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Breaking news & local stories from Camden City, Berlin, Laurel Springs and more

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    A look at the top candidates for the Player of the Year award.


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    Images of the Police Unity Tour 2018 from around New Jersey


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    Minority residents aren't getting opportunities for work because of a lack of an affirmative action officer, he contends. Watch video

    Troy Oglesby ended an overnight vigil in front of Camden City Hall on Tuesday evening after a council meeting and promises from local officials that the hire of an affirmative action officer was eminent.

    "I can go home," Oglesby said at the end of the Council meeting in which Council President Curtis Jenkins said he expected a hire to fill the long-vacant position soon.

    Oglesby, 55, a Cherry Hill resident who said he owns a bail bond business in Camden, had promised to keep a 24-hour vigil on a plaza in front of an entrance to City Hall to raise concerns about what he said were unmet minority-hiring goals.

    Local officials have estimated that up to $2 billion of development is currently flowing through downtown Camden, a city that has frequently been cited as one of the poorest cities in America.

    Cooper University Hospital, Rowan and Rutgers universities and private companies such as Campbell Soup, Holtec InternationalSubaru and the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers are among the businesses building, practically within eyesight of City Hall.

    Oglesby, a former Cherry Hill police officer who grew up in Camden, said he wasn't protesting for himself.

    "The people that aren't getting opportunities are people I've grown up with, people I know," he said. "They have come to not have a voice. It's not always a person's ability to be able to come up before city Council for what they want."

    Bill Duhart - IMG_3676.jpgTroy Oglesby held an overnight protest in a tent in front of Camden City Hall over affirmative action. 

    Oglesby said he arrived for his vigil at 8 a.m. Monday morning. A supporter brought him the tent. He said he had intended to stay overnight in a reclining chair and blankets and use a portable toilet at a nearby construction site if needed, until City Hall opened back up on Tuesday.  

    After spending the night outside, Oglesby changed from a sweatsuit into a shirt, tie and jacket during the day on Tuesday before the Council meeting.

    Council President Curtis Jenkins said during his dozen years in office, the position of an affirmative action officer has rarely been filled. He said Mayor Frank Moran, who was not at the council meeting, had selected a qualified current city employee several weeks ago to assume the responsibilities of affirmative action officer. The mayor delayed the announcement to allow a 20-day state oversight period to pass and to reestablish a seven-member affirmative action council, Jenkins said.

    Four appointees were approved during Tuesday's Council meeting to join three existing members. The review council is composed of community volunteers.

    "Anybody that sheds any light on any issue adds to it. It's cumulative," Thomas Rapacki Jr., one of two members reappointed to the board said Tuesday referring to Oglesby's protest. "All the little parts add up into a big part. It has to be addressed."

    The council and officer are responsible for compliance for goals for minority inclusion on city contracts, such as road improvements, publicly-financed housing and procurement.

    "Most of what's going up is private investment," Council President Curtis Jenkins said Wednesday. "It's only certain projects covered by the affirmative action ordinance, not every project in the city."

    Jenkins said he told Oglesby "weeks ago" what was going on.

    "I guess he didn't believe me," Jenkins said. "But he has a right to protest. He has a right to his opinion."

    Frances Casteing wandered up to Oglesby's tent before the Council meeting. She said she saw it passing by and came to see what was going on.

    "This is a bold, bold move," said Casteing, 32, a legal secretary. "I've never seen a tent on City Hall. It takes a lot of guts to do something like this. It's very admirable."

    Bill Duhart may be reached at bduhart@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @bduhart. Find NJ.com on FacebookHave a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips


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    Which teams have the best chance to take home a title in 2018?


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    Salem County Career and Technical High School students celebrated their prom on Thursday night at the Centerton Country Club.

    It was a night to remember for Salem County Career and Technical High School students as they celebrated their prom at Centerton Country Club in Pittsgrove Township on Thursday night.

    Prom-goers arrived dressed to the nines as they socialized, posed for photos and danced the night away.

    Check back at nj.com/south for other local high school prom coverage. And be sure to check out our complete prom coverage at nj.com/prom.

    BUY THESE PHOTOS
    Are you one of the people pictured at this prom? Want to buy the photo and keep it forever? Look for the blue link "buy photo" below the photographer's credit to purchase the picture. You'll have the ability to order prints in a variety of sizes, or products like magnets, keychains, coffee mugs and more.

