NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE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-4853-17T4
STATE OF NEW JERSEY,
ROBERT A. WATSON, a/k/a
BOB WATSON, MICHAEL
WILLIAMS, and MICHAEL
Argued March 4, 2020 – Decided June 29, 2020
Before Judges Alvarez and Suter.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law
Division, Cumberland County, Indictment No. 17-01-
Stefan Van Jura, Assistant Deputy Public Defender,
argued the cause for appellant (Joseph E. Krakora,
Public Defender, attorney; Stefan Van Jura, of counsel
and on the brief).
Andre R. Araujo, Assistant Prosecutor, argued the
cause for respondent (Jennifer Webb-McRae,
Cumberland County Prosecutor, attorney; Andre R.
Araujo, of counsel and on the brief).
In 2017, defendant Robert A. Watson was convicted by a jury of third-
degree receiving stolen property (count three), N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7(a), and second-
degree eluding (count five), N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2(b).1 Defendant was sentenced to
an aggregate term of nine years in prison and ordered to pay $1000 in restitution.
He appeals the January 2, 2018 judgment of conviction. We remand the
restitution portion of the sentence for the trial court to make findings regarding
defendant's ability to pay. We affirm the other portions of the judgment of
The following circumstances are drawn from the trial record. On
September 1, 2016, the victim, K.D., reported to the police that her red Hyundai
Elantra was stolen from her boyfriend's house in Millville, and that her two debit
cards were missing. One card already was used for a purchase. Photographs
He was acquitted of three other charges, including another "eluding" offense.
from the store's surveillance system showed a person using one of the cards and
leaving in a vehicle similar to K.D.'s.
About three weeks later, a Millville Police Department patrolman spotted
the stolen Hyundai after an alert from his patrol vehicle's license plate reader.
He activated the overhead lights, and the Hyundai began to slow down and pull
over to the shoulder. Before fully stopping, "[a]ll of a sudden," the Hyundai
rapidly drove away toward Bridgeton. A short time later, Bridgeton Police
Department patrol officer Christopher Zanni saw the car at an intersection and
followed it. After activating the patrol vehicle lights and siren, the Hyundai
eventually pulled over. Because the car was reported stolen, Officer Zanni and
his partner approached it with their weapons drawn, ordering the driver to turn
off the car. Instead, the driver "revved the engine . . . [a]nd then he took off"
going "roughly, [sixty] miles an hour" and was driving "all over the road." The
police chased the Hyundai, which pulled over in a residential neighborhood, and
defendant was arrested. He also was issued traffic summonses, including one
for reckless driving, N.J.S.A. 39:4-96.
On appeal, defendant argues:
DEFENDANT WAS DENIED DUE PROCESS AND
A FAIR TRIAL BY TWO ERRORS IN THE
PORTION OF THE ELUDING CHARGE THAT
ALLOWED THE JURY TO DRAW AN INFERENCE
FROM AN ALLEGED MOTOR VEHICLE
VIOLATION THAT THE ELUDING CREATED A
RISK OF DEATH OR INJURY. U.S. CONST.
AMENDS. V AND XIV; N.J. CONST., ART. I, PARS.
1, 9, & 10.
PROSECUTORIAL ERROR IN SUMMATION
FURTHER EXACERBATED THE
INSTRUCTIONAL ERROR IN THE ELUDING JURY
THE MATTER MUST BE REMANDED FOR AN
INQUIRY INTO DEFENDANT’S ABILITY TO PAY
Defendant was convicted of second-degree eluding. He argues when the
court read the statutory definition of reckless driving, it did not provide the jury
with sufficient guidance to determine if defendant had the requisite intent to
commit the eluding offense. He further contends the court should have
instructed the jury to disregard the "risk of death or injury to any person"
element, if they determined defendant's violation of the reckless driving statute
involved a risk of damage to property only, and not injury to a person.
We review the issues raised to determine whether they were "clearly
capable of producing an unjust result." R. 2:10-2. "[A]ppropriate and proper
[jury] charges are essential for a fair trial." State v. Baum, 224 N.J. 147, 158-
59 (2016) (quoting State v. Reddish, 181 N.J. 553, 613 (2004)). Where no
objection is made to a jury instruction, and in this case where the charge was
approved by all counsel, "a presumption [is created] that the charge was not
error and was unlikely to prejudice the defendant's case." State v. Singleton,
211 N.J. 157, 182 (2012). (5T3 to 4).
Under N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2(b),
[a]ny person, while operating a motor vehicle on any
street or highway in this State . . . , who knowingly flees
or attempts to elude any police or law enforcement
officer after having received any signal from such
officer to bring the vehicle . . . to a full stop commits a
crime of the third degree . . . .
