STATE OF NEW JERSEY v. LAMONT GADSONAnnotate this Case
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE
APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY
DOCKET NO. A-4360-12T3
STATE OF NEW JERSEY,
December 26, 2014
Submitted December 16, 2014 Decided
Before Judges Yannotti and Fasciale.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, Indictment No. 11-03-401.
Steven W. Hernandez, attorney for appellant (Thomas M. Cannavo, of counsel and on the brief).
Joseph D. Coronato, Ocean County Prosecutor, attorney for respondent (Samuel Marzarella, Supervising Assistant Prosecutor, of counsel; Meghan M. O'Neill, Assistant Prosecutor, on the brief).
Defendant appeals from his convictions for operating a motor vehicle without insurance, N.J.S.A. 39:6B-2, and failing to register his motor vehicle, N.J.S.A. 39:3-4 (the "motor vehicle violations"). We affirm in part and reverse in part.
The police responded to a fatal early morning hit-and-run motor vehicle accident. A hubcap and fog light belonging to a Mitsubishi were found at the scene. A damaged grey Mitsubishi Gallant (the "vehicle") was located several blocks away without license plates, a hubcap, and a fog light. A pack of Newport cigarettes was outside the vehicle.
The police went to the vehicle's last known address and noticed defendant exiting a taxi about 400 feet away. Defendant spoke to the police and indicated that he recently purchased the vehicle from his neighbor, and that the vehicle was parked in his driveway. Police determined that the vehicle was not in defendant's driveway and that defendant had outstanding warrants. The police found defendant's work identification, pictures of his family, and the car's bill of sale in the vehicle. It was also determined that defendant smoked Newport cigarettes.
The police arrested defendant and issued summonses for the motor vehicle violations as well as careless driving, N.J.S.A. 39:4-97; leaving the scene of a fatal accident, N.J.S.A. 39:4-129(a); failure to report an accident, N.J.S.A. 39:4-130; and driving with a suspended license, N.J.S.A. 39:3-40 (the "additional summonses").
An Ocean County grand jury then indicted defendant for second-degree knowingly leaving the scene of a motor vehicle accident resulting in a death, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1, and third-degree causing death while operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license, N.J.S.A. 2C:40-22a.
A judge and jury tried defendant on the charges contained in the indictment, and the jury found defendant not guilty. After the jury returned a not guilty verdict, the judge used the evidence adduced during the jury trial and found defendant guilty of the motor vehicle violations, but not guilty on the additional summonses.1
On appeal, defendant raises the following points
THE LAW DIVISION'S GUILTY FINDINGS ON THE [N.J.S.A. 39:6B-2] AND [N.J.S.A.] 39:3-4 CHARGES VIOLATE DEFENDANT'S STATE AND FEDERAL CONSTITUTIONAL DOUBLE JEOPARDY RIGHTS AND MUST THEREFORE BE VACATED AND DEFENDANT ACQUITTED OF BOTH OFFENSES.
THE LAW DIVISION['S] GUILTY FINDINGS ON THE TWO MOTOR VEHICLE OFFENSES WERE BARRED BY COLLATERAL ESTOPPEL.
When reviewing the outcome of a bench trial, this court is obliged to "'give deference to those findings of the trial judge which are substantially influenced by [the] opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to have the feel of the case, which a reviewing court cannot enjoy.'" State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 471 (1999) (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161 (1964)). Therefore, "[f]indings by the trial judge are considered binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence." Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974). However, "[a] trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference." Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).
Applying these standards, we conclude that the judge erred on double jeopardy grounds by trying and convicting defendant as to the charge of operating a motor vehicle without an insurance card. However, the judge did not err by trying and convicting defendant on the charge of failing to register his motor vehicle.
The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that no person shall "be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb." U.S. Const. amend. V. This clause is applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Benton v. Maryland, 395 U.S. 784, 794, 89 S. Ct. 2506, 2062, 23 L. Ed. 2d 707, 716 (1969). The New Jersey Constitution similarly provides that "[n]o person shall, after acquittal, be tried for the same offense." N.J. Const. art. I, 11. Our Supreme Court has "interpreted the state constitutional double jeopardy protection as co-extensive with the guarantee of the federal Constitution." State v. DeLuca, 108 N.J. 98, 102, cert. denied, 484 U.S. 944, 108 S. Ct. 331, 98 L. Ed. 2d 358 (1987).
The principle of collateral estoppel is part of the Fifth Amendment's guarantee against double jeopardy. Ashe v. Swenson, 397 U.S. 436, 445, 90 S. Ct. 1189, 1195, 25 L. Ed. 2d 469, 476 (1970). Collateral estoppel is "simply that when an issue of ultimate fact has once been determined by a valid and final judgment, that issue cannot be litigated between the same parties in any future lawsuit." Id. at 443, 90 S. Ct. at 1194, 25 L. Ed. 2d at 475. In the criminal context, this means that
Where a previous judgment of acquittal was  based upon a general verdict, as is usually the case, this approach requires a court to examine the record of a prior proceeding, taking into account the pleadings, evidence, charge, and other relevant matter, and conclude whether a rational jury could have grounded its verdict upon an issue other than that which the defendant seeks to foreclose from consideration.
[Id. at 444, 90 S. Ct. at 1194, 25 L. Ed. 2d at 475-76 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).]
