On February 4, 2014, a fire engine from the Chula Vista Fire Department in California arrived to the scene of a rollover collision on a busy highway. A firefighter-engineer parked his fire truck behind an ambulance in the fast lane of the highway and began assisting the victims from the collision.
The California Highway Patrol — similar to the New Jersey State Police – arrived after the firefighters had parked the fire trucks. In California, the CHP is designated as the lead agency on freeway accidents. One officer ordered a firefighter to move the fire truck because he felt it was blocking a lane of traffic unsafely. When the firefighter refused to move the truck without conferring with the fire captain, the CHP officer handcuffed the firefighter. The CHP officer placed the firefighter in the back of a patrol car for about a half-hour.
The California firefighter was eventually released and not arrested. The next morning, the CHP and the Chula Vista Fire Department issued a joint statement described it as “unfortunate incident” that had occurred and promised that both agencies will review this as “a topic of future joint training sessions, in an ongoing effort to work more efficiently together.”
Could a firefighter be arrested for refusing to move a fire truck in New Jersey?
In New Jersey, the law classifies the failure to assist law enforcement as Obstruction of Administration of Law or Other Governmental Function and the charge is defined in New Jersey Statute 2C:29-1. A person violates this law when someone purposely makes it harder or tries to make it impossible for a public servant to perform an official function. This very broad crime could cover almost any action that slows down the police or another government agency. Depending on the circumstances, a person could be charged with additional crimes, including Resisting Arrest – N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2 or Tampering with Evidence – N.J.S.A. 2C:28-6.
The first element the prosecution would need to prove is that you did something to interfere or place an obstacle to prevent the public servant from performing an official function. In some cases, the prosecution might claim that you committed some other crime that caused this obstruction. For example, a person who tampers with witnesses might have committed the crime of witness tampering and that might cause this obstruction
The second element that the prosecution would need to prove is that your purpose was to obstruct or prevent a public servant from lawfully performing an official function. If you did not mean to cause an obstruction, you did not commit an obstruction. Finally, the prosecution would need to prove that your act did cause an obstruction or an attempted obstruction.
One case in New Jersey has ruled that failing to move a car after a lawful order was Obstruction. In State v. Rone, 410 N.J. Super. 589 (App. Div. 2009), the Appellate Court decided that a person who refused to comply with an officer’s directive to move away from her relatives car and to move her own car she had parked in a lane of traffic was properly convicted of Obstruction.
In that case, a Rutgers University police officer pulled over a car for changing lanes without signaling. After the car stopped, the officer noticed the car had a temporary license from Florida, which was expired. The driver was talking to someone on his cell phone when the officer walked up to the car. Eventually, the driver handed over a Florida license and the officer was returning to his police car to investigate the status of the driver’s license when another vehicle raced up and stopped in a lane of traffic. A woman got out of the car, said she was a member of the Newark City Council, and demanded to know why the Rutgers Police had stopped her nephew. The officer told the woman to move her vehicle out of the lane of traffic and to get away from stopped car. She refused. This simple traffic ticket became a drawn out discussion with higher-ranking police officers arriving. After almost an hour, the police arrested the woman for obstruction. The Appellate Court found she was properly convicted of Obstruction of Administration of Law or Other Governmental Function. Therefore, refusing to move a vehicle after law enforcement orders you to move it could result in a charge of obstruction in New Jersey.
While the California firefighter was released at the scene, being arrested for obstruction or another crime would be have serious consequences. If you or a loved one arrested for Obstruction or another crime, you may need legal representation.
As a former prosecutor, New Jersey criminal defense attorney Douglas Herring handles criminal matters in the Mercer, Somerset, Middlesex, and throughout New Jersey. With over 15 years of experience as both a federal and state prosecutor, Mr. Herring is in a unique position to defend individuals arrested and charged with crimes.
If you have been arrested or charged with a crime and or you need to hire a New Jersey pre-filing defense attorney or you are under investigation for violent crime, please contact New Jersey criminal defense attorney Douglas Herring for 24/7 assistance by phone at (609) 256-4098 or toll free at (844) NJAccused or (844) 652-2287 or online.