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State v. Churchdale Leasing Inc.

Decided: April 10, 1989.


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported For affirmance and remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pollock, J. Handler J., concurring. Handler, J., concurs in the result.


[115 NJ Page 86] These appeals raise the question whether a commercial motor vehicle registered in New Jersey pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:3-20 (Section 20)*fn1 violates that statute if it is registered at the [115 NJ Page 89] maximum authorized registration weight and its gross weight exceeds this maximum. More specifically, the question in State v. Churchdale Leasing, Inc. and A.C. Enterprises is whether a commercial vehicle registered for 80,000 pounds, the maximum possible weight under Section 20, violates the statute if it is operated on the highways of this State at a weight in excess of the maximum registered weight. The question in State v. OJO Trucking Corp. and Yardville Supply Co. is whether a vehicle registered pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:3-20b (Section 20b) as a "constructor" vehicle for 70,000 pounds, the maximum authorized registration weight for such a vehicle, violates Section 20 if it is operated in excess of that maximum weight on the highways of this State. The Churchdale appeal also requires us to decide whether the owner of a commercial vehicle registered for 80,000 pounds but operated in excess of that weight may be punished in a single trial for both a registration violation under Section 20 and an excess weight violation under N.J.S.A. 39:3-84b (Section 84b).*fn2

We hold that even when a commercial motor vehicle is registered for the maximum weight,*fn3 if the weight of the vehicle exceeds the gross weight provided on the registration certificate, the vehicle is in violation of Section 20. We further hold, however, that the State may not impose cumulative punishment for both a registration violation under Section 20e and an excess-weight violation under Section 84b.


The facts in both cases are undisputed. From June 12, 1985, through November 15, 1985, the state police issued sixty summonses to Churchdale Leasing (Churchdale) and A.C. Enterprises (A.C.) for registration-certificate and excess-weight violations for tractor-trailer combinations used to haul solid waste. Churchdale and A.C. do not claim that their vehicles were registered as "solid waste" vehicles under N.J.S.A. 39:3-20c, and the exemptions for that type of vehicle under N.J.S.A. 39:3-84.1a*fn4 do not apply. The parties have stipulated that

defendants' vehicles were registered for the 80,000-pound maximum weight allowed by Section 20 and that the operating weights as alleged by the state police were accurate. Twenty-nine of the summonses allege violations of Section 20 for operating a vehicle in excess of the gross weight provided on the registration certificate. The other thirty-one summonses alleged violations of Section 84b, including eighteen summonses for exceeding a tandem-axle weight of 34,000 pounds, contrary to Section 84b(2), and thirteen summonses for exceeding a gross-vehicle weight of 80,000 pounds, contrary to Section 84b(4). Axle- and gross-weight violations constitute separate offenses, the penalty for which "shall be only for the violation involving the greater or greatest excess weight." N.J.S.A. 39:3-84.3k.

Of the sixty summonses, seventeen were prosecuted in the Pennsauken Township Municipal Court. Eight of these summonses charged Churchdale and A.C. with violations of Section 20, and nine other summonses charged them with violations of Section 84b. In all but one instance, two summonses were issued each time a vehicle was stopped, with one summons alleging a violation of Section 20 and the other alleging a

violation of Section 84b. In one instance, a single summons was issued, charging a violation of Section 84b(2).

Defendants pled guilty to the excess-weight violations under Section 84b, which carry fines ranging from $72.80 to $351.60 per violation, but not guilty to the registration violations under Section 20, the fines for which range from $800 to $2,200 per violation. Churchdale and A.C. were subsequently convicted by the Municipal Court on the Section 20 violations. On an appeal de novo to the Superior Court, Law Division, Camden County, they were again convicted of all charges, and the court imposed fines ranging from $800 to $2,200 for the violations of Section 20.

The remaining forty-three complaints against Churchdale and A.C. were prosecuted in the Lumberton Township Municipal Court. Twenty-one of those complaints charged violations of Section 20, and the other twenty-one charged violations of Section 84b. As in the Pennsauken cases, defendants pled guilty to the charges under Section 84b, but not guilty to the charges under Section 20. Subsequently, however, they were convicted on all charges. On an appeal de novo to the Superior Court, Law Division, Burlington County, they were again found guilty of all charges of Section 20, and fines from $628 to $2,360 were imposed. The Appellate Division affirmed the convictions under Section 20 "without prejudice to the State moving in the Superior Court, Law Division, Burlington County, to correct the fines entered in that court." 217 N.J. Super. 307, 313 (1987).

