On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Monmouth County.
Petrella, Long and D'Annunzio. The opinion of the court was delivered by Petrella, P.J.A.D.
[261 NJSuper Page 341] Defendant Richard Santomauro was found by the Law Division, Special Civil Part, in a civil penalty proceeding, to have committed violations of N.J.S.A. 23:4-27 by offering for sale two taxidermically processed deer heads, with antlers, at the 1991 Monmouth County Hunting and Fishing Expo in Oceanport, New Jersey. Santomauro was fined $100 and costs of $15
for each of the two violations.*fn1 Pretrial motions to dismiss the charges against him based on collateral estoppel or res judicata because he had been acquitted in the Municipal Court of Oceanport on similar charges in 1990 were denied.
On his appeal Santomauro argues that the Judge erred in not applying either collateral estoppel or res judicata to preclude the State from relitigating issues actually determined in a prior action. In contesting the Judge's interpretation of N.J.S.A. 23:4-27 Santomauro argues that even if this statute prohibits the sale of certain wild deer prepared by taxidermy, it does not prohibit the sale of wild deer which are not native to this State. In addition, he argues that the cited statute is vague, and thus unconstitutional; the findings of the trial Judge are not supported by sufficient credible evidence; and the Division's enforcement of the statute against him was purposely discriminatory.
We have considered all of Santomauro's arguments in light of the record and the arguments presented and conclude that they are without merit. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(A) and (E). We add only the following comments. The trial Judge interpreted N.J.S.A. 23:4-27 as applying to the sale of body parts of all species of wild deer, rather than applying only to deer native to New Jersey. We agree.
Res judicata did not bar the 1991 action because the case involved different violations of the statute at a different time and involved different officers. Moreover, the 1991 summonses did not arise out of the same transaction or occurrence as the 1990 cause of action despite the similar nature of the violations. Moreover, collateral estoppel is an equitable doctrine and need not be applied "if there are sufficient countervailing interests," In re Coruzzi, 95 N.J. 557, 568, 472 A.2d 546 (1984), appeal dismissed, 469 U.S. 802, 105 S. Ct. 56, 83 L. Ed.2d
8 (1984), or if it would not be fair to do so. Kozlowski v. Smith, 193 N.J. Super. 672, 675, 475 A.2d 663 (App.Div.1984). The mere fact that one of the mounts confiscated in 1991 utilized the same antlers as one of the items that was the subject of the earlier municipal court action in which Santomauro was found not to have committed a violation is not dispositive.*fn2 Here, there are "sufficient countervailing interests" to militate against the application of the doctrine of collateral estoppel. These considerations include the clear language of the statute, the lack of legislative history and prior court decisions, and the environmental and wildlife concerns which the statute addresses.
Where the issue is essentially an interpretation of the law, the court is not precluded from readdressing the issue so that inequitable administration of the law may be avoided. See City of Plainfield v. Public Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 82 N.J. 245, 258-259, 412 A.2d 759 (1980). If collateral estoppel was applied here with respect to Santomauro, it is unlikely that it could apply to any other sellers of similar items.
Finally, the 1990 municipal court matter was decided based solely on stipulated facts, without testimony. We have no record to explain the basis or reasons for that court's decision. Thus, we conclude that application of collateral estoppel would be inappropriate because the judgment might have been based on one or more of several grounds, without relying expressly on any one of them. Where no ground is conclusively established and "it is impossible for another court to tell which issue or issues were adJudged by the rendering court," collateral estoppel is not applied. Ettin v. Ava Truck Leasing, Inc., 53 N.J. 463, 480, 251 A.2d 278 (1969) (citation omitted).
In addition, Santomauro argues that the Superior Court, Special Civil Part, should have been considered as sitting as a municipal court because it has concurrent jurisdiction over the Fish and Game Laws in Title 23. This argument is not helpful. The question is not which court should hear the appeal. See State v. Natoli, 237 N.J. Super. 52, 566 A.2d 1167 (App.Div.1989). The statutory penalty provisions for violations of the Fish and Game Code are civil in nature, and thus neither criminal nor quasi-criminal. See Department of Conservation and Economic Dev. v. Scipio, 88 N.J. Super. 315, ...