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State v. Garcia

September 17, 1996

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF
v.
JORGE E. GARCIA, DEFENDANT



J. F. Kearney, 3rd, J.m.c.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kearney

FROM THE PALMYRA MUNICIPAL COURT, BURLINGTON COUNTY

J. F. KEARNEY, 3rd, J.M.C.

This matter is before the court on a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. Although the issue was briefed and argued at the close of the State's case, decision of the matter was held until after completion of the trial pursuant to R. 3:10-4, applicable under R. 7:4-2(e). The trial resulted in findings of guilty against Mr. Garcia on charges of careless driving, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-97, and leaving the scene of an accident in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-129, upon which fines and costs were imposed.

The basis of the dismissal motion is that the offenses involved were shown by the evidence to have occurred entirely on the Pennsylvania side of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge. The jurisdictional question involved is entirely territorial. *fn1

Defendant contends that, since the offenses occurred on a part of the bridge fairly characterized as being in Pennsylvania, and because the stop during which the summonses issued occurred beyond the bridge, within the City of Philadelphia, Pa., the courts of Pennsylvania, and not this court, have jurisdiction.

The State contends that jurisdiction is conferred under State v. Holden, 46 N.J. 361, 217 A.2d 132 (1966) and N.J.S.A. 32:4-6, part of the interstate compact creating the Delaware River Port Authority (D.R.P.A., D.R.P.A. Compact), and specifically by N.J.S.A. 27:19-36.3, which authorizes and empowers the Burlington County Bridge Commission Police; and/or by N.J.S.A. 52:28-33.

For the reasons stated herein, the State's first two contentions are incorrect. Holden, supra, is distinguished; the D.R.P.A. Compact and N.J.S.A. 32:4-6 are inapplicable; and N.J.S.A. 27:19-36.3 does not, by its terms, grant jurisdiction. The State's last contention as to N.J.S.A. 52:28-33 does apply and, construed together with N.J.S.A. 52:28-25 and N.J.S.A. 2B:12-16(a), provides a firm basis for the exercise of jurisdiction.

I.

The facts necessary to decision of this issue, developed at trial, are these. While acts of Jorge Garcia constituting the offense of careless driving can arguably be viewed as having taken place within New Jersey, the accident and all of the acts constituting the elements of the offense of leaving the scene of an accident occurred on the northwesterly side, beyond both the draw structure and midpoint, of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge. They therefore occurred, for purposes of this analysis, outside of the municipality and beyond the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border. The offenses were completed on the portion of the bridge which is over the waters of the Delaware River, and not that portion which extends over dry land in Philadelphia, Pa. Mr. Garcia was followed off the bridge, into Philadelphia, where a stop was effected on a city street.

The court takes judicial notice of these additional facts for purposes of this decision. N.J. R. Evid. 201. The Burlington County Bridge Commission owns and operates the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, a major interstate crossing connecting the nation's fifth largest city with southern New Jersey, in one of the nation's most densely populated multistate metropolitan areas. It is one of only four vehicular bridges crossing the Delaware River from Philadelphia itself. It is on a principal route connecting that city and Atlantic City, and other New Jersey shore resorts. It is therefore subject to heavy traffic. In 1995, for example, there were 17,947,035 vehicle crossings.

The bridge extends from lands within Palmyra. The relevant border of Palmyra, according to its 1894 Charter, is the shoreline of the River. *fn2 The New Jersey-Pennsylvania border off Palmyra is the "thalweg", defined as the main sailing channel of the Delaware River in 1783 as changed only by natural and gradual processes. Atty. Gen. F.O. 1956, No. 22. The "thalweg" is not necessarily the modern shipping channel, which is dredged; its position now constrained by the bridge's draw-structure. The precise border is, in any event, imprecise and difficult of ascertainment without substantial historical research and a survey. Cf. State v. Carlaftes, 24 N.J. 451, 132 A.2d 515 (1957) (border at Sandy Hook Bay).

II.

New Jersey municipal courts are statutory courts of limited jurisdiction. In the 1947 Constitution, the Legislature was empowered to create such courts, and to prescribe their jurisdictional limits. N.J. Const. Art. 6, § 1, cl. 1. It originally did so in N.J.S.A. 2A:8-1 to 2A:8-55 (repealed), and subsequently enacted N.J.S.A. 2B:12-1 to 2B:12-31 (L. 1993, c. 293). The basic territorial limits of the jurisdiction of a municipal court are as follows:

A municipal court of a single municipality shall have jurisdiction over cases arising within the territory of that municipality.... The territory of a municipality includes any premises or property located partly in and partly outside of the municipality.

N.J.S.A. 2B:12-16(a).

Because a municipal court has limited jurisdiction, it is obligated to assess whether or not it has the power to act in a particular matter before it. The authority of the court to adjudicate disputes must be found in legislative grants of jurisdiction. State v. Casalino, 262 N.J. Super. 166, 168, 620 A.2d 449 (App. Div. 1993); cf. Dumansky v. U.S., 486 F. Supp. 1078, 1082 (D.N.J. 1980).

This is especially true in this case, wherein the court is called upon to exercise its power not only outside usually understood municipal boundaries, but also as to acts which occurred wholly outside the border of the state empowering it. Due respect must be given principles of comity and of state sovereignty within our Federal system. Cf. World-Wide Volkswagen v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 292, 100 S. Ct. 559, 564, 62 L. Ed. 2d 490, 1980).

Without a firm bedrock of jurisdiction, the court is without power to adjudicate the matter before it. Cf. Carlsberg Res. Corp. v. Cambria S & ...


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