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State v. Tekel

May 16, 1995

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
CLIFFORD J. TEKEL, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



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

Approved for Publication May 16, 1995.

Before Judges Michels, Keefe and Humphreys. The opinion of the court was delivered by Michels, P.j.a.d.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michels

MICHELS, P.J.A.D.

Defendant Clifford J. Tekel pleaded guilty in the Boonton Municipal Court for refusing to take a breathalyzer test in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4a. Defendant had previously been convicted of driving while under the influence of intoxicating liquor in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. The Municipal Court Judge treated defendant's conviction for refusing to take a breathalyzer test as a subsequent offense within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4a, suspended his driving privileges in New Jersey for two years, fined defendant $500, and ordered defendant to attend twelve to forty-eight hours at an Intoxicated Driver's Resource Center. Defendant appealed to the Law Division where, following a trial de novo on the record, he was again found guilty based on his guilty plea, and in addition to the penalties imposed by the Municipal Court Judge, the Law Division Judge also imposed a $50 Violent Crimes Compensation Board (VCCB) penalty and a $75 Safe Neighborhoods Services Fund (SNSF) assessment. Defendant appealed.

Defendant seeks a reversal of the two-year driver's license suspension, the $50 VCCB penalty and the $75 SNSF assessment, contending that the trial court erred in (1) holding that he was a second offender under N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4a and (2) imposing a $50 VCCB penalty and a $75 SNSF assessment.

This appeal, once again, raises the interpretation and application of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4a. More precisely, the issue is whether a prior conviction for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50 satisfies the language of "a subsequent offense under this section" contained in N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4a, thereby mandating the imposition of the enhanced penalty of a two-year suspension. Defendant contends that only a conviction for a prior refusal to take a breathalyzer test in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4a satisfies this statutory language and that a prior conviction for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50 does not lead to the enhanced two-year penalty. We disagree and affirm the trial court's suspension of defendant's driver's license for two years.

Despite laws in place to prevent drunk driving, prior to the enactment of the original refusal statute, New Jersey drivers were not required to take blood-alcohol tests, and refusal to take such tests carried no penalties. Consequently, many motorists refused to take the tests. State v. Wright, 107 N.J. 488, 498, 527 A.2d 379 (1987). This high rate of refusal made enforcement of the drunk driving laws very difficult. Without a breathalyzer test, police were without a method of reliably distinguishing motorists who were actually drunk from those motorists who displayed symptoms of drunkenness attributable to other causes, such as dizziness resulting from an injury. Id. at 498-99. This situation led to a great number of trials and a substantial waste of time and money. See Id. at 499.

The original refusal statute was enacted to combat these problems. It provided for a six-month license suspension for all refusals. N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4. However, this deterrent proved ineffective because the six-month suspension period was less than the penalty many defendants would have received upon a conviction for drunk driving. Wright, supra, 107 N.J. at 501. In response, the Legislature amended the statute to include a one-year suspension of driving privileges for any motorist whose refusal was in connection with a subsequent violation. N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4(b). Viewed by the Legislature as still insufficient, the statute was again amended in 1981. Such amendments have resulted in the current form of the refusal statute, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4a. This statute, in pertinent part, now reads as follows:

The municipal court shall revoke the right to operate a motor vehicle of any operator who, after being arrested for a violation of R.S. 39:4-50, shall refuse to submit to the chemical test . . . when requested to do so, for 6 months unless the refusal was in connection with a subsequent offense under this section, in which case the revocation period shall be for 2 years. [Emphasis added.]

We construe the language "a subsequent offense under this section" contained in N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4a to include the offense of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. In reaching this Conclusion, we reject defendant's interpretation of this language to mean that only a refusal to take a breathalyzer test can constitute a "subsequent offense under this section" of the statute.

Our intepretation of this language is grounded in well-settled principles of statutory construction that "where a literal rendering [of a statute] will lead to a result not in accord with the essential purpose and design of the act, the spirit of the law will control the letter." N.J. Builders, Owners and Managers Association v. Blair, 60 N.J. 330, 338, 288 A.2d 855 (1972). See also J.C. Chap. Prop. Owner's & c. Assoc. v. City Council, 55 N.J. 86, 100 (1969); Dvorkin v. Dover Tp., 29 N.J. 303, 315, 148 A.2d 793 (1959). In seeking to ascertain the purpose and reason for the legislation, a court must consider "not only the particular statute in question, but also the entire legislative scheme of which it is a part." Kimmelman v. Henkels & McCoy, Inc., 108 N.J. 123, 129, 527 A.2d 1368 (1987). See also Wright, supra, 107 N.J. at 497; Denbo v. Moorestown Twp., 23 N.J. 476, 481, 129 A.2d 710 (1957); State v. Brown, 22 N.J. 405, 415, 126 A.2d 161 (1956).

Furthermore, it is beyond question that "statutes [should] not be interpreted in a manner leading to absurd or unreasonable results." 534 Hawthorne Ave. Corp. v. Barnes, 204 N.J. Super. 144, 148, 497 A.2d 1265 (App. Div. 1985). See also State v. Gill, 47 N.J. 441, 444, 221 A.2d 521 (1966). In fact, when construing a statute, "every effort should be exerted to avoid . . . an anomalous result." Union Co. Bd. of Freeholders v. Union Co. Park Com., 41 N.J. 333, 341, 196 A.2d 781 (1964). See Robson v. Rodriquez, 26 N.J. 517, 528, 141 A.2d 1 (1958); New Capitol Bar & Grill Corp. v. Div. of Employment Sec., 25 N.J. 155, 160 (1957); Reisman v. Great Amer. Recreation, 266 N.J. Super. 87, 96, 628 A.2d 801 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 134 N.J. 560 (1993).

Additionally, in Wright, supra, 107 N.J. at 497, our Supreme Court emphasized that the primary factor in construing a statute, such as our drunk driving statutes, ...


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