    Lori M. Nichols may be reached at lnichols@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Instagram @photog_lori and Twitter @photoglori. Find NJ.com on FacebookHave a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips.


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    State civil rights investigators have been notified that a lacrosse player at Haddonfield Memorial High allegedly uttered a racial slur toward a track athlete.

    An allegation that a lacrosse player at Haddonfield Memorial High uttered a racial slur toward a track athlete from another Camden County school has landed with state civil rights investigators.

    The confrontation reportedly occurred Tuesday, when the boys' lacrosse team member told a black athlete from the Sterling High School track team to get off the Haddonfield track and called her the n-word as she was lacing her cleats during a meet, according to Camden County NAACP East President Lloyd D. Henderson.

    The lacrosse practice was taking place on an athletic field ringed by a track.

    "She was very distraught," Henderson said Thursday. "She was so hurt it was noticed by her friends."

    The student who allegedly launched the verbal attack was not identified, according to Henderson. He called for the school to take the incident seriously, including providing diversity training.

    "I would like to see the school step up, take responsibility and deal with the matter," he added.

    The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association referred the allegations to the New Jersey Attorney General's Office, a spokesman confirmed.

    "NJSIAA is aware of the situation and, as per our sportsmanship policy, has notified the NJ Division on Civil Rights," NJSIAA spokesman Mike Cherenson said in an email. He did not have more information on the allegations.

    Haddonfield School Superintendent David T. Lindenmuth said the district was investigating and has not identified the player involved, according to the Philly.com, which first reported the allegations. 

    Haddonfield and Sterling school officials could not be immediately reached to comment Thursday night. Representatives for the state civil rights division also could not be reached.

    Noah Cohen may be reached at ncohen@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahycFind NJ.com on Facebook.

     

     


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    A jury convicted Leonaldo Rivera, of Camden, in the murder of Alex Rojas-Garcia.

    What's that turn of phrase? When one door closes, another door opens?

    Wilfredo Rojas mentioned it this week when speaking about his son, Alex Rojas-Garcia.

    Alex died at the age of 34 when a man from Camden fired several times into his Chevy Trailblazer outside a club on Macalester Street in Philadelphia on Jan. 24, 2015.

    Alex, a father of two, was out celebrating -- he'd recently made the honor roll at Temple University, where he studied advertising.

    Leonaldo-Rivera1B.JPGLeonaldo Rivera, of Camden, was sentenced to life in prison for the 2015 murder of Alex Rojas-Garcia. 

    Last week, a Philly judge sent away Alex's killer, Leonaldo Rivera, for a life term in prison plus additional time after a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. 

    "One door closes for the person who murdered my son," Rojas said this week. "But another does not open for Alex."

    "My son is not coming through my door again."

    Rojas lives in East Greenwich Township and is the Gloucester County NAACP's first vice president.

    He and Alex's mom, Aleida Garcia, still don't know why Rivera did it.

    After he rejected a plea offer, a jury found Rivera guilty, and the judge sentenced him to an automatic life term for first-degree murder plus an additional seven-and-a- half to 20 years on gun charges, said Anthony Voci, chief of the homicide unit at the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.

    Rojas and Garcia said the offer was for 30 to 60 years.

    The length of the sentence "was a comment on what kind of crime this was," Garcia said. 

    aleidagarciawilfredorojas.JPGAleida Garcia and Wilfredo Rojas, parents of Alejandro "Alex" Rojas-Garcia, pose with their son's stone before it's placed in the Remembrance Garden during the Victims Remembrance Ceremony at the Gloucester County Justice Complex in Woodbury, Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (Lori M. Nichols | For NJ.com) 

    Alex's parents have worked every day for the past three and a half years on anti-violence initiatives and getting their case out in public. It was good that they did; a couple who witnessed the shooting came forward once they saw Aleida on Telemundo, pleading for someone to share information about who killed her son. The TV news story also included surveillance footage that showed the couple in the nightclub.

    "I just feel really bad for the kid, the one who got killed and his family," Antonio Vicenty said in court, according to Philly.com. "I saw his mom on the news. I felt so bad."

    "Their lives are destroyed too," Garcia said of the couple, who, for their safety, have since moved to Puerto Rico after coming forward. They returned to Philly to testify in the case.

