Wilfredo Benitez was passed out in the driver’s seat of his silver BMW hatchback at 2:13 a.m. with his hazard lights flashing along the shoulder of Route 80, records show.
Two New Jersey state troopers who found his vehicle on the stretch of highway in Teaneck quickly began to suspect he was drunk. Benitez struggled with the field sobriety test, according to a police report, but insisted he wasn’t a “drug addict” or “a drunk.”
He was “a f–king judge,” he said.
Newly obtained video shows Benitez — a municipal judge in East Orange, Belleville and Bloomfield — repeatedly told the two troopers about his position before they cuffed him on suspicion of drunken driving.
He then told the trooper reading him his rights that he was “being a d–k,” the video shows.
Police later administered a breath test that found Benitez’s blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit, but the court case against the judge fell apart because of flaws in the investigation, NJ Advance Media has learned.
The November 2016 incident is now the subject of a separate ethics case against Benitez, who was found not guilty of drunken driving in May of last year but is still prohibited from hearing DWI cases in his courtrooms, according to the state judiciary.
In court papers, the judge said he was “regretful and apologetic” about using foul language but denied any other wrongdoing. Neither he nor his attorney returned messages seeking comment.
The incident was not disclosed publicly until January, when the state judiciary released a copy of the ethics complaint, which accuses him of abusing his position.
Benitez argued in a February filing that he told the troopers he was a judge because the handcuffs they placed on him were hurting him and he “intended to convey that the handcuffs were unnecessary since he was a judge and he was not going to harm them in any way.”
The filing states that Benitez “never asked the State Police not to administer any field sobriety tests, and never asked not to be placed under arrest.”
Through an Open Public Records Act request, NJ Advance Media obtained dashboard camera footage and police reports from the incident. The news organization also reviewed audio from a May 11 hearing in which Superior Court Judge Roy McGeady found Benitez not guilty of driving while intoxicated.
The video shows the troopers — identified as Justin Kearns and Danny Kim — were driving down I-80 west in Teaneck when they encountered Benitez’s car on the highway’s shoulder.
Kearns wrote in a report that Benitez was “slouched over and sleeping” when they approached, and the video shows the troopers spent about three minutes trying to wake him before he roused, activating the brake lights and the rear windshield wipers as the troopers asked him to turn off the car.
When Benitez opened the window, Kearns wrote in a report, he “detected the strong odor” of alcohol.
Benitez repeatedly told the troopers he was driving home after dropping his daughter off at school before later saying it was his son he had dropped off, the video shows. The video shows Benitez had pulled over well before the troopers arrived, but when Kearns asked the judge why he was parked on the shoulder, he replied, “because you asked me to pull over.”
The troopers performed a field sobriety test, but Benitez’s car blocked it from the view of the troopers’ dashboard camera.
The video shows the judge grew irate after the troopers placed him under arrest.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this,” he said, according to the video. “I’m not a f–king drug addict. I’m not a drunk.”
Kearns began reading Benitez the Miranda warning, prefacing it by saying — “I’m sure you know it,” the video shows.
“You’re wasting your time and you know it,” Benitez said, repeatedly interrupting the trooper. “I’ll fight you. You know you’re being a d–k. I will f–king fight you.”
Benitez was taken to the State Police Totowa station where he submitted to a breath test and blew a .16, according to the report.
But Judge McGeady, who heard the DWI case against Benitez, threw out the test results because of discrepencies in the timeline of when the test was conducted.
Under Supreme Court rules on the use of breath-testing devices, a defendant is supposed to be observed for 20 uninterrupted minutes before the test is performed to ensure they had not chewed gum, vomited or performed other actions which might affect a test result.
Authorities could not prove that was done in Benitez’s case.
Benitez’s attorney, John Bruno, also argued Kearns lacked certifications neccesary to perform field sobriety tests and improperly performed the test that Benitez failed.
McGeady found the trooper’s academy training gave him the minimum qualifications to conduct such tests, according to the recording of the hearing.
McGeady said in his decision that the prosecution had not provided testimony proving Benitez’s behavior was caused by intoxication “as opposed to sleep deprivation or having just been awakened.”
“I don’t know that he had bloodshot, droopy eyes, that his clothes were dissheveled, that he was swaying, holding on for balance, I don’t have any testimony on that,” he said.
Kearns’ report notes Benitez’ eyes were “bloodshot and watery” and he was “unable to balance,” but the trooper was never asked about it in court. It’s unclear whether the judge reviewed the dashboard video.
A State Police spokesman declined to comment on the case.
Benitez will still have to appear before the state Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct to answer to the ethics complaint. A spokeswoman for the judiciary said a hearing date had not yet been set.
A person who answered the phone at Belleville’s municipal court this week said Benitez was scheduled to hear cases again on Tuesday.
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