Motor vehicle offenses under Title 39 are not indictable offenses but "are within the category of offenses subject to the Double Jeopardy Clause" because they are "quasi-criminal in nature" and "must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt." State v. Dively, 92 N.J. 573, 585-86 (1983).
Our court rules require that when a defendant is charged with both indictable and non-indictable offenses "based on the same conduct or arising from the same episode . . . the Superior Court judge shall sit as a municipal court judge on the complaint and shall render the verdict with respect to the [non-indictable offense] on the proofs adduced in the course of trial." R. 3:15-3(a)(1)-(2); see also State v. Muniz, 118 N.J. 319, 327-28 (1990) (stating that indictable charges and motor vehicle charges are to be "joined in a single trial but . . . the jury would decide guilt on the [indictable charge] and the judge . . . would decide the [motor vehicle] charge").
If "the factual finding[s] represented by the jury's verdict necessarily constitutes a nonfinding of the factual predicate for the [motor vehicle] offenses, the court would then be precluded by double jeopardy principles from reexamining the same body of evidence to come to a contrary conclusion." Muniz, supra, 118 N.J. at 334 (citing Illinois v. Vitale, 447 U.S. 410, 100 S. Ct. 2260, 65 L. Ed. 2d 228 (1980)). In other words, a judge cannot reach factual conclusions which are contradictory to the jury's verdict.
We conclude that double jeopardy principles precluded the court from finding defendant guilty of operating a motor vehicle without insurance. The factual findings of the jury prevented the judge from trying and then determining that defendant operated the vehicle without insurance.
N.J.S.A. 39:6B-2 provides
An owner or registrant of a motor vehicle registered or principally garaged in this State who operates or causes to be operated a motor vehicle upon any public road or highway in this State without motor vehicle liability insurance coverage . . . shall be subject, for the first offense, to a fine of not less than $300 nor more than $1,000 and a period of community service to be determined by the court[.]
It is undisputed that defendant was the owner of the vehicle. See N.J.S.A. 39:1-1 (defining "owner" as "a person who holds legal title of a vehicle"). The jury, however, determined that defendant did not operate the motor vehicle the night of the accident because it found him not guilty of causing a death while operating a motor vehicle with a revoked or suspended driver's license. See N.J.S.A. 2C:40-22a (requiring a person to be "operating a motor vehicle"). The judge's finding of guilt, and the necessary inference that defendant must have operated the vehicle, was therefore precluded by the Double Jeopardy Clause because the judge relied on "the same body of evidence to come to a contrary conclusion." Muniz, supra, 118 N.J. at 334.
We are not persuaded by the State's argument that this is merely a matter of inconsistent verdicts. A defendant is forbidden from collaterally attacking a verdict with an "apparently irreconcilable acquittal on another count," State v. Kelly, 201 N.J. 471, 487 (2010), but this case does not involve an inconsistent jury verdict. Rather, the judge tried defendant after the jury's verdict of acquittal and reached factual conclusions on the predicate motor vehicle charge which had been previously adjudicated by the jury's not guilty verdict, which was not permitted by the Double Jeopardy Clause.
The jury's verdict, however, did not preclude the judge from finding, based on the evidence adduced during the jury trial, defendant guilty of violating the registration statute, N.J.S.A. 39:3-4. The jury's acquittal did not necessarily constitute a nonfinding of the factual predicate for the charge of violating the registration statute. See Muniz, supra, 118 N.J. at 334.
This statute requires that "every resident of this State and every nonresident whose automobile or motorcycle shall be driven in this State shall, before using such vehicle on the public highways, register the same, and no automobile or motorcycle shall be driven unless so registered." N.J.S.A. 39:3-4. N.J.S.A. 39:3-4 further provides that "[n]o person owning or having control over any unregistered vehicle shall permit the same to be parked or to stand on a public highway."
Here, the evidence presented at trial supported the judge's conclusion that defendant allowed his unregistered vehicle to be parked or stand on a public highway in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-4. It was undisputed that defendant owned the vehicle and the judge found that defendant "exercised control over the [vehicle] during the period of time prior to the accident and through the accident, and . . . [the] findings with respect to that exercising control include the fact that [defendant] possessed the only key to the [vehicle], [and] that he in fact admitted that he had driven the [vehicle] previously . . . ." Additionally, the judge found defendant "did not have the vehicle registered at [the time of the accident], . . . indicated that he intended to[,] but had not registered the vehicle on that early morning hour at the time of this accident."
Defendant's contention that N.J.S.A. 39:3-4 required him to operate the vehicle as an essential element of the offense is incorrect. The plain language of the statute does not require operation, but only requires ownership or control of the unregistered vehicle that is parked or standing on a public highway. See DiProspero v. Penn, 183 N.J. 477, 492 (2005) (stating that "the best indicator of [legislative] intent is the statutory language" and that statutory words are given their "ordinary meaning and significance"). Here, it is undisputed that defendant owned the unregistered vehicle that was parked on a public highway after the accident. Thus, the determination of guilt was not estopped by the jury verdict.
Reversed in part and affirmed in part. We remand to the trial court to modify defendant's judgment of conviction consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.
1 The judge initially found defendant guilty of the charges in the additional summonses, but the State and defense counsel agreed that the jury's verdict precluded a finding of guilt on those charges. The judge concurred that double jeopardy protections might be applicable and entered an amended judgment acquitting defendant on the additional summonses.