Turning to the appeal of OJO Trucking Corporation (OJO) and Yardville Supply Company (Yardville), on October 8, 1984, a concrete truck registered to Yardville as a constructor vehicle weighing 70,000 pounds was operated at a weight of 75,700 pounds in Cranbury Township. Also in Cranbury Township, on January 3, 1985, two of OJO's dump trucks, which were registered at 70,000 pounds, were operated at gross-vehicle weights of 73,000 and 73,640 pounds. State police filed complaints

charging Yardville and OJO with violations of Section 20 only.

On the premise that they registered at the maximum allowable weight for constructor vehicles under Section 20b, defendants contend that they cannot be liable under that section. The municipal court disagreed, and defendants were convicted of the three registration violations. After a trial de novo on the record, the Law Division found defendants had not violated Section 20 and therefore dismissed the complaints. On the State's appeal, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded the matter to the Law Division for the entry of judgments finding defendants guilty and reimposing the fines. 217 N.J. Super. at 313.

We granted defendants' petitions for certification, 109 N.J. 44 (1987), and now affirm in part and reverse in part the judgment of the Appellate Division. More specifically, we affirm the judgments of conviction against OJO, Yardville, Churchdale, and AC. We remand the Churchdale and AC matter to the Law Division for resentencing.


Section 20, which applies to the registration of commercial vehicles, permits the owner to select the authorized gross weight for its vehicle within the statutory limits. A commercial motor vehicle may be registered pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:3-20a (Section 20a) for a maximum gross weight, including load, of 80,000 pounds. Furthermore, a vehicle may be registered pursuant to Section 20b as a "constructor" vehicle for a maximum gross weight, including load, of 70,000 pounds. Section 20 imposes a graduated fee based on the registered gross weight: the heavier the vehicle, the higher the fee. Registration fees for ordinary commercial motor vehicles registered under Section 20a range from $53.50 for a vehicle under 5,000 pounds to $841 for a vehicle registered at the maximum allowable weight of 80,000 pounds. Registration fees for constructor vehicles

under Section 20b range from $780 for a 40,000 pound vehicle to $1,365 for a vehicle registered at the maximum allowable weight of 70,000 pounds. Registering a truck as a constructor vehicle, therefore, subjects the owner of the vehicle to higher registration fees and reduced allowable weight, but, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:3-84.1, exempts the vehicle from the axle-weight limitations imposed by Section 84b. Section 20e declares unlawful and sets forth fines for the operation of a vehicle in excess of its registered weight. Here, in every instance in which defendants are charged with a violation, their vehicles were operated at a gross weight "in excess of the gross weight provided on the registration certificate." N.J.S.A. 39:3-20c.

Notwithstanding the plain language of the statute, defendants argue that the Legislature intended Section 20 to be a revenue-raising statute designed to discourage owners from depriving the State of registration fees by "underregistering" their vehicles. Defendants assert that they registered their vehicles at the maximum allowable weight, and therefore paid the highest registration fees. Their argument continues that because they have not underregistered their vehicles, they have not deprived the State of revenue. Defendants conclude that they may be penalized only for excess-weight violations under the "overweight" statute, Section 84b and Section 84.1, not for underregistration under Section 20.

Section 84 regulates the size and weight of all vehicles, not just those vehicles registered in New Jersey, that travel on the State's highways. Section 84b addresses permissible height, length, and width dimensions, and establishes maximum allowable weights for single axles, N.J.S.A. 39:3-84b(1) and (3); tandem axles, N.J.S.A. 39:3-84b(2); and combinations of axles, N.J.S.A. 39:3-84b(5). Furthermore, N.J.S.A. 39:3-84b(4) sets a maximum gross-weight limitation of 80,000 pounds, which is the maximum weight allowable for New Jersey to remain eligible for federal highway funds. See 23 U.S.C. ยง 127. Section 84.1 provides that vehicles registered as constructor vehicles "shall be limited to a maximum gross vehicle weight, including load or

contents, as shown on the registration certificate of that vehicle."