    Rivera's case has been adjudicated, but Alex's parents still want to continue their work with the National Homicide Justice Alliance, which was founded after Alex's death.

    They've been speaking to criminal justice classes at universities in the area and keeping in touch with other families who have lost someone to homicide. They'll be out wearing orange on June 2nd, National Gun Violence Awareness Day, part of the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence.

    "I feel like it was a real grind to get here," Aleida said. "We got what we wanted which was justice for Alex, we didn't get Alex back."

    Among their goals for the future: to start a fund that could help grieving families recover from the loss of a loved one or offer a reward for information about their killer.

    In Philadelphia, there's a standing cash reward of up to $20,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone involved in committing a homicide in the city. Some families never get to post a reward that could find their relative's killer, Garcia said.

    They've also named an award after their son, and will be giving it to a teen onstage at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center later this month.

    Joe Brandt can be reached at jbrandt@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @JBrandt_NJ. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

    Have a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips 

     

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    What's hot on the diamond from the past week.


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    Police responded to the scene in Sicklerville and found the boy unresponsive on the lawn.

    The Camden County Prosecutor's Office and Gloucester Township Police are investigating the death of a Sicklerville toddler, officials say.

    The Marcia Court residence, which was quiet Friday morning, was bustling with police and investigators on Thursday after calls of an unresponsive 18-month-old boy came in around 11:40 a.m., according to police.

    The prosecutor's office said that once officers were at the scene they found the toddler unresponsive on the lawn and that EMS were unable to revive him. 

    The boy, whose identity has not been released, was pronounced dead at the scene, police said. 

    Authorities say results of the autopsy are pending.

    The incident remains under investigation and no arrests have been made as of Friday afternoon. 

    The prosecutor's office is asking anyone with information to contact Det. James Brining at 856-225-8439 or Gloucester Township Police Detective Joseph McGuire at 856-228-4500.

    Tips may also be emailed to ccpotips@ccprosecutor.org.

    Caitlyn Stulpin may be reached at cstulpin@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @caitstulpin. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

     

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    Haddonfield's internal investigation discovered issues that are "completely unacceptable for this community."

    The rest of the boys lacrosse season at Haddonfield Memorial High School has been cancelled after one of the players allegedly called another student at a nearby school a racial slur. 

    In a statement to NJ Advance Media, Haddonfield School District interim Superintendent Dr. David T. Lindenmuth said that their internal investigation discovered issues that are "completely unacceptable for this community."

    "There is no room for hate of any kind at Haddonfield Schools and it will not be tolerated. It is not who we are and it does not represent our student body," Lindenmuth said in a statement.

    As a result of the investigation, the remainder of the boys' lacrosse season has been cancelled. 

    There will be diversity, sensitivity, and empathy training for students, staff, and coaches, along with additional procedures and requirements for all sports teams.

    Haddonfield, a town of about 11,500, is 92 percent white, according to census statistics. Sterling High School serves five communities in Camden County whose population is about 73 percent white on average, data shows. 

    Students will also participate in a "dialogue" focused on diversity and inclusiveness, which will be led by student groups such as the Diversity Club, Peer Mediators, Human Relations Club. 

    The district has also reached out to the NAACP and Anti-Defamation League, to assist in providing resources, curricula support, and training.

    On May 1, a member of the Haddonfield boys' lacrosse team allegedly told a black athlete from the Sterling High School track team to get off the Haddonfield track and called her the n-word as she was lacing her cleats during a meet, according to Camden County NAACP East President Lloyd D. Henderson.

    The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association received a report from Sterling High School last week and has since referred the allegations to the New Jersey Attorney General's Office. 

    A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office confirmed that they have received documentation of the incident from NJSIAA and are in the process of reviewing the report. 

    "What does it say about the lacrosse team to allow a team member to display that kind of attitude?" Henderson said. "Everyone should be treated the same and right now that might not be the case."

    Olivia Rizzo may be reached at orizzo@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @LivRizz. Find NJ.com on Facebook

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    West Deptford High School students celebrated their prom on Friday night at the Auletto Caterers.

    It was a night to remember for West Deptford High School students as they celebrated their prom at Auletto Caterers in Deptford Township on Friday night.

    Prom-goers arrived dressed to the nines as they socialized, posed for photos and danced the night away.

    Check back at nj.com/south for other local high school prom coverage. And be sure to check out our complete prom coverage at nj.com/prom.

