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State v. Stanton

April 17, 2003

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
TRACI E. STANTON, A/K/A TRACI FRY AND TRACI PFAFF, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 339 N.J. Super. 1 (2001).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

The issue in this appeal is whether a jury that finds a defendant guilty of second-degree vehicular homicide in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b also must decide whether the defendant was intoxicated before a mandatory minimum sentence can be imposed under N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b(1).

In February 1997, Traci Stanton invited her boyfriend, her brother, and her sister-in-law, Nancy Smith, to her house to play cards and drink beer. Stanton admitted drinking approximately one and one-half bottles of beer, although her brother recalled that she drank between three and five beers. At approximately 11:30 p.m., Stanton drove her Porsche to purchase more beer while Smith rode in the front passenger seat. After purchasing the beer, Stanton and Smith dropped off the beer at Stanton's house and proceeded to Smith's home to pick up her dog. On the way, Stanton was unable to steer her car around a turn with the result that her vehicle left the road and struck a tree.

Police arrived on the scene shortly before 1:00 a.m. and found the vehicle on its roof. While treating Stanton, an emergency medical technician discovered a beer bottle within four inches of her head. Smith was found underneath the trunk of the car and died as a result of the extensive injuries she suffereduring the accident.

The morning following the accident, Stanton admitted to police that she had been driving between sixty and sixty-five miles per hour and that neither she nor Smith had been wearing a seatbelt. The posted speed limit was fifty miles per hour, but the recommended speed at the site of the accident was only thirty-five miles per hour. Stanton also admitted that she and Smith had been drinking beer in the car.

A grand jury indicted Stanton for second-degree vehicular homicide based on Stanton's reckless operation of a motor vehicle. In addition, police issued Stanton summonses for several motor vehicle offenses, including driving while intoxicated (DWI), reckless driving, consumption of alcohol while driving, and failure to wear a seatbelt. The vehicular homicide was tried to a jury while the non-indictable offenses were tried simultaneously before the judge. The State relied on intoxication and other evidence such as speed to establish that Stanton recklessly operated her motor vehicle. The jury found Stanton guilty of second-degree vehicular homicide, but was not asked to state the basis for its finding of recklessness.

The trial judge found Stanton guilty of all of the motor vehicle violations. The judge sentenced Stanton as if the second-degree offense were a third-degree crime and imposed the three-year parole ineligibility term required by N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b(1). That provision mandates a minimum term for defendants convicted of vehicular homicide who were intoxicated at the time of the offense and such "minimum term shall be fixed at, or between, one-third and one-half of the sentence imposed by the court or three years, whichever is greater, during which the defendant shall be ineligible for parole."

Stanton appealed her vehicular homicide conviction, claiming trial error and also that N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b(1) was unconstitutional because it permits a judge to find an element of vehicular homicide - intoxication -by a preponderance of the evidence rather than by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The Appellate Division affirmed in part and reversed in part. State v. Stanton, 339 N.J. Super. 1 (2001). It applied the constitutional doubt doctrine and held that the three-year mandatory minimum sentence was unconstitutionally imposed because the issue of Stanton's intoxication had not been decided by the jury. The Appellate Division interpreted this Court's opinion in State v. Johnson, 166 N.J. 523 (2001), to mean that if the imposition of the mandatory minimum term depends on the existence of a fact other than a prior conviction, that fact must be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction and remanded to the trial court with the direction that the parole ineligibility term be vacated.

Stanton's petition for certification was denied. The State's cross-petition challenging the Appellate Division's vacation of the three-year parole disqualifier was granted. The Court heard argument on January 2, 2002, and decided to withhold disposition until the United States Supreme Court decided Harris v. United States, for which certiorari had been granted on December 10, 2001. Harris was decided on June 24, 2002. Harris v. United States, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Coleman, J.

Argued January 3, 2002

Reargued November 18, 2002

This appeal involves a conviction for second-degree vehicular homicide, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b, based on defendant's reckless operation of her motor vehicle. The State relied on intoxication and other evidence such as speed to establish that defendant recklessly operated her motor vehicle. The jury was not asked to state the basis for its finding of recklessness. The sentencing provision for vehicular homicide mandates a minimum term of imprisonment for defendants who were intoxicated at the time of the offense and such "minimum term shall be fixed at, or between, one-third and one-half of the sentence imposed by the court or three years, whichever is greater, during which the defendant shall be ineligible for parole." N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b(1). The trial court found that defendant should be sentenced as if the offense were third- degree, found that defendant was intoxicated, and sentenced defendant to imprisonment for three years subject to parole ineligibility of three years. The issue before us is whether the jury should have been required to determine the sentence enhancement factor--the intoxication. We hold that the jury was not required to make that determination.