Violations of Sections 84b and 84.1 are deemed "excess weight violations" and are subject to mandatory fines pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:3-84.3j.*fn5

The essence of defendants' argument is that Sections 84 and 20 serve mutually exclusive purposes. They correctly assert that Section 84b is an excess weight provision, and that the purpose of penalties imposed under Section 84.3 is to deter damage to the highways. See, e.g., State v. Genesis Leasing Corp., 197 N.J. Super. 284, 293 (App.Div.1984); State v. E.H. Miller Transp. Co., Inc., 74 N.J. Super. 474, 479 (App.Div.), certif. den., 38 N.J. 306 (1962); State v. Gratale Bros., Inc., 26 N.J. Super. 581, 584 (App.Div.1953). In contrast, the purpose of Section 20, so defendants argue, is to raise revenue, a result that the statute achieves by penalizing underregistration. In sum, defendants contend that the Legislature intended that Sections 20 and 84 address separate needs and that the penalty provisions of each section should be used to prevent subverting the goals of that statute only.

The Appellate Division accepted the premise that Section 20 is largely a revenue-raising statute, but rejected defendants' contention that Section 20 was designed solely to discourage underregistration, stating:

It is clear that defendants have focused their argument on the assumption that the court should view N.J.S.A. 39:3-20 on a single vehicle basis meaning that the Legislature intended only to discourage underregistration of individual vehicles. But we see no basis for that conclusion. Obviously, fining a vehicle operator for violating an 80,000 pound registration certificate will encourage him to acquire additional vehicles and thus pay additional registration fees. Accordingly, by applying N.J.S.A. 39:3-20(e) the way it is written, we further the Legislature's purpose of raising revenue from truck registrations. [217 N.J. Super. at 312.]

Our review of the statutory history of Sections 20 and 84 does not reveal support for the Appellate Division's conclusion that Section 20 was designed in part to encourage vehicle operators to purchase more trucks. We find, however, that the Legislature intended owners of vehicles that operated at a weight "in excess of the gross weight provided on the registration certificate" to be subject to a penalty under Section 20e, even if the vehicle was registered at the maximum weight allowable. Our conclusion is founded on the statutes' language, structure, and history.

Without setting forth the entire history of Sections 20 and 84, it suffices to note that until 1983 the penalty for violating Section 20 was contained in Section 84.3 along with the penalties for gross- and axle-weight violations. In 1966, the Legislature amended Section 84.3 to provide that when the operating weight of a vehicle exceeded more than one weight limitation -- registered-weight, gross-weight, or axle-weight -- the penalty assessed, as distinguished from the offenses charged, was to be based on the violation involving the greater weight or the greater excess weight. L. 1966, c. 209. Conceivably, the Legislature anticipated that the operation of a vehicle could simultaneously violate more than one weight provision and that the State would issue a summons for each violation. Nonetheless, the Legislature determined that the owner would be punished only for the most costly violation.

Defendants argue that the statutory history supports their claim that Section 20e is a revenue statute and that the purpose of the penalties under Section 20e is to discourage depriving the State of revenue through underregistration. They find confirmation

of their argument in the 1984 amendments to N.J.S.A. 39:3-20, which increased registration fees for all weight categories and raised the penalty under Section 20e for operating a vehicle with a weight in excess of that provided on its registration certificate to $500 plus $100 for each 1,000 pounds of excess weight.

To buttress their contention that Section 20 is designed to prevent only underregistration, defendants point to Attorney General's Formal Opinion No. 11-1979 (May 14, 1979). In that opinion, the Attorney General stated that Section 84.3 -- which at that time contained the penalty provision for a violation of Section 20 -- is "the enforcement arm of a revenue measure (N.J.S.A. 39:3-20) the purpose of which is to compel voluntary payment of the correct registration fee to the State of New Jersey by the owners of trucks registered in this State." The opinion, however, was issued in the context of a request whether the penalties for operating a vehicle in excess of the weight provided on the vehicle's registration certificate would apply to vehicles registered out-of-state. Because the fines were designed to prevent the deprivation of revenue to New Jersey, and foreign registered trucks owed nothing to New Jersey for registration, the Attorney General concluded that the penalties for a registration violation were not intended to apply to foreign registered trucks. The opinion does not address the issue before us: whether the Legislature intended that a vehicle registered in New Jersey for the maximum weight allowable may be fined under Section 20e if the vehicle is operated in excess of the registered weight.

