, the insurance company will often hire an expert arson investigator who will conduct an origin and cause independently of ours.
Generally, most of our criminal arson related cases fall into 1 of 4 of the following categories:
1) Intentional arson committed at a specific location to target an individual, such as a disgruntled spouse, former girlfriend/boyfriend, or employee.
2) Intentional arson committed for insurance and/or mortgage fraud purposes. These matters often involve burning of a motor vehicle and/or a business property.
3) Arson committed recklessly due to some behavior involving conduct above gross negligence, resulting damage to property or injury to people.
4) Arson committed by individuals with serious mental health issues, for no reason at all.
In addition to its investigative responsibilities, the Unit provides instruction for individuals attending the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice Basic Course for Arson Investigators. DCJ utilizes the expertise of our detectives in providing investigative instruction which includes classroom instruction as well as on-scene practical applications at multiple controlled fire locations in Essex County.
Unit detectives and Assistant Prosecutors have conducted countywide training seminars for firefighters, police officers and certified arson investigators. These seminars cover various topics dealing with the investigation and criminal prosecutions of arson related crimes. For example, the Unit conducted seminars which included crime scene collection, preservation and analysis of evidence, obtaining witness and suspect statements, and insurance fraud prosecutions with regards to car fire investigations.