I.

In February 1997, defendant Traci Stanton invited her boyfriend, her brother, and her sister-in-law, Nancy Smith, to her house to play cards and drink beer. Defendant admitted drinking approximately one and one-half bottles of beer, although her brother recalled defendant drinking between three and five beers. At approximately 11:30 p.m., defendant drove her Porsche to purchase more beer while Smith rode in the front passenger seat. After purchasing the beer, defendant and Smith dropped off the beer at defendant's house and proceeded to Smith's home to pick up her dog. On their way to Smith's home, defendant was unable to steer her car around a turn with the result that her vehicle left the road and struck a tree near the right shoulder of the road. The police arrived on the scene shortly before 1:00 a.m. and found the vehicle "completely on its roof." While treating defendant and before removing her from the vehicle, an emergency medical technician (EMT) discovered a beer bottle "[w]ithin four inches" of defendant's head. Smith was found underneath the trunk of the car on the passenger side of the vehicle. She died as a result of the extensive injuries suffered during the accident.

The morning following the accident defendant was interviewed by Officer Priole. At that time she stated that she had been driving between sixty and sixty-five miles per hour and that neither she nor Smith had been wearing a seatbelt. The posted speed limit was fifty miles per hour, but the recommended speed at the site of the accident was only thirty-five miles per hour. Defendant admitted that she and Smith had been drinking beer in the car.

A grand jury indicted defendant for second-degree vehicular homicide, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5. In addition, the police issued defendant summonses for several motor vehicle offenses, including driving while intoxicated (DWI), in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50; reckless driving, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-96; consumption of alcohol while driving, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-51a; and failure to wear a seatbelt, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-76.2f. The vehicular homicide was tried to a jury while the non-indictable offenses were tried simultaneously before the judge. At the close of all the evidence, the trial court instructed the jury that the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt the elements of the vehicular homicide offense. The jury found defendant guilty of second-degree vehicular homicide, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b.

The trial judge, sitting without the jury, addressed the alleged motor vehicle violations. She found defendant guilty of all of the offenses except the DWI on which she reserved decision until sentencing on the vehicular homicide conviction. At sentencing, the judge first addressed the charge of driving while intoxicated and determined that "the defendant must have consumed substantially more than two or three beers as everyone remember[ed]" and that "[t]he manner in which the accident occurred... corroborate[d] the fact that she was driving under the influence." Based on the evidence presented during the vehicular homicide trial, the judge found that the proofs convinced her beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant was guilty of driving while intoxicated.

Following the trial court's denial of defendant's motion for a new trial, defendant was sentenced on the vehicular homicide charge. After evaluating the aggravating and mitigating factors, the judge sentenced defendant as if the second-degree offense were a third-degree crime and imposed the three-year parole ineligibility term mandated by N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b(1). The mandatory parole ineligibility term was applied because the judge found defendant was intoxicated at the time she committed the vehicular homicide.

Defendant appealed her vehicular homicide conviction, claiming her conviction should be reversed based on alleged trial error. She also contended that N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b(1) was unconstitutional because it permits a judge to find an element of vehicular homicide--intoxication--by a preponderance of the evidence, rather than by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Appellate Division affirmed in part and reversed in part. State v. Stanton, 339 N.J. Super. 1 (2001).

The court applied the constitutional doubt doctrine and held that the three-year mandatory minimum sentence was unconstitutionally imposed because the issue of defendant's intoxication had not been decided by the jury. Id. at 6. The panel interpreted this Court's holding in State v. Johnson, 166 N.J. 523 (2001), to mean that if imposition of a statutorily mandated parole ineligibility term is based on the existence of a fact other than a record of a prior conviction, then, as a matter of the imperatives of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, that fact must be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, if that fact is not a discrete element of the offense which the jury must find in order to convict, then it must be submitted to the jury for its determination. [Stanton, supra, 339 N.J. Super. at 6-7.]

