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.