Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Laws for Bounty Hunters Still Up In Air

As the mayor and council meet to possibly settle with the fourth and last officer involved with the bounty hunter incident, the policy and the hardware touted as the means to prevent such an incident from happening again have yet to be put into place.

The council is reportedly in the process of drafting a bounty hunting ordinance and has discussed the purchase of fingerprinting equipment. Both moves are in response to the June 2005 incident in which Rutherford police allowed borough resident Claudia Santana to be taken from her home by armed bounty hunters and transported to Dover.

The mayor and council met this week to discuss litigation with former Rutherford police Sergeant Nicholas Loizzi, one of the four officers involved in the bounty hunter incident from 2005 and the only officer who hasn't yet returned to work at the department. Last month, on July 24, rather than hear testimony the administrative court judge hearing Loizzi's appeal for his job back brought both sides together to meet in judges' chambers.

"There have been settlement discussions prompted by the court," said Mayor John Hipp about the meeting two weeks ago. He said the special council meeting was to discuss the status of the case in light of these discussions.

The other three officers, Sergeant Robert Buell, Patrolman Andrzej Hein and Patrolman Christopher Esposito, accepted an offer from the borough in March. Loizzi was the only one of the four officers to be criminally indicted, but the charges were later dropped and Loizzi filed a complaint against the borough. In March, Hein and Esposito both agreed to retroactive suspensions and salary reimbursements capped at $35,000 each. Buell agreed to a retroactive demotion and mitigated back pay minus any earned income he made during the interval. Earlier this year Hipp said it was his hope and intention to eventually settle with Loizzi as well.

In April, Mayor John Hipp spelled out what he would want an ordinance regulating bounty hunters to require. Bounty hunters, he said, would be required to report to police headquarters and present information about the suspect they're seeking as well as the warrant from the issuing jurisdiction. Rutherford officers would then accompany the bounty hunter to arrest the suspect and bring him or her back to headquarters for positive identification with the department's new Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) before the bounty hunter could return the suspect to the jurisdiction.

"I think [such an ordinance] would finally address what happened in 2005," said Hipp. He had originally hoped for introduction in June, but also noted the process would require careful attention since Rutherford may be the only municipality in New Jersey and one of the few in the country to introduce such an ordinance. As of the end of July, there is still only a draft version, according to Hipp, which he, police director John Thompson, borough attorney Lane Biviano and council police liaison John Genovesi have been working on.

"Do we have an idea what we'd like to say?" asked Biviano. "Sure, but you have to buttress that with all the other rights and statutes that exist. We're not creating this in a vacuum."

New Jersey has a Bounty Hunter Licensing Act, which was only passed in 2006, well after the incident in Rutherford. According to the act, all bounty hunters must be licensed by the superintendent of state police. In order to be licensed, one must submit to state police one's name, age, place of residence, intended place of business, employment history, proof of at least five years' worth of law enforcement experience within the United States and "the written approval of not fewer than five reputable citizens who have known the applicant for at least three years … and who shall certify that the applicant is a person of good moral character and behavior." One must also undergo a criminal history background check. Anyone who has been convicted of a felony or any controlled dangerous substance violation won't be licensed.

The law also makes provision for people who had been working as bounty hunters prior to passage of the act who lacked the five years' law enforcement experience: Such people were required to take a training course administered by state police. The act doesn't state particulars of how a bounty hunter is to proceed in apprehending a suspect at the municipal level. It does, however, state that anyone found to have used "unlawful force" in their business or who refuses or has ever refused to appear in a court of law when required or refuses to testify or submit records regarding any investigation when required will have their license revoked. Licenses must be renewed every two years.

As for the borough's AFIS machine, installing the hard wiring, connecting to the system, purchasing the equipment and training officers in its use will mean the machine probably won't be up and running and ready for regular use until at least October, according to Genovesi. Once installed, the device will allow officers to fingerprint suspects on a touch screen and search for a match to the digital image in state and federal databases in a matter of minutes or hours as opposed to the days or weeks it could take under the old print and ink system.

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