The Appellate Division recognized that "there is a textual difference between [the vehicular homicide's mandatory minimum parole ineligibility,] N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b(2)[,] and the corresponding NERA provision [requiring a defendant to serve eighty-five percent of a sentence for committing a violent crime,] N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2." Stanton, supra, 339 N.J. Super. at 7. Specifically, "NERA omits any reference to the standard of proof necessary to establish the parole-ineligibility fact, and it does not say whether the fact-finder is the judge or jury." Ibid. On the other hand, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b(2) "specifies that the finding must only meet the preponderance of the evidence standard and provides that the finding must be made by the 'court'--presumably the judge." Ibid. Despite this difference, the Appellate Division was convinced that if constitutional principles require the NERA provision to be read as mandating a jury finding of the NERA predicate fact beyond a reasonable doubt in order for that statute to survive constitutional challenge, then, by the same token, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b(2) can survive constitutional challenge only if it is read in the same way. [Ibid.]

In other words, "[t]he Johnson holding, as we understand it, applies to every statute imposing a mandatory parole ineligibility term because of the capacity of that term to increase real time." Ibid. Rather than declare N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b(2) unconstitutional, the Appellate Division elected to engage in "judicial surgery" to sustain the statute on "an assumption that the Legislature intended to act in a constitutional manner, . . . [stating:] That can only be done by excising . . . the references to the preponderance standard and the court's findings and then construing the excised statute as Johnson construed NERA." Id. at 7-8.

According to the procedure articulated in State v. DeLuca, 108 N.J. 98, 111, cert. denied, New Jersey v. DeLuca, 484 U.S. 944, 108 S. Ct. 331, 98 L. Ed. 2d 358 (1987), the trial judge was required to decide the DWI offense after the jury returned a verdict on vehicular homicide. Ibid. Although the DWI offense was not tried to a jury, each element of that offense, including intoxication, still had to be found beyond a reasonable doubt. Ibid. The Appellate Division found that although both N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b and N.J.S.A. 39:4- 50 define intoxication identically, the principles set forth in Johnson still required a jury finding of intoxication beyond a reasonable doubt. Stanton, supra, 339 N.J. Super. at 8-9. The panel reasoned that even though "the judge found intoxication beyond a reasonable doubt [that] does not mean that the jury either did[,] or would have[,] [because] it was free to attribute the fatal accident to speeding alone and there was evidence on which it could have found that defendant was not intoxicated." Ibid. As a remedy, the Appellate Division vacated the three-year parole disqualifier but affirmed defendant's conviction, stating that it was "satisfied that there was no reversible error attending the jury verdict of guilt of vehicular homicide." Id. at 9. The panel remanded to the trial court with the direction that the judgment of conviction should be modified by vacating the parole ineligibility term. Ibid.

Defendant's petition for certification was denied. State v. Stanton, 169 N.J. 609 (2001). The State's cross-petition for certification challenging the Appellate Division's vacation of the three-year parole disqualifier was granted. Ibid. While this appeal was pending, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in Harris v. United States on December 10, 2001. 534 U.S. 1064, 122 S. Ct. 663, 151 L. Ed. 2d 578 (2001). We heard oral arguments on January 2, 2002, and decided to withhold disposition until Harris was decided. Harris was decided on June 24, 2002. Harris v. United States, 536 U.S. 545, 122 S. Ct. 2406, 153 L. Ed. 2d 524 (2002).

After supplemental briefs were filed with this Court, the case was reargued before us on November 18, 2002.

II.

The State argues that the Appellate Division erred in interpreting Johnson to require that the jury, rather than the judge, had to decide whether defendant was intoxicated before the sentence enhancement statute could be applied. In its supplemental brief, the State maintains that "[t]he decision of the United States Supreme Court in Harris[, supra, 536 U.S. 545, 122 S. Ct. 2406, 153 L. Ed. 2d 524,] mandates a reversal of the Appellate Division in this case." The State contends "that the mandatory parole term required under N.J.S.A. 2C:11- 5b(1) when a vehicular homicide is committed by an individual who is under the influence of alcohol fully complies with all federal and state constitutional principles."

A.

Our analysis of the issues presented must begin with the vehicular homicide statute and its sentencing provisions. The current vehicular homicide statute that has been in effect since 1995 provides: a. Criminal homicide constitutes vehicular homicide when it is caused by driving a vehicle or vessel recklessly. b. Except as provided in [N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b(3)], vehicular homicide is a crime of the second-degree.

