On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hunterdon County.
King, Baime, and Keefe. The opinion of the court was delivered by Keefe, J.A.D.
Defendant Michele Walten was found guilty after a trial de novo in the Law Division of leaving the scene of an accident in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-129(a). She was fined $200, ordered to pay court costs of $25 and her driver's license was revoked for a period of six months. The license revocation was stayed pending this appeal.
The issues presented on appeal are: (1) whether the statutory presumption created in N.J.S.A. 39:4-129(e) is constitutionally
required to be construed so as to permit only an inference of knowledge to be drawn, rather than a presumption of knowledge; (2) whether the statutory presumption in this case was improperly used to shift the burden of proof to the defendant; (3) whether there was insufficient evidence of injury in any event to invoke either the inference or presumption permitted by the statute. For reasons to be stated more fully herein, we reverse the judgment of conviction and remand the matter for a new trial.
The State's case was based upon the testimony of the victim, Jennifer DiTrolio, and her two friends who witnessed the accident. The State maintained that on August 14, 1988, at approximately 1:30 a.m., DiTrolio was struck by defendant's automobile as it was backing out of a parking space at a restaurant in Raritan Township. Defendant's license plate number was obtained by one of the witnesses and reported to the police. The witnesses testified that they yelled to the driver of the vehicle to stop after striking DiTrolio but that the vehicle drove off rather quickly. One witness testified that the defendant made brief eye contact with the witness when the witness screamed loudly in her direction.
Defendant testified that she was unaware of the fact that she had struck anyone and claimed that she was playing her cassette player loudly as an explanation for not hearing anyone shout at her. She testified that she was unaware of the incident until she received the summons in question over two months from the date of the incident.
The pertinent provisions of N.J.S.A. 39:4-129 under which the defendant was charged are as follows:
(a) The driver of any vehicle, knowingly involved in an accident resulting in injury or death to any person shall immediately stop the vehicle at the scene of the accident or as close thereto as possible but shall then forthwith return to and in every event shall remain at the scene until he has fulfilled the requirements of subsection (c) of this section.
(e) The driver of any motor vehicle involved in an accident resulting in injury or death to any person or damage in the amount of $250.00 or more to any vehicle or property shall be presumed to have knowledge that he was involved in such accident, and such presumption shall be rebuttable in nature.
It is true that a motor vehicle charge is quasi-criminal in nature and not an "offense" under the Code of Criminal Justice. State v. Hammond, 118 N.J. 306, 571 A.2d 942 (1990). Because of its hybrid nature, certain constitutional rights apply to defendants charged with such offenses while others do not. See, e.g., Rodriguez v. Rosenblatt, 58 N.J. 281, 293-94, 277 A.2d 216 (1971). It is not necessary to list which rights do and do not apply here. Suffice it to say that defendants charged with motor vehicle offenses are accorded the basic right of presumed innocence which imposes on the State the corollary obligation to prove a defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Feintuch, 150 N.J. Super. 414, 422, 375 A.2d 1223 (App.Div.1977), app. dism. 75 N.J. 606, 384 A.2d 836 (1978). In that important respect a motor vehicle offense is the same as a criminal offense. Therefore, because the improper application of statutory presumptions can impact on such a ...