08/29/2012

NJ police, firefighters go to court over traffic ticket

After a firefighter received a ticket for failing to move a fire chief's SUV, the matter is going in front of judge

By Alex Zdan
The Times

TRENTON, N.J. — It was Trenton police versus Trenton firemen in a city courtroom yesterday as the case of a firefighter ticketed for obstructing traffic outside an emergency scene went before a municipal judge.

Though indications after the June 8 incident were that the two non-moving violations were going to be settled without a visit to a courtroom, it appears now the case is going to trial.

During the brief hearing yesterday evening, the judge accepted the fire union lawyer’s motion to have the upcoming trial heard before a judge from another town and conducted by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office. Firefighters’ union president Wayne Wolk said he believes the police officer had no right to give the tickets, and was stunned the case has not been dropped.

“This is a waste of the taxpayers’ money,” Wolk said. “This is stupidity, and I have more important things to do.”

Wolk pointed out that the officer involved will be paid for court time if he’s not on duty when the trial occurs, and both members of the fire department who went to court will be putting in for overtime.

City taxpayers are footing the bill for a contracted municipal prosecutor last night, and will likely pay for the judge brought in from another jurisdiction when the trial occurs. An assistant prosecutor will be sent from the county to argue the police department's case.

The confrontation between police officers and firefighters, which is also the subject of a police Internal Affairs investigation, began early in the evening of June 8 outside the Broad Street Bank building, the fire union’s lawyer Andrew Bayer said.

Firefighters had been sent to the East State Street address to investigate an alarm in the high-rise apartment complex. With engines and ladders parked on the two-lane downtown street, Battalion Chief Steve Coltre told his driver Firefighter Ken Stout to place the chief’s marked SUV across the road.

“Stout was directed to block the scene for safety,” Bayer said.

Police Officer Lawrence “Mike” Davis then came on the scene and told Coltre to move his vehicle. Coltre refused, and a “discussion” occurred, Bayer said.

“There’s a statute that says a fire chief controls a fire scene as a matter of law, and so police officers can’t issue a ticket to a fire chief at a fire scene,” Bayer said. “Which is what happened here.”

“He distracted the chief from supervising the scene while his men were in the building,” Ron Ettenger, the firefighters’ union’s state delegate, said.

Stout received summonses for obstructing traffic and failure to display his driver’s license. Together the fines for the tickets are $255 if a guilty plea is made, Bayer said.

Municipal Prosecutor Robert Yostembski said he was not aware of the facts of the case, but agreed with the decision to change the venue for the trial. He had no comment on whether the case was unnecessary. “I don’t have any feelings on that,” he said.

In court last night, Davis declined comment because he was not authorized to speak to the media. Lt. Don Fillinger would only express a desire the case is resolved soon.

“I hope this all gets rectified,” Fillinger said.

The night the tickets were issued, Davis told Fillinger he might reconsider the summonses, Fillinger said. Fire Director Qareeb Bashir and Police Director Ralph Rivera Jr. were in contact about the matter when it occurred, Bashir said at the time, but neither director has indicated what they spoke about.

Fire union officials say the union would pay any fines if Stout were to lose the case.

“I think the bigger problem is a precedent it would set,” Ettenger said.

“It’s bad policy,” Bayer said.

Republished with permission from The Times

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