(1) If the defendant was operating the auto or vessel while under the influence of any intoxicating liquor, narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug, or with a blood alcohol concentration at or above the prohibited level as prescribed in R.S.39:4-50, or if the defendant was operating the auto or vessel while his driver's license or reciprocity privilege was suspended or revoked for any violation of R.S.39:4-50, section 2 of P.L.1981, c. 512 (C.39:4-50.4a), by the Director of the Division of Motor Vehicles pursuant to P.L.1982, c. 85 (C.39:5-30a et seq.), or by the court for a violation of R.S.39:4-96, the defendant shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment by the court. The term of imprisonment shall include the imposition of a minimum term. The minimum term shall be fixed at, or between, one-third and one- half of the sentence imposed by the court or three years, whichever is greater, during which the defendant shall be ineligible for parole.

(2) The court shall not impose a mandatory sentence pursuant to paragraph (1) of this subsection unless the grounds therefor have been established at a hearing. At the hearing, which may occur at the time of sentencing, the prosecutor shall establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant was operating the auto or vessel while under the influence of any intoxicating liquor, narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug, or with a blood alcohol concentration at or above the level prescribed in R.S.39:4-50 or that the defendant was operating the auto or vessel while his driver's license or reciprocity privilege was suspended or revoked for any violation of R.S.39:4-50, section 2 of P.L.1981, c. 512 (C.39:4-50.4a), by the Director of the Division of Motor Vehicles pursuant to P.L.1982, c. 85 (C.39:5-30a et seq.), or by the court for a violation of R.S.39:4-96. In making its findings, the court shall take judicial notice of any evidence, testimony or information adduced at the trial, plea hearing, or other court proceedings and shall also consider the presentence report and any other relevant information. [N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5a, -5b(1) and (2).]

Subsection a describes what constitutes the offense of vehicular homicide. The "[p]rescribed culpability requirement applies to all material elements" of the offense. N.J.S.A. 2C:2-2c(1). Intoxication in combination with other evidence or standing alone may satisfy the recklessness element. State v. Jamerson, 153 N.J. 318, 335 (1998); State v. LaBrutto, 114 N.J. 187, 204 (1989); State v. Casele, 198 N.J. Super. 462, 472 (App. Div. 1985). In other words, a defendant's sobriety or insobriety is only one of several circumstances a jury is permitted to consider when deciding whether the element of recklessness, as defined in N.J.S.A. 2C:2-2b(3), has been established beyond a reasonable doubt. LaBrutto, supra, 114 N.J. at 204; see State v. Dively, 92 N.J. 573, 583 n.7 (1983). Some of the other circumstances, other than intoxication, that are considered in relation to recklessness regardless of whether or not the operator was intoxicated are excessive speed, weather and lighting conditions, and known substantial safety defects in the motor vehicle or vessel. See, e.g., DeLuca, supra, 108 N.J. at 109.

Subsection b of the statute focuses on the sentencing provisions for a second-degree vehicular homicide. That subsection mandates a minimum period of incarceration for a defendant convicted of vehicular homicide if that defendant is found by a judge, after conducting a hearing prescribed by N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b(2), to have been intoxicated at the time of the offense. In order to better understand the critical issue raised, with respect to the sentence enhancement, we must give context to the procedural framework in which the issue is presented.

B.

This is a typical case in which a defendant charged with vehicular homicide also is likely to be charged with DWI and other Title 39 offenses. To avoid double jeopardy based on "multiple punishments for the same offense," DeLuca, supra, 108 N.J. at 102 (internal citations omitted), the vehicular homicide and the Title 39 offenses must be consolidated for disposition. A jury hears the indictable-vehicular homicide as well as lesser-included disorderly and petty disorderly persons offenses. State v. Muniz, 118 N.J. 319, 327-32 (1990). Although Title 39 offenses such as DWI and careless driving are lesser-included offenses of the indictable-vehicular homicide offense for the purposes of the Double Jeopardy Clause, they are heard by the judge presiding over the jury trial who must "base his or her decision on the proofs adduced in the course of the [vehicular homicide] charge." DeLuca, supra, 108 N.J. at 111; Muniz, supra, 118 N.J. at 331 n.1. Nonetheless, a defendant is entitled to have the jury instructed, as occurred in this case, that there are lesser-included motor vehicle offenses for which the judge must decide defendant's guilt or innocence. Muniz, supra, 118 N.J. at 332; State v. Brown, 228 N.J. Super. 211, 224 (App. Div. 1988), rev'd on other grounds, 118 N.J. 595 (1990). Consistent with the foregoing long-established policy and Rule 3:15-3, the jury in this case decided the vehicular homicide charge and the judge decided the Title 39 offenses, including the DWI. Needless to say, the judge applied the required beyond a reasonable doubt standard. See State v. Emery, 27 N.J. 348, 353 (1958). Not infrequently, the State will rely on intoxication alone, or in combination with other circumstantial evidence, to establish the recklessness element of vehicular homicide. When intoxication is the sole basis to establish reckless operation of a motor vehicle or vessel before the jury, and if the jury convicts the defendant of vehicular homicide, the role of the judge in finding intoxication for sentence enhancement under N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5b(2) is simple. No hearing is required, for unless the judge accepts the jury's finding of intoxication, the jury verdict cannot stand and there can be no DWI conviction. DeLuca, supra, 108 N.J. at 111.

