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State v. Bernhardt

Decided: January 10, 1991.


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

J.h. Coleman, Dreier and Ashbey. The opinion of the court was delivered by J.h. Coleman, P.J.A.D.


[245 NJSuper Page 212] This appeal requires us to decide whether a defendant who refuses to submit to a breathalyzer test must be permitted to "cure" the refusal within a reasonable period. We hold that a "cure" need not be permitted.

The controlling facts are not complicated. On January 21, 1989, at approximately 2:07 a.m., New Jersey State Trooper John Daly observed defendant drive his automobile on the shoulder of the roadway on four or more occasions. When defendant was stopped and asked for his driver's license, registration and insurance card, Trooper Daly detected a strong odor of alcohol on defendant's breath. He was unable to perform any field sobriety tests. Defendant was arrested for driving while under the influence, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, and he was given the Miranda*fn1 warnings. Defendant was then transported to the State Police barracks in Bellmawr.

While at the barracks, defendant was informed of his obligation to take a breathalyzer test and the consequences of a refusal. He was informed that he had no right to speak to an attorney before taking a breathalyzer test or to delay giving a breath sample. See State v. Sherwin, 236 N.J. Super. 510, 518-520, 566 A.2d 536 (App.Div.1989). Defendant, however, insisted that he should be permitted to call his attorney before deciding whether to take the test. After declining to take the test following ten or more requests, defendant was told that unless he agreed to take the test, he would be charged with a refusal. When finally asked if he would submit to the test, defendant responded "[s]on, call my lawyer." At this point, defendant was informed that he was being charged with a refusal. He was then permitted to call his attorney. Immediately after speaking with his attorney, defendant agreed to take a breathalyzer test. Consistent with the prior warnings to defendant, the trooper declined to administer the test and issued defendant a summons charging him with a refusal. Trooper Daly's request to defendant to take a breathalyzer test was made within about 15 minutes after the arrest. Approximately four minutes elapsed between the trooper's request of

defendant to take the test and the time defendant agreed to take the test.

The Bellmawr Municipal Court found defendant not guilty of driving while under the influence of alcohol. The charge was amended at the close of the evidence to changing lanes improperly, a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-88(b). He was found guilty on the amended charge. Defendant was also found guilty of refusal to take the breathalyzer test. The judge found that defendant was obligated to give an unequivocal yes to the trooper's request to take the test. Upon his de novo appeal to the Law Division, defendant was again found guilty of a refusal, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4a.

On this appeal, defendant argues that he should have been permitted to cure his refusal since he agreed to take the test, albeit after speaking to his attorney, within five minutes of his refusal and while all the officers were still in the room with him. Defendant contends that he should be permitted to cure the refusal within a reasonable time. He concedes, and correctly so, that "one of the main concerns of the State in relation to these types of cases [taking of breath samples] is the preservation of evidence." Defendant places substantial reliance upon State v. Ginnetti, 232 N.J. Super. 378, 556 A.2d 1339 (Law Div.1989), to support his claim that a cure ought to be permitted. He also relies upon State v. Tischio, 107 N.J. 504, 527 A.2d 388 (1987), appeal dismissed, 484 U.S. 1038, 108 S. Ct. 768, 98 L. Ed. 2d 855 (1988), to buttress his argument that as long as the breathalyzer test is administered within a reasonable time after arrest, the State's interest is protected by preserving the evidence.

In State v. Ginnetti, supra, when defendant was asked to take a breathalyzer test, he refused. 232 N.J. Super. at 380-81, 556 A.2d 1339. At the time of refusal, the machine was not available for testing. Ibid. It was understood, however, that if defendant consented, a portable machine would be made available. Id. at 381, 556 A.2d 1339. A summons was issued

for refusing, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4a. In finding defendant not guilty on his de novo appeal, the Law Division emphasized the importance of the fact that the breathalyzer was not present at the scene and the defendant had "initially and immediately agreed to a blood test." Id. at 383, 556 A.2d 1339. The blood test was not performed because no medical personnel was available to take the blood sample immediately and that caused defendant to change his mind rather than wait. Ibid. Consequently, as both lower courts recognized in the present case, the acquittal in Ginnetti was based on much more than the fact that defendant agreed to take the breathalyzer within a few minutes after his refusal. To the extent that Ginnetti may be interpreted as permitting a cure, we disapprove.

The Supreme Court in State v. Tischio, supra, held that to be admissible as evidence, a breathalyzer test must have been taken within a reasonable time after a defendant's arrest. 107 N.J. at 521, 527 A.2d 388. The requirement that the test be administered within a reasonable time is intended to prevent "prolonged detention of a motorist by the police in the mistaken belief that the blood-alcohol level would then produce a result more favorable to the State." State v. Dannemiller, 229 N.J. Super. 187, 190, 550 A.2d 1303 (App.Div.1988). Both Tischio and Dannemiller make clear that the reasonable time requirement relates to the use of breathalyzer test results as evidence in a prosecution ...

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