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Preventing an addict from getting behind the wheel is delicate balance in New Jersey

In New Jersey, preventing an addict from getting behind the wheel is a delicate balance
In New Jersey, preventing an addict from getting behind the wheel is a delicate balance 06:19

NEW JERSEY (CBS) - A South Jersey man crashed his truck into an apartment building, displacing three families just before the holidays.

The driver is now accused of drug possession and being under the influence, but a CBS News Philadelphia investigation found the driver has a record of driving offenses that go back a decade.

Close call

It all started late one night in November less than a week before Thanksgiving in 2023. Maria Zavala said she had already gone to bed and her second-grade twin boys were asleep too. Zavala said she was awoken by a loud bang.

"I screamed, I was like, 'What the heck is going on?'" Zavala said. "I thought it was an earthquake."

It wasn't an earthquake, it was a pickup truck that had just slammed into the side of their apartment. The crash knocked out power and pushed the whole multi-complex house off its foundation. No one was hurt.

According to a police investigation report, the truck was driving down the road when it crossed the center line, ran off the road, hit a utility pole and crashed sideways into the apartment building. The impact of the crash took down the utility pole, which then blocked both lanes.

A police investigation determined the driver was traveling 60 mph on the 35-mph road when it hit the pole.

Zavala believes the utility pole changed the outcome.

"That pole basically saved our lives, saved my kids' lives potentially," she said.


CBS News Philadelphia obtained body camera footage from the night of the crash showing multiple officers and neighbors jumping in to help.

The police officer tending to the driver can be heard saying to another officer, "He's not really answering any questions, he's confused and out of it."

Other officers surveyed the scene and determined the electric meters had been ripped off the house, the power was out and the building had been knocked off its foundation. A police report says residents were evacuated because the building was deemed unsafe.

Body camera footage shows the officer assisting the driver cut the airbag out of the way and take off the seatbelt just before the driver then kicks him in the stomach area.

There's a tussle on the ground between the driver and officers before the driver is in custody and walked to a police vehicle as shown on police cameras.

Alex Smith said she remembers the night well. Smith owns the property and woke up to missed calls in the middle of the night. Zavala, her tenant, had left a voicemail.

"When you get that call at midnight, you know there's two kids and everybody sleeping, you have kids of your own so you can just imagine, just the absolute chaos and how petrifying that was for them," Smith said.

Here we go again

Smith's panic turned to relief when they determined everyone was OK, but then word spread about the driver's history.

"We knew this was a repeat offender," Smith said. "This was the step before killing somebody, really."

A police report from the crash says the driver is known to officers through extensive police contact to be a frequent narcotics user.

During the arrest, an officer can be heard saying to the driver, "It's only a matter of time before you kill somebody."

Court records show nearly 50 driving violations over the last 10 years with all of them either dismissed or resulting in guilty pleas and fines.


A police officer at the crash scene can be heard saying, "Seriously, like how many [expletive] times is he going to get away with this [expletive]?"

Court documents say the night of the crash, the driver had 36 bags of suspected heroin, four used bags of suspected heroin and six vials of suspected crack cocaine.

While officers gathered evidence in the vehicle, one is heard saying, " I'm [expletive] pissed. He just got out of a [expletive] DUI a week ago."

At first, Zavala said she was concerned for the driver assuming he could have fallen asleep and run off the road, but that changed when she learned about his past offenses.

"I was very disappointed to find out the next day he was out like it was nothing," Zavala said.

The system

This scenario is not uncommon.

Richard Klineburger has been a criminal defense attorney in New Jersey for 25 years. He's seen many clients with similar records.

"First thing I ask them is - Is there a problem?" Klineburger said.

Other than repeat DUIs, a history of traffic offenses won't put someone in jail or take away their license even if substance abuse is a known factor.

"A lot more of the courts are gearing their reaction to someone like this toward a recovery system," Klineburger said.

Root cause

In Camden County, New Jersey, Project S.A.V.E. (Substance Abuse Visionary Effort) is aimed at addressing the root cause of someone's repeated run-ins with the legal system.

Camden County Commissioner Director Louis Cappelli Jr. played a role in making the program a countywide initiative.

"What we try to do is get them into treatment to end that cycle of substance abuse and criminal behavior," he said.

According to county records, of the 2,995 people admitted into Project S.A.V.E since it started in 2019, 31% completed the program, 50% remain engaged and 19% dropped out.


In 2019, Felicia Buzard says she was at her worst - addicted to drugs and facing jail time after her third DUI.

"I was lost, hopeless, scared because I was also a mother," Buzard said. "I didn't know how to function without substances."

Instead of a jail sentence, the judge offered her a chance at treatment through Project S.A.V.E.

"They removed Braylee [her daughter] from me, but during that time, it gave me time to grow and heal and I ended up learning how to become a mom," Buzard said.

A few months later, she got her daughter back and now, she works in the Camden County Health Department while going to school to become a social worker.

Buzard is grateful she had the chance to get well and hopes others struggling with addiction will do the same before it's too late.


If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, there are resources and people available to help.

You can find an encompassing recovery resource page by visiting

To learn how to get support for mental health, drug or alcohol issues, visit If you are ready to locate a treatment facility or provider, you can go directly to or call 800-662-HELP (4357).

You can call a free 24-hour Disaster Distress Helpline from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), at 1-800-985-5990, if you feel lonely or need support.

SAMHSA also has a national helpline Treatment Referral Routing Service (1-800-487-4889). Treatment Referral Routing Service provides 24-hour free and confidential treatment referral and information about mental health and substance use disorders, prevention, and recovery, in English and Spanish.

  Find out more about these treatment topics:

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat at

Additional resources:

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