This offense becomes a second-degree offense "if the flight or attempt to elude
creates a risk of death or injury to any person." Ibid. Under the statute, "there
shall be a permissive inference that the flight or attempt to elude creates a risk
of death or injury to any person if the person's conduct involves a violation of
chapter 4 of Title 39 . . . ." Ibid. Thus, the State can prove the "risk of death or
injury to any person" element by proving actual risk of death or injury or through
permissive inference by establishing the defendant committed a motor vehicle
offense. See State v. Wallace, 158 N.J. 552, 558 (1999).
The trial court instructed the jury on eluding, in part, as follows:
You may infer risk of death or injury to any person if
the defendant's conduct in fleeing or in attempting to
elude the officer in Bridgeton, New Jersey, involved a
violation of the motor vehicle laws of this State.
It is alleged that the defendant's conduct involved a
violation of the motor vehicle laws. Specifically, it is
alleged that defendant was reckless driving, . . . [i]n
violation of New Jersey vehicle code 39:4-96. A person
who drives a vehicle heedlessly in willful or [wanton]
disregard of the rights or safety of others in a manner
so as to endanger or be likely to endanger a person or
property shall be guilty of reckless driving.
Whether he is guilty or not of that offense will be
determined by an appropriate Court. In other words, it
is not your job to decide whether he is guilty or not
guilty of the motor vehicle offense. However, you may
consider the evidence that he committed a motor
vehicle offense in deciding whether he created a risk of
death or injury.
We are satisfied the trial court's instruction was not "of such a nature as
to have been clearly capable of producing an unjust result." R. 2:10-2; see State
v. Vallejo, 198 N.J. 122, 139-40 (2009) (Rivera-Soto, J., dissenting). The court
relied on the model jury charges, which generally are not considered to be
erroneous. See Mogull v. CB Commercial Real Estate Grp., Inc., 162 N.J. 449,
466 (2000). The court also instructed the jury consistent with precedent.
The court was not required to address the possibility of property damage.
The eluding statute uses the phrase "risk of death or injury to any person ," not
property damage. N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2(b). See Wallace, 158 N.J. at 558 (providing
that property damage cannot satisfy the eluding statute).
In Wallace, the Court held that "the term 'injury' must be defined in a
second-degree eluding charge except where the permissive inference can be
drawn." Id. at 560. Injury in this context is "[b]odily injury" as defined in
N.J.S.A. 2C:11-1(a). Id. at 558. The failure to define injury in Wallace was
harmless error because the "case was tried on the theory that because defendant
violated our traffic laws, his eluding created a rebuttable inference that the flight
or attempt to elude posed a risk of death or injury to any person within the
meaning of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2b." Ibid.
Here, the "risk of death or injury" element was tried under the permissive
inference portion of the statute based on the reckless driving motor vehicle
charge. The court instructed the jury on the statutory definition of reckless
driving. The court also defined "injury" for the jury consistent with N.J.S.A.
2C:11-1(a), although not required by Wallace to do so when proceeding under
the permissible inference portion.
In State v. Dixon, we held that the court must instruct the jury on the
elements of the motor vehicle offense if the permissive inference is used. 346 N.J. Super. 126, 138 (App. Div. 2001). This was satisfied in this case because
the court read the definition of reckless driving to the jury. The jury acquitted
defendant of the eluding charge stemming from the attempted stop in Millville,
indicating its ability to analyze the elements of the offense and understand its
terms. That it made a distinction between the incident in Millville and the one
in Bridgeton showed it had sufficient guidance to determine when the statute
was satisfied and when it was not.
Defendant contends the prosecutor's closing argument "further
exacerbated" the problems with the eluding instructions. He argues the
prosecutor attempted to "denigrate" defendant's defense, which was that he did
not knowingly flee from the police, but drove a short distance to another area
because he feared the police, who had their guns drawn.
The prosecutor is allowed wide latitude in summation, provided the
argument is confined to the evidence in the trial and "reasonable inferences to
be drawn from that evidence." State v. Smith, 167 N.J. 158, 178 (2001); see
State v. R.B., 183 N.J. 308, 330 (2005). In this case, the prosecutor's remarks
addressed defendant's argument that he did not knowingly flee from the police.
Officer Zanni testified that because a stolen car was involved, this was a high
risk stop where the police typically would draw their weapons. The prosecutor
argued the court's jury instruction would not include the type of defense being
proffered. This was fair comment by the prosecutor to the defense arguments.
We are satisfied the prosecutor's comments do not require reversal.
Defendant was ordered to pay K.D. $1000 for damage to her vehicle. The
State concedes, and we agree, the case should be remanded for the trial court to
make findings about defendant's ability to pay restitution. See N.J.S.A. 2C:44-
2(c)(2); State v. Newman, 132 N.J. 159, 175 (1993).
Affirmed in part, and remanded in part for a hearing on restitution. We
do not retain jurisdiction.