But when a defendant is on trial for both vehicular homicide and DWI and the State relies on intoxication and other circumstantial evidence to establish recklessness, unless a special interrogatory is submitted to the jury, there is no way of knowing the basis for the jury's finding of recklessness. Under the existing law, no purpose would be served by special interrogatories. The recklessness element does not require juror unanimity when mixed evidence of recklessness is presented. See, e.g., State v. Frisby, 174 N.J. 583, 596-600 (2002); State v. Camacho, 153 N.J. 54, 69-72 (1998), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 864, 119 S. Ct. 153, 142 L. Ed. 2d 125 (1998). Nor is a special interrogatory helpful in a merger context for two reasons. First, merger is not required when there is mixed evidence of recklessness such as excessive speed and intoxication. DeLuca, supra, 108 N.J. at 109; State v. Baumann, 340 N.J. Super. 553, 556-57 (App. Div. 2001); State v. Mara, 253 N.J. Super. 204, 213-14 (App. Div. 1992); State v. Devlin, 234 N.J. Super. 545, 553-54 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 117 N.J. 653 (1989); State v. Travers, 229 N.J. Super. 144, 151 (App. Div. 1988). Second, even when the DWI merges with vehicular homicide, the sentencing court must nonetheless impose the DWI penalties. State v. Wade, 169 N.J. 302, 303 (2001); Baumann, supra, 340 N.J. Super. at 556-57, Travers, supra, 229 N.J. Super. at 150-51.

Here, the State relied on mixed evidence to prove recklessness, and because there is no right to trial by jury on DWI and other Title 39 charges, Blanton v. North Las Vegas, 489 U.S. 538, 543-44, 109 S. Ct. 1289, 1293, 103 L. Ed. 2d 550, 556 (1989); State v. Hamm, 121 N.J. 109, 112-30 (1990), cert. denied, 499 U.S. 947, 111 S. Ct. 1413, 113 L. Ed. 2d 466 (1991); State v. Graff, 121 N.J. 131, 135 (1990), the trial judge decided the Title 39 offenses, except the DWI, immediately after the jury convicted defendant of vehicular homicide. The judge thereafter conducted the sentence enhancement hearing simultaneously with deciding the DWI charge. After finding defendant guilty of DWI, the judge used that finding of intoxication to impose the mandatory three- year term on the vehicular homicide conviction.

III.

Next, we consider whether the federal or New Jersey constitution requires the jury, rather than the judge, to make the determination whether defendant was intoxicated for sentence enhancement purposes. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment "protects the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged." In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364, 90 S. Ct. 1068, 1073, 25 L. Ed. 2d 368, ___ (1970). Although Article I of the New Jersey Constitution does not specifically enumerate the right to due process, it protects "'values like those encompassed by the principle[s] of due process.'" Doe v. Poritz, 142 N.J. 1, 99 (1995) (internal citations omitted). The right to trial by jury of all serious crimes (indictable offenses in New Jersey) is guaranteed by the United States Constitution, art. III, § 2, cl. 3 and the Sixth Amendment, which has been made applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 88 S. Ct. 1444, 20 L. Ed. 2d 491 (1968).

A similar right to trial by jury is guaranteed under the New Jersey Constitution. N.J. Const., art. I, ¶ 9. "Hence, an accused is constitutionally entitled to have a jury find each . . . element [of the offense charged] beyond a reasonable doubt before he or she is convicted." State v. Anderson, 127 N.J. 191, 200 (1992). But there is no right to trial by jury of DWI or other Title 39 offenses because they are not deemed to be serious enough. Blanton, supra, 489 U.S. at 543-44, 109 S. Ct. at 1293, 103 L. Ed. 2d at ___; Hamm, supra, 121 N.J. at 111, Graff, supra, 121 N.J. at 135. In view of those ...


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