Did Bogota police investigate Nadine Arslanian Menendez's crash according to protocol?

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Nadine Arslanian Menendez and Bogota police officers speak after a motor vehicle accident on Dec. 12, 2018.

One gap was 26 minutes long. Another was 5 minutes.

Together, that is more than 30 minutes of time unaccounted for in the official videos and documents released by the Bogota Police Department in the car crash that took the life of Richard Koop.

The driver, Nadine Arslanian Menendez, totaled her Mercedes-Benz on Main Street in Bogota in December 2018 when she hit and killed the 49-year-old Koop and then a parked car.

Arslanian — who began dating Sen. Bob Menendez in February 2018 and married him in October 2020 — was not charged in the incident. Arslanian, Menendez and three businessmen now face federal charges for an alleged bribery scheme.

Sources said that the New Jersey Attorney General's Office will investigate the Bogota case.

A month after the crash, according to an indictment brought by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Arslanian was texting Wael Hana, an Egyptian American businessman also indicted in the bribery scheme, about her lack of car. Hana later provided her with a 2019 Mercedes-Benz C-300 convertible, the indictment says.

26 minutes and a lack of questions

The videos and reports obtained from the Bogota Police Department leave a gap of about 26 minutes from the time police arrive on the scene to the moment Arslanian is interviewed in front of a camera.

During that interview, she is not asked where she is coming from or going, if she applied her brakes, how fast she was going or if she was using a cellphone.

Brian Higgins, a former chief of the Bergen County police and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said that typically the investigation has to be “pretty in depth” because it’s not just about bringing charges but about ensuring that the road is safe for all drivers and pedestrians moving forward.

He said that there are some pretty standard questions that are part of the interview process including things like what they were doing, if they were on the phone, what they were looking at and if the car was operating properly.

Higgins also said that police would want to find out if there was anything that would impact a driver’s ability to respond quickly such as if they were on the phone or something like that while driving.

Police would also ask where a driver was coming from and where they were going to “basically establish why they were there and why they are taking that route.” He also noted that if they answered a restaurant or something like that, then questions about whether alcohol was consumed would have to follow, though those should be asked even if they didn't ask where the driver came from.

Police records indicate that Arslanian was not asked about alcohol or drugs and the report filed by Patrolman Michael LaFerrera indicates that a field sobriety test was not conducted. Supplemental reports instead show that officers determined that Koop may have been at a bar and had previously faced charges related to driving under the influence.

5 minutes

Police would also check phone records.

Arslanian initially agreed to let the police check her phone but quickly changed her mind and took her phone back.

Records show that there was a five-minute gap between when Arslanian hit Koop and when she called police. Someone else in the area reported the crash first.

The supplemental police report does indicate that phone records were subpoenaed the next day, but does not disclose whether they were received or if so, what they showed.

“She probably called someone,” Higgins said. “What did she do? Did she make calls prior to calling the police? That's a major problem. You just hit a human being. You should call 911 immediately. What made you delay five minutes? What was she more concerned with? Maybe she called a lawyer or someone else? It doesn't indicate someone who is worried about the victim.”

Story continues after gallery.

Pronouncement of death

According to the administrative code for the state’s Board of Medical Examiners when an “apparent death” happens outside of a hospital, a physician, professional nurse or paramedic “may proceed to the scene and make the determination and pronouncement of death.” A written record is then prepared.

If the death happens within the jurisdiction of the County Medical Examiner, the “examiner shall without inordinate delay require the proper and established means for the determination and pronouncement of death and shall arrange for the removal of the body and completion of the death certificate.”

But that’s not the way things happened that night in Bogota.

Police decided on the scene that lifesaving measures such as CPR would be “useless” because of the bleeding. They couldn’t detect a pulse or any breathing and called in the fatal team. Instead of calling for a paramedic or medical examiner to make the declaration, an ambulance took Koop’s body to nearby Holy Name Medical Center.

According to the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, the Fatal Accident Investigation Unit is responsible for investigating fatal and serious bodily injury motor vehicle crashes that involve criminal recklessness.

They also assist local police departments for any sort of investigation if the department needs more manpower.

Fatal accident investigation

In a statement, Bergen County Prosecutor's Office spokesperson Liz Rebein said that in relation to the Bogota crash in 2018 that resulted in Koop’s death, the “Bogota Police Department requested the assistance of members of the Fatal Accident Investigation Task Force after determining that no criminality was suspected to be involved.”

Higgins said that once someone has determined to be dead at the scene, “normally the body stays there for the medical examiner's office” and that the fatal investigation unit is called and will respond to the scene as well.

“Whether there are criminal charges or not, those are not decisions the local police make immediately,” Higgins said. “They're reviewed by an assistant prosecutor with the assistance of the fatal accident unit, that's a standard investigation.”

And despite Koop’s death, police determined within an hour after the crash that she would not face criminal charges.

Higgins was also quick to point out that there is no guarantee anything criminal caused an accident but police should determine other contributing factors like how the pedestrian ended up in the street, what the lighting was like and whether there was space for the driver to stop.

“It could be that this individual jaywalked for lack of a better term,” he said. “But could it be that her reaction was delayed because she was preoccupied?”

Rich Lomurro, a personal injury attorney based in Monmouth County, said that there are sometimes “awful situations where there's no crime or intention on the driver.”

“The question is whether it rises to the level of recklessness that can result in charges for vehicular manslaughter or some other offense,” he said. “Is it careless driving? Is it reckless driving? Was there speeding? Was there failure to maintain a lane? Those are all questions that the police have to look into.”

He said that typically it “would not be the local police that make that determination” but instead the prosecutor's office.

Lomurro said that it is up to prosecutorial discretion as to whether or not charges should be filed but “just because someone passes away doesn't mean that there was criminality involved.”

“That is within the discretion of the police officer and the prosecutor's office and ultimately there is prosecutorial discretion,” he said. “That's what we rely on as a society. We rely on the prosecutors to use their discretion on what they believe is a crime and what they don't believe is a crime.”

As far as what the standard is, Lomurro said that the thrust of it is that “you can't charge somebody with a crime without probable cause.”

Katie Sobko covers the New Jersey Statehouse. Email: sobko@northjersey.com

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Did Bogota NJ police follow protocol in Nadine Menendez car accident?