    BUY THESE PHOTOS
    Are you one of the people pictured at this prom? Want to buy the photo and keep it forever? Look for the blue link "buy photo" below the photographer's credit to purchase the picture. You'll have the ability to order prints in a variety of sizes, or products like magnets, keychains, coffee mugs and more.

    Lori M. Nichols may be reached at lnichols@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Instagram @photog_lori and Twitter @photoglori. Find NJ.com on FacebookHave a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips.


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    Gateway Regional High School students celebrated their prom on Friday night at Lucien's Manor, dancing the night away.

    It was a night to remember for Gateway Regional High School students as they celebrated their prom at Lucien's Manor in Berlin on Friday night.

    Prom-goers arrived dressed to the nines as they socialized, posed for photos and danced the night away.

    Check back at nj.com/south for other local high school prom coverage. And be sure to check out our complete prom coverage at nj.com/prom.

    BUY THESE PHOTOS
    Are you one of the people pictured at this prom? Want to buy the photo and keep it forever? Look for the blue link "buy photo" below the photographer's credit to purchase the picture. You'll have the ability to order prints in a variety of sizes, or products like magnets, keychains, coffee mugs and more.

    Lori M. Nichols may be reached at lnichols@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Instagram @photog_lori and Twitter @photoglori. Find NJ.com on FacebookHave a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips.


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    Millville High School students celebrated their senior prom on Friday night at Adelphia Restaurant, dancing the night away.

    It was a night to remember for Millville High School students as they celebrated their senior prom at Adelphia Restaurant in Deptford Township on Friday night.

    Prom-goers arrived dressed to the nines as they socialized, posed for photos and danced the night away.

    Check back at nj.com/south for other local high school prom coverage. And be sure to check out our complete prom coverage at nj.com/prom.

    BUY THESE PHOTOS
    Are you one of the people pictured at this prom? Want to buy the photo and keep it forever? Look for the blue link "buy photo" below the photographer's credit to purchase the picture. You'll have the ability to order prints in a variety of sizes, or products like magnets, keychains, coffee mugs and more.

    Tim Hawk may be reached at thawk@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Instagram @photog_hawk and Twitter @photogthawk. Find NJ.com on Facebook. Have a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips.


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    Bridgeton High School students celebrated their prom on Friday night at the Centerton Country Club.

    It was a night to remember for Bridgeton High School students as they celebrated their prom at the Centerton Country Club in Pittsgrove Township on Friday night.

    Prom-goers arrived dressed to the nines as they socialized, posed for photos and danced the night away.

    Check back at nj.com/south for other local high school prom coverage. And be sure to check out our complete prom coverage at nj.com/prom.

    BUY THESE PHOTOS
    Are you one of the people pictured at this prom? Want to buy the photo and keep it forever? Look for the blue link "buy photo" below the photographer's credit to purchase the picture. You'll have the ability to order prints in a variety of sizes, or products like magnets, keychains, coffee mugs and more.

    Tim Hawk may be reached at thawk@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Instagram @photog_hawk and Twitter @photogthawk. Find NJ.com on Facebook. Have a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips.


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    Cumberland Regional High School students celebrated their prom on Friday night at Masso's Catering.

    It was a night to remember for Cumberland Regional High School students as they celebrated their prom at Masso's Catering in Glassboro on Friday night.

    Prom-goers arrived in style as they posed for photos, socialized and danced the night away.

    Check back at nj.com/south for other local high school prom coverage. And be sure to check out our complete prom coverage at nj.com/prom.

    BUY THESE PHOTOS
    Are you one of the people pictured at this prom? Want to buy the photo and keep it forever? Look for the blue link "buy photo" below the photographer's credit to purchase the picture. You'll have the ability to order prints in a variety of sizes, or products like magnets, keychains, coffee mugs and more.

    Lori M. Nichols may be reached at lnichols@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Instagram @photog_lori and Twitter @photoglori. Find NJ.com on FacebookHave a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips.


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    This small borough of less than a dozen residents is the epitome of "home rule" in the Garden State.


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    The percent of DWI charges that are dismissed each year has more than doubled over 10 years.

    If a New Jersey police officer makes a driving while intoxicated (DWI) arrest today, the driver has a better chance of getting out of the charge compared to a decade ago, statistically speaking.

