A state grand jury late today declined to file any criminal charges against a New Jersey state trooper who fired at a car occupied by three teens during an incident at the trooper’s home in Sparta last July.
The shooting was investigated by the Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team, made up of attorneys and detectives from the Division of Criminal Justice and detectives from the State Police Major Crime Unit. No person was struck by the gunfire during the incident.
The investigation involved numerous witness interviews – including interviews of the state trooper and his wife, the three teens in the car, and other officers and witnesses who were in the neighborhood – as well as collection of forensic evidence, including crime-scene and ballistics evidence.
After hearing testimony and evidence from the investigation, the state grand jury declined to indict the state trooper involved in the shooting on any criminal charges.
The incident began at approximately 1:50 a.m. on the morning of July 26, 2015, at the trooper’s house on Whispering Woods Lane in Sparta, where he lives with his wife and three young children. Both the trooper and his wife stated to investigators that the trooper was awakened by his wife after she heard banging noises coming from a rear sliding door and was concerned that someone was attempting to break into the home.
The trooper armed himself with an off duty-firearm – a .40 caliber handgun with a laser sight – and went to investigate. According to the trooper, he confirmed that there appeared to be individuals at both the back sliding door, where he saw pulling movement and heard punching noises, and the front door of his residence, where there also was loud punching on the door and jiggling of the doorknob. The trooper said he believed that persons were trying to break in.
Neighborhood residents had been concerned about a number of burglaries in the area in recent months. According to the trooper, he had a verbal exchange with an individual at the front door, during which he identified himself as a state trooper, yelling “What do you want here?” and “Get off my property!” He stated that one of the individuals outside said a name. It turned out to be the correct name of one of the teens.
The trooper stated that he exited his residence and chased the individuals toward the street in front of his house. The individuals got into a car and drove north on Whispering Woods Lane toward a cul-de-sac. According to the trooper’s statement, he positioned himself in the middle of Whispering Woods Lane facing the cul-de-sac and waited for the car to return. The trooper then observed the car traveling south on Whispering Woods Lane toward him. The trooper stated that he had his handgun out and yelled for the driver to stop, identifying himself as “State Police.”
According to the trooper, the car accelerated as it approached him and began to veer toward him. He stated that he feared for his life because he believed that the driver was going to run him over. The trooper stated that he fired three shots at the driver of the vehicle while moving to his left to get out of the way of the car. The car continued on Whispering Woods Lane and the driver ultimately stopped on a nearby roadway because one of the car’s tires had been struck by one of the trooper’s shots. The trooper went into his house to put on shoes and get his car keys, and he told his wife to call 911. He got into his SUV and went looking for the teens, but he instead encountered an Ogdensberg police officer who had responded to a police radio bulletin about a possible break-in at the trooper’s home. The officer returned with the trooper to his home.
Ballistics evidence presented to the grand jury revealed that one bullet struck the front tire of the car on the passenger side, and a second bullet struck the front edge of the rear wheel well on that side.
The three young men in the car were interviewed separately by the Shooting Response Team and gave statements that were consistent in many respects with the trooper’s statement. They differed in some respects, however, in that all said they did not hear the trooper identify himself as a police officer at any time. They stated that they did not know that the man with the gun was a member of law enforcement. All three further stated that the driver did not steer toward the trooper, but instead steered to avoid him. However, all three said that the trooper might reasonably have believed that the car was going to hit him. Two of the men were 18 at the time, and one was 19. Their names are not being released.
Each of the three teens told investigators that they had been at a graduation party on the night in question, and they went to Whispering Woods Lane because one of the teens – the one who identified himself by name to the trooper at the front door – wanted to visit a male friend who lives next door to the trooper. According to their statements, once the three teens reached the neighborhood, they were met by several acquaintances who said that they had just left the home of the friend and that the friend was going to sleep. The three teens stated that they accidentally went to the home of the trooper, believing it was the friend’s house, and were attempting to wake the friend by banging on the doors. The teen who had the friend in the neighborhood said that he was intoxicated at the time from drinking beer and that it was dark on the street. When they heard the trooper yelling at them from inside the house, they became frightened and fled, according to their statements. They said the trooper was cursing and yelling “Get out of here!” The teen whose friend lives next door said the trooper said “Who is this?” The teen responded with his correct name, as verified by the trooper’s statement.
According to the statements of the three teens, they ran to the car, turned on the car lights and drove toward the cul-de-sac. As they turned around and drove back toward the house, they saw the trooper standing in the middle of the road with a gun. Two of the teens said that they saw the red laser sight on the gun pointing toward the car. The driver and at least one of the other teens indicated that they were afraid and accelerated when they saw the trooper with the gun in the street, but all three indicated that they did not want to hit the trooper and that the driver maneuvered to avoid him. The driver and one passenger stated specifically that they went to the left side of the road to avoid the trooper as he moved to the right. All three teens, however, stated that, because the trooper was standing in the middle of the road, he might have believed that the car was going to hit him. The teens continued to flee after the shots were fired.
According to the teens, they drove to a nearby street before the disabled tire caused them to stop. At that point, the driver called his mother to report that a man with a gun had fired at them. He also called his brother and a friend, and then called 911 to report the shooting. Two of the teens were taken into custody by police where the car had stopped. The third, who had identified himself at the trooper’s door, ran away before police arrived and was taken into custody later as he came out of a wooded area.
The grand jury was instructed as to potential criminal charges against the trooper – including attempted murder, the various types of aggravated assault, and simple assault – and the legal elements to prove each crime, as well as the law of justification, particularly the use of force in defense of self and others. An officer may use deadly force in New Jersey when the officer reasonably believes it is immediately necessary to protect the officer or another person from imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.
In addition, a law enforcement officer may use deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to thwart the commission of certain crimes – namely homicide, kidnapping, sexual assault, or burglary of a dwelling, or an attempt to commit one of those crimes – AND the officer reasonably believes that it is likely that the person committing or attempting to commit the crime will endanger human life or inflict serious bodily harm unless the crime is prevented, AND the use of such force presents no substantial risk of injury to innocent persons.
After considering the facts, evidence and testimony from the investigation by the Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team, the grand jury declined to return an indictment.
In New Jersey, all investigations into police deadly force incidents are governed by an Attorney General directive, issued in 2006 and strengthened last year, which establishes strict procedures for
conducting those investigations.
When a state- or county-level officer uses deadly force, the case is investigated by the Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team, made up of deputy attorneys general and detectives of the Division of Criminal Justice, as well as detectives of the State Police Major Crime Unit, all of whom operate independently of their usual chain of command and report directly to the Director of the Division of Criminal Justice or a designee.
The Attorney General directive creates a presumption that all cases will be presented to a grand jury, consisting of 23 civilians, for independent review unless the undisputed facts establish that the use of force was justified.