NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE
APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
This opinion shall not "constitute precedent or be binding upon any court." Although it is posted on the
internet, this opinion is binding only on the parties in the case and its use in other cases is limited. R. 1:36-3.
SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY
DOCKET NO. A-2651-18T4
STATE OF NEW JERSEY,
Submitted November 6, 2019 - Decided November 19, 2019
Before Judges Accurso and Rose.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey,
Law Division, Bergen County, Municipal Appeal No.
Steven H. Schefers, attorney for appellant.
Mark Musella, Bergen County Prosecutor, attorney for
respondent (Jaimee M. Chasmer, Assistant Prosecutor,
of counsel and on the brief).
Following the denial of his motion to dismiss the charge, defendant
Andrew Fleming entered a conditional guilty plea to driving while intoxicated
(DWI), N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, in the Mahwah Municipal Court and was sentenced
as a second-time offender. Following its de novo review on the motion record,
the Law Division found probable cause for defendant's arrest for operating his
car while intoxicated. Defendant appeals raising a single issue:
THE STATE FAILED TO [ELICIT] SUFFICIENT
TESTIMONY TO MEET THE REQUIRED BURDEN
OF PROOF IN REGARD TO OPERATION.
We reject defendant's argument and affirm.
At the municipal court hearing on the motion, the arresting officer
testified he found defendant asleep in his car in a gas station in the middle of
a March night. The engine was running, the lights were on, and defendant
was behind the wheel, with the seat reclined. He was alone in the car. The
officer noticed the car because it was parked across several parking stalls.
The windshield was smashed and there was damage to the front end. When
the officer roused defendant, he noted defendant's bloodshot eyes , slurred
speech and several bottles of Budweiser on the front seat, including one
empty bottle in the center console.
Defendant told the officer he drove himself to the gas station. He first
said he'd been there for about an hour, and then said it had been a few hours.
Asked how the car was damaged, the officer testified defendant "said a friend
had hit it with a sign, but he couldn't provide the friend's name or location of
an accident or any other incidents." Suspecting defendant was operating the
car while intoxicated, the officer asked him to perform sobriety tests, which
lead to defendant's arrest.
Defendant's testimony was different. He claimed he couldn't sleep and
was hungry, so he decided to drive to McDonald's a few miles from his house.
When he was about a mile and a half from home, he hit a deer, which smashed
his windshield. He then drove another half mile to the gas station and pulled
in to call his mother to come pick him up. He claimed he parked perpendicular
to the parking stalls, not across them, to make it easier for a tow truck to
access the car. While waiting for his mother, whom he had trouble reaching,
he found a "six pack and a half" of beer "that was left over from a couple of
days beforehand" and drank four bottles.
Asked on cross-examination why he didn't just drive home when he
couldn't reach his mother, defendant responded "Because that's — I, you know,
that's a pretty good distance from me. Not very far, but like . . . A couple more
miles." Defendant had already acknowledged, however, that he'd ascertained
the car was safe to drive to the gas station after he hit the deer, that the car was
"driveable" and that he "didn't think it was a big deal. Just a broken
windshield." He denied telling the officer a friend had hit the car with a sign,
and insisted he told the officer he had hit a deer. When asked why he decided
to drink a few beers while waiting at the gas station, defendant claimed he
"noticed them" when "moving stuff around," and he "guess[ed] to help me
calm — I know it wasn't smart, but to calm down a little bit I guess? I don't
know. Like I said, it wasn't smart, but . . . ."
The municipal court judge determined defendant's story was not
credible, and his actions in driving to the gas station after he allegedly hit the
deer instead of returning home or calling the police didn't make sense. The
judge concluded defendant "didn't have his wits about him" when he pulled
into the gas station across several parking stalls and proceeded to fall asleep
with the engine running and the lights on "because he at some point in time
had . . . consumed some alcohol before he got to the [gas station]."
On de novo review in the Law Division, the judge agreed that "[t]he
state of . . . defendant's car, the signs of intoxication observed by [the officer],
and the conflicting stories by . . . [defendant] are enough to show operation"
by circumstantial evidence, see State v. Ebert, 377 N.J. Super. 1, 10-11 (App.
Div. 2005), giving due regard to the municipal court's credibility findings, see
State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 157 (1964). The judge accordingly entered an
order denying defendant's motion to dismiss the DWI charge.1
Defendant argues on appeal that the State's evidence on operation failed
to satisfy its "burden of proof on this issue . . . beyond a reasonable doubt."
The State, however, was never put to the burden of establishing operation
beyond a reasonable doubt because defendant entered a conditional guilty plea
following the denial of his motion to dismiss the charge. The State's only
burden on the motion was to establish the officer had probable cause to arrest
defendant for operating his car while intoxicated. See State v. Moore, 181 N.J.
40, 45-46 (2004). Because we are satisfied the totality of the circumstances
amply supports the officer's probable cause to believe defendant was in actual
control of the car while under the influence of alcohol, as found by both the
The judge's order states the denial is "affirmed." That, of course, is
incorrect. A trial de novo in the Law Division based on the record in the
municipal court is not an appellate proceeding. "[T]he Superior Court judge
does not affirm or reverse what occurred in the municipal court. Rather, the
Superior Court judge reviews the transcript and makes an independent
determination of the sufficiency of the evidence presented, giving appropriate
deference to any credibility assessments that the municipal court judge may
have made." State v. Kashi, 360 N.J. Super. 538, 545 (App. Div. 2003), aff'd
o.b., 180 N.J. 45 (2004).
municipal court and the Law Division, see State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 474
(1999), we affirm the denial of his motion to dismiss the charge.