    Conviction rates are generally high in the Garden State -- in 2008, 85 percent were found guilty of their DWI charges, and had to accept license suspensions, big fines and more.

    But over the last 10 years, that rate slid to 71 percent, according to data from the state judiciary. At the same time, the percentage of DWI charges that were dismissed has more than doubled to 24 percent in 2017. Most of the time, those drivers are pleading to a different charge, like reckless driving.

    So why are more DWI charges getting dismissed now?

    Experts in New Jersey DWI law said there are several contributing factors, but the most supported theory is that the number of people being arrested for driving under the influence of drugs is going up.

    "The state has a harder time proving those cases," said retired municipal Judge H. Robert Switzer. Most DWIs still involve alcohol, he said, but "what's happened in the last 10 to 20 years is an exponential increase in the amount of people driving under the influence of drugs."

    Whether the increase in DWI drug arrests is due to more drug use or better detection by police, drugged driving cases present several problems for prosecutors trying to convict. One of the biggest is that there is no equivalent of a breath test for those suspected of driving while high, Switzer said.

    NJ Cannabis Insider: Get a free look

    It's a topic that's been on a lot of minds in law enforcement and state government, as New Jersey inches closer to legalizing marijuana. The state is training more officers to be drug recognition experts -- so they can opine whether a driver is under the influence of a particular drug -- and companies are rushing to create and sell the first breathalyzer for pot.  

    According to interviews with four DWI attorneys, two traffic officers and Switzer, dismissals are also up because attorneys are more able to get breath test and blood toxicology results thrown out, in some situations, compared to a decade ago.

    The vast majority of people get their DWI charges dismissed when they plead to another charge. Most come with shorter suspensions, but refusal to take a breath test has penalties almost as severe as a DWI.

    Plea deals aren't allowed in DWI cases, so the outcome is called an "alternative disposition."

    "The goal is to get rid of the DWI or reduce the suspension time," said Cherry Hill attorney Evan Levow.

    For a first offense DWI, depending on the blood alcohol reading, a driver faces a suspension of three months to a year, plus thousands in fees and surcharges, Levow said.

    The analysis of court data also showed that the percentage of DWI cases ending in not guilty verdicts has stayed right around 5 percent over the last 10 years.

    The number of new DWI cases has declined over that period, which may be due to increased awareness about the risks of driving while intoxicated or the rise of ride-sharing apps, some attorneys theorized.

    Why drug cases are harder to prove

    If you fail a field sobriety test and then at the station, blow a 0.0 on the breath test, you're probably going to meet a drug recognition expert, or DRE. The officer is called in to run tests, from blood pressure to pupil size. They compare the results to a matrix of drug symptoms and decide what type of drug you might be on.

    And while that may sound like a pretty good system, there are many reasons a judge could be skeptical about the conclusions, Levow said.

    The urine test, for example, doesn't actually prove the person was driving high.

    "A urine test only shows the presence of the drug in the body but not how much," Switzer said. "It could be a trace amount or a large amount. It could be up to 30 days old" with some drugs.

    A blood test could provide more evidence of the level of drug in the body, Levow said, but they're rarely done except in fatal or serious crashes.

    John Menzel, an Asbury Park attorney, said he sees many cases where people are charged with DWI when the only drug in their system was legally prescribed. Sometimes a driver might legitimately be affected by the medication -- perhaps if he or she popped an extra Xanax due to stress -- but they might not, he said.

    "If someone looks a little off or odd to the officer and they see prescription drugs somewhere, like in a purse," he said. "They jump to the conclusion that the driving they saw was due to drugs."

    He said medical records and doctor's opinions about the driver's ability to drive on the medication can weaken the prosecutor's case.

    Why are there more drugged driving arrests?

    Experts say they believed there are now more arrests for driving under the influence of drugs -- mostly marijuana or prescription drugs -- but they had different theories on why.

    It wasn't possible to get court data to confirm an increase in DWI drug arrests, because the cases are charged under the same statute regardless of whether they involve alcohol or drugs.

    Most data on drugged driving comes from blood tests after fatal crashes, though this doesn't give a full picture of the amount of people driving high.

    In New Jersey, there has been a small increase in the percentage of drivers tested after fatal crashes who had drugs or medication in their blood, according to State Police data.

    Detective Nicholas Schock, president of the New Jersey Police Traffic Officers Association, investigates fatal and criminal car crashes for the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office.

