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State v. Schreiber

Decided: February 11, 1991.

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
LINDA A. SCHREIBER, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 240 N.J. Super. 507 (1990).

For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Garibaldi, Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern and Stein. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Garibaldi, J.

Garibaldi

[122 NJ Page 580] The narrow issue in this appeal is whether the patient-physician privilege as enacted at N.J.S.A. 2A:84A-22.2 precludes the admission into evidence, at defendant's trial for driving while under the influence of alcohol, of defendant's blood test, which was voluntarily disclosed to the police by an emergency-room physician. That ultimate question, whether or not the doctor's revelations violated the patient-physician privilege, depends on our answer to the penultimate question of whether defendant's violation of the Motor Vehicles Act, more particularly N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, driving while under the influence of alcohol (DWI), is

"a crime or violation of the disorderly persons law[.]" N.J.S.A. 2A:84A-22.2.

I

At approximately 7:00 a.m. on November 17, 1986, defendant, Linda Schreiber, driving alone, was involved in a one-car accident. Her car skidded back and forth off of and onto the roadway. Finally, it left the roadway, flipped over and came to rest upside down in a grassy area near the roadway. Ms. Schreiber was thrown from the car, sustaining serious injuries that necessitated a one-month hospital stay.

Two Hopewell Township police officers, as well as the Hopewell Borough Rescue Squad, responded to the scene. Because of Mrs. Schreiber's extensive injuries, the rescue squad rushed her to the Princeton Medical Center. The police officers, Sergeant Erdelsky and Patrolman Simonelli, therefore, were not able to speak to her at the scene. At that time, however, the officers did observe the accident scene and spoke with a person who had witnessed the car leave the road.

Ms. Schreiber, injured and unconscious, was admitted to the hospital through its emergency room, where the medical staff conducted several tests, including a blood test. Although neither police officer was present nor requested such a test, the medical staff administered it for diagnostic reasons.

On December 15, 1986, an emergency-room physician at the Princeton Medical Center called the Hopewell Police Department and revealed that the blood test showed Ms. Schreiber's blood alcohol level to be .26% at the time of her admission to the hospital. Prior to that time the police had issued defendant a summons only for failure to wear a seatbelt, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:3-76.2. Based on this new information, Sergeant Erdelsky then issued Ms. Schreiber additional summonses for DWI, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, and for careless driving, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:4-97. The summonses were issued twenty-nine days after the accident, on the day after Ms.

Schreiber was discharged from the hospital and one day before the statute of limitations on motor vehicle violations expired.

Believing that he had to comply with State v. Dyal, 97 N.J. 229, 478 A.2d 390 (1984), Sergeant Erdelsky prepared an affidavit in support of his application for a subpoena duces tecum ordering the hospital to produce defendant's medical records. In response to the subpoena, the hospital produced the records. After a hearing the court denied Ms. Schreiber's motion to suppress the evidence contained in those records.

Subsequently, Ms. Schreiber was found guilty in municipal court of DWI and failure to wear a seatbelt. Defendant appealed her DWI conviction to the Law Division, which, after a trial de novo, also found her guilty of DWI. Defendant lost her license to drive for six months and was sentenced to twelve to forty-eight hours detention at an Intoxication Driver Resource Center. Miscellaneous fines and such charges likewise were imposed on Ms. Schreiber. Defendant then appealed to the Appellate Division, which reversed her conviction on the ground that the blood test should have been suppressed due to a violation of the patient-physician privilege. 240 N.J. Super. 507, 573 A.2d 942.

We granted certification, 122 N.J. 166, 584 A.2d 232 (1990), and now reverse the Appellate Division judgment and reinstate the judgment of the trial court.

II

Of privileges, it has been noted that "their effect . . . is clearly inhibitive; rather than facilitating the illumination of truth, they shut out the light." E. Cleary, McCormick on Evidence, (3rd Ed.1984) ยง 72, p. 171. Nonetheless, for reasons considered important by society, witnesses are permitted to withhold relevant, often invaluable, ...


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