NJ state trooper faces disciplinary charges
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE, N.J. - March 30, 2011 (WPVI) -- New Jersey State Trooper has always maintained that when his State Police car hurtled into an intersection and into a minivan carrying two teenage sisters out to buy a gallon of milk, killing both of them, it was a tragic accident, not a crime.
In 2009, a jury agreed with him, clearing him of vehicular homicide.
But now the trooper faces new trouble stemming from that incident: His boss, State Police Supt. Rick Fuentes, says he failed to perform his duties when he ran a stop sign, and should be disciplined for it.
A state troopers union official told the Statehouse Bureau of The Star-Ledger of Newark and The Record at stake is about $60,000 that Higbee lost while serving an unpaid suspension.
In court papers, Higbee's lawyer claims the charges are a ploy to avoid reimbursing the trooper's back pay.
"It is an ill-disguised move on the part of the superintendent to circumvent state law and therefore is an ill-conceived and an illegal act," his lawyer, D. William Subin wrote in court papers. Subin and State Police officials declined to talk to the newspapers regarding the proposed discipline. But after his acquittal in June 2009, Higbee said the jury agreed with his claim that the crash was a tragic accident.
"I never went out there to deliberately hurt anybody," he told reporters outside the courthouse.
But the departmental charges Fuentes filed say Higbee performed his duties in a "culpably inefficient manner" because "the safe operation of any assigned division vehicle is of paramount importance."
In court papers, the state says a lengthy suspension would be "especially fair" in Higbee's case.
"The accident was categorized by the State Police as 'preventable,' " the state asserted. Higbee's "failure to use due caution and circumspection resulted in a fatal motor vehicle accident."
The Sept. 27, 2006 crash killed 17-year-old Jacqueline and 19-year-old Christina Becker in Cape May County's Upper Township. The trooper was accused of running a stop sign while pursuing a speeder with his lights and siren off, as recommended by New Jersey police policy. The state has paid the girls' family $2 million to settle a civil suit stemming from the crash.
Subin, the trooper's lawyer, argued in court papers that Higbee should lose no more than 90 days' pay, representing the amount of time his driver's license was suspended after settling two traffic tickets resulting from the crash.
"The penalty for this case should not be dependent on the unfortunate fatalities that resulted," Subin wrote.
David Jones, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association, said the state is trying to make up for losing its criminal case against Higbee by hitting him with departmental charges that could cost him tens of thousands of dollars.
"They don't want to be responsible for the money they owe Rob," Jones told the newspapers. "The state has spent more money fighting this than they've spent resolving this."
Paul Loriquet, spokesman for the state attorney general, said the state has the right to file departmental charges against the trooper.
"Even though Trooper Higbee was found not guilty during his trial, it doesn't negate the State Police from implementing any disciplinary matters," he said.
An administrative law judge has yet to issue a ruling in the case, which could still be settled internally.
Higbee, 38, remains on duty, assigned to the Atlantic City Casino Investigations Unit. On several occasions over the past year, he has been assigned to provide security at public meetings of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, standing in the back of the room.
cape may county, new jersey, accident, local/state
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