State, Local PBA Rallies for Suspended Tuckerton Officer

Officer Justin Cherry’s Case Unresolved Five Years
By Pat Johnson | Sep 04, 2019
Photo by: Pat Johnson DECISION NEAR?: PBA members from Atlantic and Cape May Counties, plus state representatives, rally to support Tuckerton Police Cpl. Justin Cherry in his long-running disciplinary suspension.

Tuckerton — More than 50 members of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association from Cape May and Atlantic Counties came to support Tuckerton Corporal Justin Cherry during his third day of a disciplinary hearing in Tuckerton that could cost him his job.

Cherry has been on unpaid suspension since April 2014 because of an incident in January of that year. The case involves his pursuit of a woman driving with a suspended license that ended some eight miles away in Barnegat, where he unleashed his K-9 on Wendy Tucker while she lay on the ground.

Tuckerton’s attorney, Ian Goldman, is arguing on behalf of charges brought by Tuckerton Police Chief Brian Olsen stating that Cherry violated Tuckerton police rules and regulations by pursuing Tucker into other jurisdictions, released his dog without warning the suspect, and making an untruthful report of the incident.

Cherry’s attorney, Tracy Riley, contends that once Tucker sped away from Cherry, the suspect was eluding an officer, which warranted Cherry’s pursuit. Releasing his dog on the suspect was warranted because Tucker was resisting arrest and Cherry could not see both of Tucker’s hands to determine if she might have a weapon.

Hearing Officer Bonnie R. Peterson has the task of deciding on Cherry’s fate: whether to uphold all or some of the charges, or dismiss them.

Goldman started the Aug. 30 hearing by calling the first of two witnesses: Barnegat Police Officer Michael Di Blasi. Di Blasi was one of the officers that blocked the intersection of Route 9 and Bay Avenue in Barnegat the night of the pursuit. He was called back to the Barnegat Police Station on West Bay Avenue when he was told Tucker had taken a side road and was at the station, “driving in circles.” When Di Blasi arrived, Tucker was already out of the vehicle and on the ground.

Goldman asked if Tucker was someone known to the Barnegat officer.

“We have had dealings with her; she has been known to be on medication or under the influence of alcohol,” Di Blasi replied.

Goldman asked if Tucker was known to be a violent or aggressive person and if she had ever been arrested for violent or aggressive behavior. Cherry’s attorney objected to the question but was overruled by Peterson.

Di Blasi said no.

Goldman asked Di Blasi if he knew Cherry and he said yes, they had attended the police academy together.

On the night of Jan. 24, 2014 when Di Blasi drove his patrol car into the strip mall parking lot where Tucker had eventually parked, she was already under control and Cherry had his K-9 officer “Gunner” by his side.

Goldman asked Di Blasi if he had a brief conversation with Cherry. Di Blasi testified that Cherry had asked him if he was recording the incident on his police vest camera and Di Blasi said no, but he could see a Barnegat police vehicle camera was on, and he told Cherry that fact. He said Cherry replied, “‘Oh, s---,’ or ‘Oh, f---,” said Di Blasi.

Cherry’s attorney then asked if Di Blasi knew what Cherry was talking about since he arrived after the K-9 incident, and Di Blasi said he did not.

Goldman’s next witness was Michael O’Connor, an accredited private investigator and accredited accident reconstruction expert, formerly a Stafford police officer and later employed with the county prosecutor’s office fatal accidents investigation unit until 1999.

Riley objected to presenting O’Connor as an expert witness because he had never been called as an expert witness in vehicle pursuit cases. Peterson overruled the objection.

O’Connor detailed how he used the Ocean County Sheriff’s Office dispatch stamped times to determine speeds between various locations. At the beginning of the pursuit on Railroad Avenue in Little Egg Harbor, he determined that Cherry was traveling 67 mph; and from Golf View to Firehouse Drive, his average speed was 76 mph. The speed limit is 40 mph.

O’Connor gave his expert opinion that Cherry did not adhere to Tuckerton Borough police procedure as outlined in the officer’s rules and regulations handbook. He also said several things were unique to the case, in that Cherry had already had personal contact with Tucker before the pursuit, had warned her not to drive with a suspended license and had allowed her to walk to the bus stop before she then came back to get into her car and drive.

According to O’Connor, the pursuit was never authorized by the regulations, which state a pursuit can be initiated in the first-degree in cases of murder or arson, etc.; second-degree in cases of a flight risk from a major crime or when the actor (suspect) employs force or threats to escape custody or poses a risk of death or injury to the public.

Since Tucker was known to have a suspended license, she was only guilty of a traffic violation when Cherry initiated his pursuit.

Riley objected to this testimony, saying the examples O’Connor used to differentiate between first- or second-degrees of eluding were taken from the rules and regulations dealing with the pursuit of a stolen vehicle, and did not apply.

The objection was overruled.

Riley asked if O’Connor knew if Cherry had been trained properly in the pursuit policy (twice a year). O’Connor said he did not know that.

Riley then said Tucker had pleaded guilty to eluding in Tuckerton’s municipal court. O’Connor said he had not seen that document, but that it would not change his report.

O’Connor said he wouldn’t know if Cherry’s pursuit was a third-degree violation, or if it was a second-degree violation where eluding creates a risk of death or injury to other persons.

“Then it wouldn’t be in violation of the Tuckerton Police Policy, would it?” asked Riley.

“If it was a legitimate second-degree, then it wouldn’t,” said O’Connor.

Later, O’Connor said that because Cherry was in close personal contact with Tucker before telling her she could not drive, “He would not allow an intoxicated woman to wander off to a bus stop if he noted alcohol on her breath.”

O’Connor said his chart of the speeds Cherry and Tucker were making at each intersection were accurate, except for an inconsistency from Firehouse Drive to Parkertown Drive.

In that case, Riley wanted O’Connor’s report thrown out.

But Peterson said she would allow the report as evidence and she would determine what weight, if any, to give to the report.

Goldman rested his case, saying he has no more witnesses.

Riley will call witnesses when the disciplinary hearing continues on Friday, Sept. 6 at 10 a.m. in Tuckerton Borough Hall.

After the hearing, Kevin Lyons, State PBA legal protection administer, told The SandPaper that O’Connor’s report was flawed.

“This is a witch hunt. It’s erroneous, and subjective at best.”

Lyons said that because O’Connor was a police officer and at one time a dispatcher, he should know that time stamps made by dispatchers are not always accurate.

PBA State Vice-President Michael Freeman agreed. “He’s talking about seconds – 48 seconds. The dispatcher has to type in the message; he could have been interrupted by another call, or had a sip of coffee. We don’t know.”

— Pat Johnson

Cpl. Justin Cherry with his family and friends outside Tuckerton Borough Hall. (Photo by: Pat Johnson )
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