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Police car siren Photo: Bigstock

The New Jersey Supreme Court has censured a municipal court judge for attempting to use the cloak of his office to talk his way out of a drunken-driving arrest.

In addition to the censure, Wilfredo Benitez is temporarily barred from presiding over drunken-driving cases, and may not apply to the court to hear such cases until Sept. 7, 2019.

The censure order was made public Sept. 7. It follows the July 31 recommendations by the court’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct.

“We find, based on our review of the significant evidence of record, that those asserted disciplinary charges have been proven by clear and convincing evidence,” said the ACJC presentment, signed by its chairwoman, former state Supreme Court Justice Virginia Long.

The ACJC quoted the court’s 2001 ruling in In re Samay: “As our Supreme Court made clear  almost two decades ago, those fortunate enough to hold judicial office are bestowed with tremendous power ‘on the condition that [they] not abuse or misuse it to further a personal objective.’”

Benitez, who ultimately was acquitted of drunken driving, has long sat as a municipal court judge in East Orange and Belleville, and remains in those positions at present, according to the presentment.

Benitez’s attorney, Brian Molloy, of Woodbridge’s Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, was unavailable for comment, and attempts to reach Benitez were unsuccessful.

According to documents, Benitez, a Newark solo, was arrested on Nov. 12, 2016, by State Troopers Justin Kearns and Danny Kim, who found Benitez asleep in the driver’s seat on Interstate 80 West in Teaneck. Benitez’s eyes were bloodshot and watery, and the troopers could detect the odor of alcohol, the ACJC said.

The troopers had Benitez perform several roadside sobriety tests, and was then charged with drunken driving. While he was being handcuffed, Benitez made such remarks as “I’m a judge” and “You’re wasting your time. You know you are. You’re not going to give me courtesy? You know you’re being a dick. I will fucking fight you.” Bergen County Presiding Municipal Court Judge Roy McGeady found Benitez not guilty on the drunken-driving charge in May 2017, documents said.

The ACJC filed a complaint last January, alleging Benitez violated ethics rules by citing his position as a judge during the traffic stop.

In a subsequent answer, Benitez admitted to making the remarks, but offered context and claimed to be ”regretful” and “apologetic” for remarks that were discourteous and inappropriate, but denied trying to leverage his position. The remarks were “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 answer said. Benitez contended that the “reference to ‘any courtesy’ was intended to apply to the use of handcuffs, and that Respondent never asked the State Police not to administer any field sobriety tests, and never asked not to be placed under arrest.”

The ACJC, in its presentment, said there were a number of mitigating factors, including Benitez’s length of service without any prior history of discipline, his sincere commitment to righting a wrong, his remorse and his attempted apology.

But, the ACJC added, there were also aggravating factors: His indecent manner toward the troopers, his insulting language and his degrading insults.

The ACJC labeled Benitez’s behavior as “egregious.”

“This recommendation takes into account the seriousness of Respondent’s ethical infractions and both the aggravating and mitigating factors in this case, which justify the quantum of discipline recommended,” the presentment said.

Michael Booth

Trenton Bureau Chief New Jersey Law Journal American Lawyer Media mbooth@alm.com Twitter: @mboothnjlj

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