    "There's definitely been an increase in the ones that are narcotics related," he said Wednesday.

    Toms River Police Lt. Christopher Dudzik, president of the New Jersey Association of Drug Recognition Experts, agreed with Judge Switzer's statement that there are just more people driving after using drugs.

    "Hands down, we've been definitely seeing more of it," he said. "There's definitely been more, between the opioid epidemic and marijuana."

    Will legalization make roads more dangerous?

    Most experts agreed that another thing driving the arrests is law enforcement's heightened focus and training on spotting drugged drivers.

    While officers in the field are the ones making these arrests, Dudzik said, their investigations can now rely on more DREs than before. There are roughly 400 DREs in New Jersey today -- more than any other state other than California. He said that's compared to about half that 11 years ago, when he got certified.

    Other factors

    When defending drunk driving cases -- which are still the majority of DWIs -- attorneys now have more ammunition to shoot down evidence, the attorneys said.

    "Lawyers are becoming more adept and more sophisticated at defending against the Alcotest," said Joseph P. Rem Jr., an attorney in Hackensack.

    The Breathalyzer that was used in New Jersey until around the mid-2000s was a simple test where a liquid changed color, he said.

    But the Alcotest, he said, is a "biochemical laboratory run by a computer" and it's more difficult to keep calibrated, among other issues.

    "It's been a 10-year battle and case law resulted in more defenses for the accused drivers," Levow said.

    The state Supreme Court has ruled that the Alcotest results should be accepted as evidence, but prosecutors must prove the test was done correctly, including with a calibrated machine and by a certified officer. If any part is missing, Levow said, the results can be thrown out and then the prosecutor just has observations of drunkenness.

    Robert Ramsey, an attorney who also wrote a book on the state's DWI laws, said defense attorneys are also helped by the Supreme Court's rulings that police cannot take blood from a defendant without their consent or a warrant, in most cases.

    Even if they can collect blood, Ramsey said the scandal at the New Jersey State Police drug lab has created an "enormous delay" that can make toxicology results take as long as six months.

    According to DWI research provided by Levow, only 5 percent of DWI cases in New Jersey involve blood draws.

    Will the trend continue?

    If more people are getting arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana these days, a good breath test for pot could mean big changes.

    Hound Labs of California has been testing a machine it says can detect trace amounts of THC in a driver's breath within two or three hours after use. It could be on sale in the end of June at the earliest, the company told NJ Advance Media.

    Training more DREs also might help prosecutions, as Switzer said the availability of DREs has been an issue for some departments.

    "Now with legalization, I would predict an increase in people driving under the influence of marijuana compared to other drugs," Switzer said.

    And while some might worry about the rise in dismissals, Menzel said the outcomes are just products of a justice system that's working as it should, requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

    "Due process is a process," he said.

    Rebecca Everett may be reached at reverett@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @rebeccajeverett. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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    Rebecca and Allie Liber underwent bariatric surgery together last year, a day before Mother's Day. Watch video

    By Matt Cosentino

    Allie Liber was all in from the get-go.

    Her mother, on the other hand, needed some convincing.

    When Allie, now 22, decided about a year and a half ago that she was ready to take the major step of undergoing bariatric surgery, she was hoping her mom, Rebecca Liber, would join her in the process. Both women, who are Salem County residents, had struggled with their weight, and Rebecca, now 45, suffered from sleep apnea to boot.

    "I battled my weight my whole life and I got to the point where I was about 280 (pounds)," Allie said. "I tried Weight Watchers, I tried other things to lose the weight. I had relatives who tried the surgery and they had great success with it, so I just felt like it was something I should try.

    "A couple of my cousins had had the surgery with Dr. (Harish) Kakkilaya, so I went to talk to him and he was very positive. He made me feel good about it, so I went home and talked to my mom. I told her, 'l would really like if you did it with me, but if not I'm still going to do it.'" 

    before after.jpg 

    Rebecca still wasn't sold, but when she started to think about Allie and her two other daughters, and all the good times that were still to come with her family, it became an easy decision.

    "I had always talked about wanting to be around for many years to see my kids and hopefully grandkids, so that was the eye opener," Rebecca said. "That's when I started thinking it could really be for me. Allie talked me into it by saying, 'Let's do it together, let's get healthy, we can lean on each other through the process.'"

