A February traffic stop involving an off-duty Egg Harbor Township police officer is the focus of a public records lawsuit that alleges the officer may have been intoxicated during an encounter with Northfield police.
According to audio recordings and documents obtained by open public records advocate John Paff, Northfield police observed a black Mercedes sitting through several rotations of the traffic light at Shore and Tilton roads at 2:04 a.m. Feb. 17.
Radio transmissions released through the Open Public Records Act indicate Northfield officers had "a little trouble trying to get (the driver) to open up."
After identifying the driver as Jeffrey Lancaster, then 35, of Galloway Township, the officers confirmed through a dispatcher that Lancaster was "still working" with the Egg Harbor Township Police Department.
EHT police Sgt. Michael Hughes was informed of the situation in a telephone call from the EHT dispatch center, asking the dispatcher whether Lancaster was "4-50," or in violation of the state statute against driving while intoxicated.
"A.O.B., they're saying," the dispatcher said, relaying information that Northfield officers detected "alcohol on breath" to Hughes. He told Hughes that Northfield officers wanted him to meet them at the scene.
Near the end of the three-minute audio recording, an unidentified Northfield police officer reported to dispatch that Lancaster had no alcohol on his breath and would be receiving a ride home from Hughes.
"He was sleeping - no A.O.B., but he definitely was sound asleep," the officer said. "I don't know if he was working or moonlighting."
An Aug. 15 letter from EHT police Chief Michael J. Morris, in response to Paff's OPRA request, states that "Hughes's (sic) did author a report after his contact with Officer Lancaster" and that "Lancaster plead (sic) guilty to violating several departmental rules and regulations." Because the documents are part of an internal affairs case file, Morris wrote, they are exempt from disclosure.
EHT police also denied an OPRA request from The Press of Atlantic City for documents related to the incident and any resulting action. Northfield police released a Detail Call for Service Report of the incident, stating that "no other records exist" in a Nov. 2 letter from City Clerk Mary Canesi.
In the suit filed Sept. 29 but served to officials in mid-October, Paff - chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Police Accountability Project - demands the release of Hughes' report of the incident, subject to any court-ordered redactions.
Northfield police Chief Robert James said his department is conducting an internal affairs investigation, but declined to comment on the status of the investigation or the allegations made in Paff's suit.
"I believe both departments are running separate investigations," he said. "Northfield is handling Northfield's end of it, and Egg Harbor Township's handling Egg Harbor Township's end of it."
Morris said the suit seeks to compel the department to produce internal affairs documents that are exempt.
"The police department takes great care to follow the current guidelines pertaining to the Open Public Records Act and is very conscious of the fine balance between the public's right to know, an employee's right to privacy and maintaining the integrity of the internal affairs process," he said in a written statement.
Paff, of Franklin Township, Somerset County, said his goal in obtaining the documents is to determine whether Northfield police acted properly in allowing Lancaster to be driven home. Based on the evidence - and the resulting disciplinary action - he said he believes Lancaster was not simply asleep.
"If he truly fell asleep at the wheel because he was tired, there would've been no reason for the sergeant to drive him anywhere," he said. "He could have driven himself."
The audio recordings show a "clear change in the demeanor of the police officers" after they realize the subject is a fellow police officer, Paff said.
"A lot of things are unclear," he added. "I need these records to determine for sure whether or not he was drunk."
If Hughes' report mentions alcohol, Paff said, it would mean Lancaster received preferential treatment because of his status as a police officer.
Earlier this year, an administrative law judge suspended New Jersey State Police Trooper Sheila McKaig, who was stopped three times in 2008 for suspected drunken driving in Hamilton Township. McKaig never was ticketed and not initially punished.
Paff, who also has filed public records suits against police in Brigantine and Voorhees Township, said he received an anonymous tip about Lancaster's Feb. 17 encounter with Northfield police.
The public needs to have confidence that laws are being enforced fairly, he said.
"I don't think there's a worse thing you could do to undermine the public's confidence in police (than) having a double standard of justice," Paff said.
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