The defendants also rely on statements made at a public hearing before the Senate Transportation Communications Committee regarding the 1984 amendments to Section 20e. Specifically, they point to the following statement made by John P. Sheridan, Jr., Commissioner of the Department of Transportation:

I think if I understand what Mr. Nutt [the Director of the Financial Management Unit of the New Jersey Department of Transportation] is saying, the

penalties [in the 1984 amendments to N.J.S.A. 39:3-20e] were set up to make it clear that it was going to be a disincentive if you were going to purposely register a truck at a weight below what you would be carrying. [Public Hearing before Senate Transportation and Communications Committee on Senate Bill 1446 (New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund Authority Act of 1984, at 50) (Public Hearing).]

Later in his testimony, however, Commissioner Sheridan stated:

I think the general philosophy of the penalty provision [in N.J.S.A. 39:3-20e] is that we do not want overweight trucks on our roads. What you have to discourage through the use of the penalty is carrying overweight where the penalty is so low that it is worth it for truckers to carry the extra weight and pay the penalty. We don't want that. We want to make sure these vehicles are not overweight, and the way to discourage that is by imposing appropriate penalties which will discourage that practice. [ Id. at 51.]

Further, in explaining why the $30 million increase for the highway trust fund should be derived from heavy truck registration fees, Commissioner Sheridan testified:

The explanation for that is simple. The heavier the truck, the greater the damage it does to highways and bridges.

That realization, based on extensive studies and research, was the basis for the Federal Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, enacted by the Congress of the United States.

And, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has released its own report which I believe each member of this Committee has received. That report states that one 80,000 pound heavy truck does the same amount of damage to bridges and highways as 9,600 cars. [ Id. at 37-38.]

This testimony supports the State's contention that Section 20e was designed to recoup not merely revenues that would have been received if the vehicle had been properly registered, but also, as here, revenue that might have been saved had trucks not been operated on the highways in excess of the weight provided on their registration certificates. As the State points out, Section 20, which applies only to those motor vehicles and operators who are subject to the State's registration requirements, is consistent with the premise that trucks registered in New Jersey use the State's roadways more than foreign trucks, and therefore should contribute more to the maintenance of State roads.

We conclude that Sections 20 and 84 should be read as part of a comprehensive legislative scheme for regulating overweight motor vehicles. In adopting both sections, the Legislature was concerned with protecting the State's highways from damage. By imposing the Section 20e penalties on owners of vehicles registered in New Jersey who operate their vehicles above the registered weight, whether or not at the statutory maximum weight, the legislative scheme spreads the costs of maintaining the road system among those vehicles that presumably use the roads the most. So viewed, the system of graduated registration fees based on registered weight requires merely that heavier trucks pay their fair share of highway maintenance. Otherwise, as Commissioner Sheridan observed in testifying in support of increasing the fines under Section 20 for overweight vehicles registered in New Jersey, "the heaviest trucks are not paying appropriate amounts for the damage they are causing to our highways." Public Hearing, supra, at 49. A fine under Section 20 for operating a truck in excess of its registered weight assures not only that the owner pays the appropriate registration fee, but also that the owner contributes its fair share to the damage to the State's road system.

In sum, the Legislature designed a scheme to protect the State's road system from overweight vehicles whether the vehicles are registered in New Jersey or are registered elsewhere and merely operated in this state. That conclusion is buttressed by the last sentence of Section 20, which provides that the section does not "supersede or repeal" Section 84. Thus, Section 20 recognizes that it is a separate statute apart from Section 84 and that an owner's operation of a vehicle above the maximum registered weight violates both Sections 84 and 20. By operating vehicles in excess of their registered weight, even though the vehicles were registered at the statutory maximum, defendants violated Section 20.

As to OJO and Yardville, the case for sustaining both violations is even stronger. They elected to register their vehicles as "constructor" vehicles under N.J.S.A. 39:3-20b, thereby obtaining

exemption from axle-weight limitations set forth in N.J.S.A. 39:3-84b. In exchange for the exemption from the axle-weight limitation, the statute reduces the maximum registration weight of a constructor vehicle to 70,000 pounds. Owners who operate their vehicles over the 70,000-pound limitation, but below the 80,000-pound gross-weight limitation, would escape paying for their fair ...

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