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State v. One Ford Van

Decided: November 17, 1977.


Matthews, Crane and Antell. The opinion of the court was delivered by Antell, J.A.D.


[154 NJSuper Page 329] Appellant is the registered owner of a motor vehicle adjudged forfeited to the State of New Jersey pursuant to N.J.S.A. 24:21-35 b(4). The trial judge found that it had been used for the transportation of marijuana, a controlled dangerous substance, and the material facts are recited in its written opinion reported at 143 N.J. Super. 512 (Law Div. 1976). Briefly, appellant gave unrestricted use of the vehicle to his son who, in turn, lent it to Mark Stenerson, knowing that it would be used for the illicit purpose. Finding that Kurth, Jr., and not Kurth, Sr., who "[u]nquestionably" did not know of the transaction, was the "true owner" of the car, the judge concluded that

the case did not come within the exception from forfeiture provided for "the owner" of the vehicle who establishes that he had no knowledge of the transaction. N.J.S.A. 24:21-35(b)(4)(b).

On this appeal the questions presented are: (1) who was the owner of the vehicle within the meaning of the statute? If Kurth, Sr. was the owner, (2) does his lack of knowledge bring the case within the exception? If the case does not fall within the exception (3) is the judgment of forfeiture nevertheless subject to attack on due process grounds arising from the 14-month delay between seizure of the vehicle and institution of the forfeiture proceeding?

As the trial judge correctly observed, the Legislature obviously intended the sanction of forfeiture as a means of deterring the traffic in illicit drugs. But it clearly manifested its belief that forfeiture of a vehicle would not serve the statutory policy where the owner thereof was of innocent knowledge. It did so by excepting such vehicles in specified cases explained infra. When called upon to specify what the Legislature intended by "owner" the trial judge drew heavily on the assumption that by defining the term conducively to forfeiture it would be fulfilling its primary duty of effectuating the underlying statutory policy. As he wrote at page 517 of his opinion:

N.J.S.A. 24:21-35b(4)(b) is but a section of the New Jersey Controlled Dangerous Substance Act adopted by L. 1970, c. 226, and must to the greatest extent possible be given consideration and effect sensitive to the spirit of the legislative direction and thus we must not blindly follow the literal sense of the terms. State v. Davis , 68 N.J. 69 (1975).

To accept and apply the limited and technical definition of the word "owner" and hold it to be restricted to the registered title owner would be an open subversion of the legislative intent. The eradication of drug traffic and its promiscuous use is a matter of grave concern to society in general, and to our courts and Legislature in particular. That is the obvious, reasonable and clear intent and purpose of the New Jersey Controlled Dangerous Substance Act.

The conclusion reached below was evidently induced by the belief that "eradication of drug traffic and its promiscuous

use" as a legislative goal was a proper factor to be weighed in ascertaining who the "owner" was. In fact, the two are unrelated. As we noted, the Legislature determined that forfeiture of an innocent owner's vehicle would not serve the purposes of the New Jersey Controlled Dangerous Substance Act. Yet the judge's inquiry was largely governed by the aim of fostering that very policy which the lawmakers said should not apply to an innocent "owner." He first decided which of the two Kurths had guilty knowledge, and then concluded that given its choice the Legislature would want that person found to be the owner.

Would the result here have been the same if it were Kurth Sr. and not Kurth Jr. who had guilty knowledge? Apparently not. The judge found Kurth Jr. to be the owner because appellant had released "the benefits of ownership" to his son, including "custody," "use" and "control." But resting upon the uncontradicted facts that appellant paid for the vehicle, retained title in his name, purchased insurance on the car in his name as owner, paid for repairs, paid for gas and oil in the form of an allowance to his son, and taking into account the lack of any understanding between father and son that the latter would be the owner, the judge could just as plausibly have found appellant to be the owner. The Legislature did not intend the courts to have such broad license to grant or withhold relief from forfeiture in this conveniently opaque situation.

While it is true that forfeiture statutes, like all statutes, must be fairly and reasonably construed, it should be remembered that generally forfeitures are not favored in the law, particularly where the Legislature has provided appropriate exceptions from the scope of the forfeiture provision.

Statutes designed to relieve from the rigors of forfeiture are looked on warmly and construed liberally, so as to afford the maximum relief, and where a liberal construction of a statute will avoid the imposition of a forfeiture it will be so construed. On the other ...

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