    The Libers ended up having surgery with Dr. Kakkilaya at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center on the same day -- May 4, 2017 -- coincidentally right before Mother's Day. Having just celebrated the one-year anniversary, they are both feeling healthier than ever, and Mother's Day will now be even more meaningful from this point on.

    "I was just saying to my mom the other day, sometimes when I talk about going through this with her it makes me emotional because it honestly changed both of our lives," Allie said. "We all eat healthy now. I have two older sisters who work out a lot too and we're always there for each other. We do 5Ks and we're all training for a 10-mile run. To do it with my mom was definitely a neat experience. I've always been close with her, but I feel like this gave us something else."

    Rebecca has lost 75 pounds since surgery and is no longer dealing with sleep apnea. Her daughter has lost 115 pounds.

    The surgery they underwent is called a sleeve gastrectomy. According to Dr. Kakkilaya, it is a simple procedure done laparoscopically in which 60 to 80 percent of the stomach is removed, along with cells that produce hunger hormones.

    "So your appetite goes down significantly," Dr. Kakkilaya said. "The surgery also cures diabetes, because your insulin level goes up and your anti-insulin hormones go down. A lot of changes happen in the system.

    "Over the years we've been looking for a perfect weight-loss operation; perfect in the sense that it's safe and effective. I can tell you very confidently that this is the perfect operation. ... It does not have any long-term side effects, it's very safe and it's very quick -- people go home one or two days later. The key is finding something that is going to work for you for the rest of your life, and this is the operation for most people."

    Dr. Kakkilaya added that surgery is typically a good option for people more than 50 pounds overweight because it is difficult to lose that weight just through diet and exercise, and even when it can be accomplished it is common for people to put that weight back on.

    Obesity also puts people at a higher risk of diabetes and cancer, another benefit to the surgery.

    "These two individuals should be inspirational to a lot of people," Dr. Kakkilaya said. "They have done very well. This is not an easy fix, even though a lot of people think it is. When I hear that I get fed up. Most of these patients have done everything to lose weight and this is the last resort. They've chosen to help themselves rather than someone who is scared of getting surgery, remains obese and dies young. People like (Rebecca and Allie) are brave. It's a lot of work, and also you have to change your lifestyle."

    Both Libers can attest to that. The nutritional classes they took before the operation taught them about eating better and portion control, and now they are living that every day, whether passing on cookies for a healthy snack or making a smaller plate for dinner.

    "Taking that step and changing the way you're living is the key," Rebecca said. "I can't stress enough that this is not a quick fix. This is a tool we used to help us get healthy. You still have to watch what you eat, you still have to cut out the sugar, you still have to exercise. That will be a lifelong thing for us. This was just a tool to help us get our weight under control."

    Rebecca and Allie have nothing but praise for Dr. Kakkilaya and Lourdes and have recommended them to friends. The self-confidence Allie now has all started with the process.

    "Some people from high school or that I haven't seen in a while don't even recognize me, which is sometimes nice," she said. "But when they ask me how I did it, I don't hide it. I've known some people who will act like they didn't have the surgery, but it's not something I'm ashamed of at all. It's changed my life completely."

    As for Rebecca, since surgery her oldest daughter has given birth to a baby girl named Riley Jane. Rebecca's first grandchild is a constant reminder of why she underwent surgery in the first place.

    "For me, that was the icing on the cake," she said. "My husband and I have been married for almost 26 years. We got married right after I got out of high school and started our family. We're hoping that we're young enough that maybe we'll be around to see great grandkids some day. We want to be healthy and active and do things with our kids."


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    See the favorites, contenders and more from each section of the girls lacrosse state tournament.


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    Dogs and cats throughout New Jersey await adoption in shelters and rescues.

    Pet facts:

    * Dalmatians are born without spots. They are born with plain white coats with their first spots appearing after they are 1 week old.

    * Cats spend approximately 30% of their waking hours grooming themselves.

    * Greyhounds are the world's fastest dogs with the ability to reach up to 45 mph.

    * Cat whiskers are so sensitive they can detect the slightest change in air current.

    * Nine percent of dog owners will have a birthday party for their pet.

    * "American Shorthair" is the designation reserved for pedigreed cats, while similar-looking cats of mixed or unknown origin are called "domestic shorthairs."

    Greg Hatala may be reached at ghatala@starledger.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregHatala. Find Greg Hatala on Facebook.


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