Fatal crash involving Menendez’s wife spurs demand for mandatory driver impairment tests

Nadine Arslanian and her husband Senator Bob Menendez

by Dana DiFilippo, New Jersey Monitor

A Republican lawmaker plans to push legislative leaders to act on long-stalled legislation that would require drivers who hit pedestrians to be tested for alcohol or drug impairment.

Assemblywoman Nancy Muñoz (R-Union) said she was so disturbed by this week’s revelation that Sen. Bob Menendez’s wife, Nadine, crashed into a pedestrian and killed him in 2018 — and left the scene without police ticketing or testing her for intoxication — that she’ll ask Assembly leaders to post the bill.

“A vehicle is a deadly weapon. Let’s face it, vehicles kill many, many people,” said Muñoz, a nurse who’s also the Assembly’s deputy minority leader. “A Breathalyzer is such a simple test that can be done at the scene.”

Muñoz has introduced the bill unsuccessfully seven times since 2010. But she told the New Jersey Monitor that Nadine Menendez’s hushed-up Dec. 12, 2018, wreck in Bogota, which killed pedestrian Richard Koop almost instantly, was her impetus now to demand action on her bill.

“People in elite positions tend to try to exert that, and I think that that’s wrong on every level,” Muñoz said. “I don’t know if they treated her differently because of who she was or if they didn’t treat her differently. But I know that when you strike and kill somebody, you probably should get a Breathalyzer.”

Nadine Menendez already made news last month when she was indicted along with her husband. Federal investigators said she arranged a series of secret meetings between the senator and Egyptian officials who pressed him to release military aid. She also shared the cash, gold bars, and other gifts the couple received in exchange for the senator’s influence on that and other matters, investigators said.

The indictment notes that one of the alleged bribes was a new Mercedes-Benz convertible she received in April 2019 to replace a car she wrecked four months earlier.

This week, NorthJersey.com and New York Times revealed the details of that wreck, including that police did no breath, blood, or field sobriety tests on Nadine Menendez, decided at the scene that she was “not at fault,” and let her leave with no summons.

Several criminal defense attorneys said that’s not overly unusual because police must have probable cause to test for intoxication.

“People do die in accidents, and sometimes an accident is an accident,” said Robert M. Perry of the South Jersey-based firm Rosenberg, Perry & Associates. “Police can’t just ask for or compel you to give a breath sample or a blood sample unless they have some reason to suspect you’re under the influence of alcohol or some intoxicant that makes it unsafe for you to drive.”

Signs of impairment could include a driver who slurs their words or has bloodshot eyes, an odor of alcohol or drugs, and erratic driving or a failure to follow driving rules, Perry added.

“Typically, the police, if they have a string to pull on, will get a breath sample or they’ll go get a blood sample. They only need probable cause, which is not a very high standard. It’s not proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s just: is there some evidence that would support a conclusion that she was intoxicated?” Perry said. “The fact that they didn’t ask for it, particularly in a fatal accident, is somewhat telling in that they would really have to have virtually nothing that indicated she was intoxicated.”

Still, attorney Ross Gigliotti noted, probable cause is discretionary.

“Whether you’re blood-tested or drug- or alcohol-tested or issued citations or criminal charges for vehicular homicide, that’s all within police discretion,” said Gigliotti, whose criminal defense firm is based in Cherry Hill.

The state Attorney General’s Office is reviewing how local authorities handled the 2018 crash, according to NBC New York. Assemblywoman Nancy Muñoz (R-Union) wants to require all drivers who hit pedestrians to be tested for drug or alcohol impairment at the crash scene. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Muñoz said a fatality should be all the probable cause police need to test for inebriation.

“Probable cause would be that you have hit someone with such force that they are now dead or near death,” she said.

Medical staff typically test drivers for drugs or alcohol if they’re taken to the hospital for care, and victims often get tested too, as Koop was, Muñoz said.

“It seems like it would be the fair thing to do, to test both the driver and the person they hit,” she said. “My husband used to have a saying which was: ‘They’re really sorry, but you’re dead.’ This is really serious, and we should take it seriously, like we take automobile accidents seriously.”

Muñoz’s bill would require drivers who hit pedestrians to be breath- or blood-tested for alcohol or drugs at the crash scene even if the pedestrian survives or is uninjured. It also would set penalties for drivers who refuse testing.

It comes as traffic fatalities have risen in New Jersey. Almost 700 people died in 649 traffic accidents last year, up from 563 fatalities in 524 wrecks in 2018, the year Koop was killed, according to state police statistics. Traffic fatalities were the leading cause of accidental death in New Jersey, and drunk or drugged driving was the leading cause of vehicular deaths in 2021, according to state police’s most recent analysis.

When a driver gets in a fatal accident, police have 72 hours to report the incident to the state Motor Vehicle Commission, which can immediately suspend the driver’s license if a driver was under the influence, driving recklessly, speeding at least 20 miles over the limit, or failed to report the accident. It’s unclear if Nadine Menendez’s license got suspended; Bogota police and a Motor Vehicle Commission spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Perry, Gigliotti, and Muñoz agreed the crash warrants careful scrutiny, even if officers at the scene didn’t know Nadine Menendez was a powerful senator’s girlfriend (they married later). She was dressed in a fur coat as she talked to Bogota police, and a retired police officer from Hackensack arrived at the scene to help her, the New York Times reported.

A driver of color, or one who has no police friend or is not wearing their wealth, might experience a different outcome, Perry noted.

“There are systemic inequities in the criminal justice system between the haves and the have-nots, no question,” Perry said. “Would the result have been the same for her as someone else? Who knows? But when you have money, you absolutely start at an advantage.”

Gigliotti agreed: “Is a senator’s wife gonna get special privileges? Of course! You’re in the United States of America.”

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