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State v. Figueroa

Decided: August 28, 1986.


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County.

Fritz, Brody and Baime. The opinion of the court was delivered by Fritz, P.J.A.D.


Defendant was convicted of the crime of death by auto (N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5). He asserts on this appeal that the results of a chemical test of his blood sample were improperly admitted in evidence because of a violation of the physician-patient privilege and because there was insufficient proof of the scientific acceptability of the equipment utilized in the testing. He argues as well that the "blood-alcohol test results at the hospital" were too remote to have been admissible and that the trial judge erred in charging the "statutory criteria of the drunk-driving statute." He urges that admission into evidence of statements of the "brain-injured accused" taken at the hospital should have been excluded and that the charge was inadequate and erroneous. Only the physician-patient issue causes us concern. It is on account of this concern, and the influence on the matter by State v. Dyal, 97 N.J. 229 (1984), that we are remanding for further proceedings.

We turn first to the physician-patient issue and preliminarily discuss the contention of the State that the privilege does not

apply because of the interaction between N.J.S.A. 2A:84A-22.5 and N.J.S.A. 26:2B-24. The former of these expressly denies the privilege "as to information which the physician or the patient is required to report to a public official or as to information required to be recorded in a public office," except in a situation not here apposite. The latter, in a Chapter of the statutory law establishing a Division of Alcoholism (Division) and aiming, in part at least, at the formulation of a "comprehensive State plan for the treatment of intoxicated persons and alcoholics" (N.J.S.A. 26:2B-11), requires that the Division

shall, in cooperation with the State, municipal and local police, and the Division of Motor Vehicles, conduct tests for alcohol in the bodies of automobile drivers and pedestrians who die as a result of and within 4 hours of a traffic accident, and in automobile drivers who survive traffic accidents fatal to others.

This issue was not raised in Dyal, perhaps because, as we are persuaded, it would have been unavailing. N.J.S.A. 26:2B-24 appears in a lengthy, multi-section chapter which is entitled "Rehabilitation of Alcoholics, Etc." Since not only acts in pari materia but also related acts not strictly in pari materia should be examined to ascertain the legislative meaning, the section in question must be read in context with the balance of the legislation. Brewer v. Porch, 53 N.J. 167, 174 (1969). "[T]he words of a statute must not be considered to exist in a vacuum, without reference to relevant policy considerations as they are expressed in the whole act, or without regard for the words of [the] balance of the statute." In re Boardwalk Regency Casino License Application, 180 N.J. Super. 324, 346 (App.Div.1981), mod. o.g. and aff'd 90 N.J. 361 (1982), appeal dism. sub. nom. Perlman v. Attorney General of New Jersey, 459 U.S. 1081, 103 S. Ct. 565, 74 L. Ed. 2d 927 (1982).

Thus considered, N.J.S.A. 26:2B-24 is obviously only to assure the integrity of the data collection process and to forward the goals of the study of alcoholism. It is not of a kind to which the public policy goals of the physician-patient privilege should defer. See State v. Dyal, supra. We are satisfied that N.J.S.A. 2A:84A-22.5 is intended to remove obstacles which

might stand in the way of, for instance, investigating probable criminal activity (N.J.S.A. 2C:58-8), preventing the spread of communicable disease (N.J.S.A. 26:4-15 and see N.J.S.A. 26:4-41), preventing in advance or reducing the number of preventable motor vehicle accidents (N.J.S.A. 39:3-10.4) or preventing the continuing course of child abuse (N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10; and see Kaszerman v. Manshel, 176 N.J. Super. 132 (App.Div.1980)), rather than to enhance a subsequent prosecution of any miscreants therein involved.

We consider next the State v. Dyal physician-patient privilege problem which is obviously present here and which defendant argues. The matter before us is remarkably similar to Dyal. Its fundamental differences are that in this case defendant was unconscious when taken to the hospital and could not, therefore, give the consent which appears in Dyal. Unfortunately, although Dyal had been argued in the Supreme Court when this case was tried, it had not yet been decided. The trial judge in commendable fashion relied on the unreported Appellate Division opinion in Dyal and on the restrictive application of the privilege statute in State, In the Interest of M.P.C., 165 N.J. Super. 131 (App.Div.1979). In a decision for which we lay no fault at his feet in light of the opinions on which he then relied, he determined that the physician-patient privilege "would give way to [the] superior interest" of the declared strong public policy against drunken driving. Days after the decision to admit the record of the blood tests was made at the trial of the matter before us, the opinion in Dyal was delivered.

Dyal dissects, examines, diagnoses and prescribes respecting the tension existing between the competing policies dealing with the drunken driver on one hand and the physician-patient privilege on the other. We have the benefit of this analysis; the trial judge did not. Without it, he accepted a stipulation of the parties detailing the events as they were thought to be relevant toward solution of the issue. Basically this stipulation was little ...

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