NJ state senator charged with DWI asked for police director to come to scene, video shows
Police bodycam footage of Sandra B. Cunningham state senator from Hudson County NorthJersey.com
Police body camera footage of state Sen. Sandra B. Cunningham’s March drunken driving arrest shows Cunningham unable to complete a field sobriety test before being handcuffed, having trouble telling a police officer her home address and twice asking for the city’s public safety director to come to the scene.
The video footage, released Friday afternoon by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, may spell trouble for Cunningham, 70, a Democrat who is in line to become the party’s senate majority leader in January. Reached by phone, Cunningham told NorthJersey.com and The Record she was in a meeting and would return the phone call.
"This was a serious accident, which resulted in Sen. Cunningham's request for medical assistance," said Cunningham's attorney, Michael Rubas.
Cunningham was arrested March 4 at about 10 a.m. on Culver Street in Jersey City after police say she drove her 2013 Infiniti into two parked cars. The video footage shows she was taking a field sobriety test and having trouble standing with one foot in front of the other when she asked for Jersey City’s public safety director, James Shea.
“What does Director Shea have to do with anything right now?” says the officer administering the test.
“Well, because I can see that you’re looking for something that isn’t there,” Cunningham says.
“So Director Shea has zero to do with the car — with this stop, though, right now, ma’am,” the officer says.
Moments later, Cunningham abandons the sobriety test, saying she feels “unsteady.” Officers then move to place her in handcuffs.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” Cunningham says.
Officers handcuff her over her objections and protests from her political adviser, Joe Cardwell, who was at the scene.
It does not appear from any of the videos that Shea, who has overseen Jersey City’s police and fire departments since 2013, appeared at the scene. A request for comment from Shea was not returned.
There may be little political repercussions for Cunningham. She has represented the 31st District, a liberal enclave including Bayonne and parts of Jersey City, since 2007 and has never won reelection with less than 70% of the vote. She faces no Democratic challenger in June’s primary and she is a strong ally of Senate President Stephen Sweeney.
Cunningham is the widow of Jersey City’s first Black mayor, Glenn D. Cunningham, who died suddenly in 2004 during his only term in office. Cunningham has been an ardent supporter of criminal justice reform, backing measures like “ban the box” — barring questions about criminal histories on job applications — and a recent bill that would eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences for about three dozen crimes.
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NorthJersey.com and The Record filed a public records request in March for the video footage showing Cunningham’s arrest. After initially denying the request, the Hudson prosecutor provided 17 videos on Friday.
In one of them, Cunningham is seen moments after the crash fumbling with her wallet after officers ask to see her driver’s license.
“Have you had anything to drink today?” an officer asks her.
“No,” she says.
“No?” the officer responds. “Is there a reason why you’re swaying and you have slurred speech and you’re having difficulty to perform basic directions?”
Cunningham tells him she’s “very cold.” It was about 40 degrees in Jersey City that day.
Another video shows an officer asking Cunningham where she lives.
“22 West, um, 22 West Street in Society Hill,” she says, referring to a gated community in Jersey City about a mile from the crash. Cunningham lives on Willow Street.
When the officer then asks her if she knows what block she’s on, Cunningham can’t answer.
“Do you know where you are?” the officer asks.
“Jersey City, New Jersey,” Cunningham answers.
Former governor Jim McGreevey told NorthJersey.com and The Record in March that he picked Cunningham up from a police station after her arrest and she told him she attributed the crash to a bad reaction she had to medication. In the video footage released Friday, Cunningham tells police officers she is not on any medication.
Cunningham’s first appearance on the drunken driving charge is scheduled for Thursday in Bergen County, where the case was moved to avoid a conflict of interest in her home county.
Terrence T. McDonald is a reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.