Under the Attorney General’s Directive on Police-Use-of-Force Investigations, the incident was investigated by the Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team, made up of investigators from the Division of Criminal Justice and the New Jersey State Police Major Crime Unit. As a result of the investigation, Director Elie Honig of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice determined that presentation of the police-involved shooting to a grand jury was not required under the Directive, because the undisputed facts showed that the use of force was justified under the law. The investigation included witness interviews and forensic analysis of the scene and other evidence.
Testimony and evidence from the Shooting Response Team’s investigation was presented to a state grand jury for consideration of charges against the driver who allegedly struck the troopers. The driver, Juan Gutierrez-Valencia, 29, of Pemberton Township, was indicted today on the following charges:
The incident occurred on the afternoon of July 7, 2014, while New Jersey State Police detectives were conducting a drug transaction involving an undercover detective who had arranged to purchase two kilograms of crystal meth from Gutierrez-Valencia and another suspect in the rear parking lot of a hotel on Fellowship Road in Mount Laurel. The plan was to arrest the sellers of the methamphetamine once the undercover detective confirmed that the suspects brought the drugs. Members of the State Police Technical Emergency and Mission Specialists (TEAMS) Unit were prepared to arrest the suspects after the undercover detective was clear of the immediate area. The operation was part of a joint investigation, “Operation Speed Racer,” led by the State Police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration into the distribution of methamphetamine and heroin in Burlington and Ocean counties.
After the two suspects arrived in a Mercedes sedan with darkly tinted windows, the undercover detective briefly entered the suspects’ car, verified that the drugs were present, exited the car, and then gave the signal for the TEAMS Unit to make the arrests. When the signal was given, Gutierrez-Valencia was in the driver’s seat of the Mercedes. The other suspect was seated in the passenger seat of the undercover detective’s car. The Mercedes and the undercover detective’s car were parked in the last row of the parking lot, facing a concrete curb, with one parking space in between.
The TEAMS Unit was using two vehicles that day. The first vehicle was a large, unmarked white van. The second vehicle was an unmarked SUV. The vehicles were not equipped with dashboard cameras and no emergency lights or sirens were used. The two TEAMS vehicles pulled up behind the parked cars in which the suspects were seated. As soon as the TEAMS van stopped, state troopers began exiting to make the arrests. The troopers were dressed in the standard uniform of the TEAMS Unit, green coveralls with State Police markings, tactical vests with State Police markings, and helmets.
As the first troopers exited the rear of the van, Gutierrez-Valencia drove the Mercedes sedan backwards, making the tires squeal, while cutting the wheel hard to the left. The Mercedes clipped the van, causing the rear door to slam shut as the troopers were exiting. The Mercedes also ran into the first two TEAMS troopers exiting the van, causing minor injuries to both of them. At that point, the third TEAMS trooper coming out of the van fired two shots from his M4 carbine through the windshield of the Mercedes at Gutierrez-Valencia. One of the shots grazed Gutierrez-Valencia’s right arm. The Mercedes stopped, coming to rest behind the van, along the passenger side of the TEAMS SUV. The other TEAMS troopers then forcibly removed Gutierrez-Valencia from the Mercedes and attempted to place him under arrest. Gutierrez-Valencia physically resisted until the troopers forced his hands into handcuffs with the assistance of a K-9. The other suspect was arrested without further incident. Gutierrez-Valencia’s wound was treated at Cooper University Hospital and he was released that same day into police custody.
Once Gutierrez-Valencia was out of the car, a 9mm handgun was discovered in plain view on the seat where he was sitting. A loaded magazine for the gun allegedly was found in Gutierrez-Valencia’s pocket. A search warrant was executed and detectives seized two kilograms of methamphetamine along with the gun, which turned out to be stolen. Bullet fragments from the troopers shots were found in the car, and the driver’s seat was pierced by one of the bullets. All ballistic and forensic evidence, including the shell casings from the scene, the trooper’s M4 carbine, and the Mercedes’ shattered windshield, were examined and found to be consistent with the witness statements and surveillance video.
All of the law enforcement officers present gave formal statements. The trooper who fired stated that he heard tires squealing, felt the van get hit, and saw the Mercedes moving in reverse past the van door as he and his teammates were exiting. He also saw the first two TEAMS troopers who exited the van “off-balance,” as if they were under duress and in trouble. He did not see them actually get hit. He then stepped out of the van and saw that the Mercedes was positioned so that it could run him and the other two troopers over. He stated that, fearing that his own life and his fellow troopers’ lives were in danger, he fired two shots into the Mercedes. He aimed roughly at the driver’s position since he could not see the driver in the tinted Mercedes. The trooper stated that the Mercedes stopped moving, so he put his rifle back on the “safe” setting and moved to assist in making the arrests. The two troopers who were struck by the Mercedes were treated at Virtua Hospital and released the same day.
A surveillance video from the hotel shows the Mercedes rapidly backing out of the parking space and striking the TEAMS van. It also shows the troopers scrambling in the area between the car and the rear of the van. There is no audio and the video is not of sufficient quality to identify individual troopers or the moment shots were fired. A second surveillance video from the restaurant adjacent to the hotel depicts the same events from a different angle without making any more details of the incident visible.
After analyzing all of the facts and circumstances of this incident, it was concluded by the Division of Criminal Justice that the trooper who fired at Gutierrez-Valencia acted appropriately under the Attorney General’s Use-of-Force Policy in that he used an acceptable level of force in firing his M4 carbine at Gutierrez-Valencia to protect himself and his fellow troopers. An officer may use deadly force in New Jersey when the officer reasonably believes it is immediately necessary to protect the officer or another person from imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.
This matter was reviewed by Director Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. All portions of the Attorney General’s Directive on Police-Use-of-Force Investigations which were in effect during the course of the investigation were complied with.
The Division of Criminal Justice Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau obtained a state grand jury indictment on Dec. 5, 2014 in Operation Speed Racer charging Gutierrez-Valencia with possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute (1st degree), conspiracy (2nd degree), unlawful possession of a handgun (2nd degree), possession of a handgun while committing a drug offense (2nd degree), receiving stolen property (handgun) (3rd degree) and possession of a gun with a defaced serial number (4th degree). Those charges are pending. Four co-defendants were charged with first-degree distribution of heroin and second-degree conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and heroin.
The first-degree methamphetamine charge carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years in state prison and a fine of up to $300,000. Second-degree charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000, and the second-degree gun charges carry a mandatory minimum term of parole ineligibility equal to one-third to one-half of the sentence imposed or 3 ½ years, whichever is greater. Third-degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a fine of up to $15,000, while fourth-degree charges carry a sentence of up to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Supervising Deputy Attorney General Andrew B. Johns presented the case that was indicted today to the state grand jury for the Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team.
The indictments charging Gutierrez-Valencia are merely accusations and he is presumed innocent until proven guilty.