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Police in Bergen rely on prosecutor’s fund to fight drunk driving

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

CLIFFVIEW PILOT EXCLUSIVE REPORT: As they try to break their own record for DWI arrests in Bergen County, there’s one thing Elmwood Park police don’t have to worry about: The cost.

As August drew to a close, the county prosecutor’s office broke $100,000 in reimbursements to the pro-active department and others like it that crack down on drunk drivers.

Elmwood Park received $40,987.82 from the county for its anti-drunk-driving campaign. That covers DWI checkpoints and roving patrols and includes activities from last year, a review of public records by CLIFFVIEW PILOT found.

Elmwood Park police snare dozens of people a week who shouldn’t be behind the wheel. One recent week they grabbed 41. Prosecuting the actual offenders is the least of it: They want to draw enough attention that people think twice before doing something reckless.

It’s had an effect. As one motorist wrote on Facebook: “[They] are beasts when it comes to getting you in traffic stops.”

The department is on target to break its record for DWI arrests for a second straight year (There were 235 in 2010), putting Elmwood Park among the leaders, per officer, not just in Bergen County but throughout the state once again.

Last year, Elmwood Park Officer Michael Prelich wrote 3,517 summonses of all types by himself — an average of nearly 10 a day if you divide by 365 — while also answering calls for service in the 2.8-square-mile town known decades ago as East Paterson.

“As a society, we have witnessed far too many senseless tragedies,” Elmwood Park Deputy Police Chief John Palmeri told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “As we all know, even one time is one time too many.”

Some argue that New Jersey’s .08 limit is unfair, that they can drive fine after one or two drinks.

However, state Attorney General Paula Dow insisted it’s not a matter of opinion but science: “Having just one drink can impair your judgment and slow your reaction time, which can lead to disastrous consequences. Any time you drink and drive, you are putting yourself, your family and the public at large in great danger.”

For further proof, she cited statistics showing that impaired drivers were responsible for 168 deaths on New Jersey roadways last year and 556 total crashes.

Antonia (file photo)

Many officers either remember of have heard the story of Antonia Verni of Cliffside Park.

Daniel Lanzaro of Cresskill admitted he’d already been drinking at a tailgate party when he began pounding beers at a Giants game in October 1999. He and a friend hit two strip clubs after that.

The Verni family had gone pumpkin picking that afternoon and was headed back to Cliffside Park when Lanzaro’s Ford pickup crossed a double yellow line on Terrace Avenue, sideswiped an SUV and plowed head on into their Corolla – flinging Antonia, strapped into her car seat, into the street.

By the time police got him to headquarters, a woozy Lanzaro’s blood-alcohol level hit 0.266, 2½ times what was then the legal limit of 0.10 (now 0.08), court records show.

What they don’t show is the collective terror of emergency workers who saved Antonia’s life that night, taking nearly a minute and a half to get a pulse from the blue-lipped 2-year-old before an officer with a child her same age carried the girl’s limp body to a waiting ambulance.
The crash left her paralyzed from the neck down and put her mother in a coma for five days.

It also left an impression so deep and painful on those who were there – and even those who weren’t – that the department dedicated itself to snuffing potential trouble before it became disaster.

Arrests the following year began rising. Soon they doubled – then tripled. Next thing you knew, a Bergen town no bigger in land mass than Hoboken was battling Fort Lee, Mahwah, Paramus and other much larger towns for the top spot on the county’s DWI takedown list.

“Why is it important to me?” Hasbrouck Heights Police Chief Mike Colaneri said. “Because of things like that child.”

No surprise, then, that his department has relied on $4,185.26 in reimbursements from the prosecutor’s office.

Bergen County Police have received $15,439.26 so far in 2011. Next highest is East Rutherford, with $9,262.47.

Once the profits of criminals, the money paying for this protection was seized by prosecutors and secured through court orders. At this rate, the final tally would be $153,091.98 paid out this year.

By agency:

Why can’t we jail people who post Facebook warnings about DWI roadblocks?

Monday, 22 August 2011 06:23 Jerry DeMarco

EDITORIAL: “Do not take Rte 46 west heading to Ptown,” a Saturday night Facebook post warned Paterson-area motorists. “There is a check point for each and every car and single lane only! Take 80!” Here’s my question: Why can’t we prosecute these people for those “warnings”? I say we should. READ MORE….

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