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State v. Bakka

July 01, 2003

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
BENHART BAKKA, A/K/A ROBERT BAKKA AND BENHARD BAKKA, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 350 N.J. Super. 43 (2002).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

The issue in this appeal is whether a defendant's operation of a vehicle with a revoked license, absent any indication of the reasons for that revocation, is probative of recklessness within the meaning of the aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C: 11-4a, or vehicular homicide, N.J.S.A. 2C: 11-5, statutes.

On January 2, 1997, defendant took possession, without permission, of a black Acura belonging to Eileen McCray, his estranged girlfriend. Defendant drove the Acura to his apartment around midnight, visibly intoxicated. Defendant and his roommate Wayne Teague began drinking vodka heavily. Sometime the following morning, defendant and Teague drove off in the Acura. Around 11:00 a.m., another motorist, driving on the local lane of the Garden State Parkway, saw a black Acura speeding by, hit the left guardrail, cross the highway and hit the right guardrail, and cross the grassy medium into the express lanes. The Acura then crashed into the rear end of a GMC Yukon SUV. Neither defendant nor Teague were wearing seat belts and, upon impact with the right guardrail, Teague was partially ejected, striking his head with an "I" beam that supported the guardrail. Officers at the scene found defendant with his back leaning against the legs and buttocks of Teague, who was hanging out of the passenger's side window. Officers detected a strong odor of alcohol emanating from defendant's breath. A blood sample taken at the hospital revealed a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.271%. Teague did not survive the accident.

In his statement to police, defendant could not confirm that he was driving the Acura at the time of the accident. The State's accident reconstruction expert, however, concluded that defendant was the driver of the Acura. At trial, the State presented testimony that a driver with a BAC of 0.271% was sixty times more likely to be in an accident than a sober driver. Testimony was also presented that defendant was taking both anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications.

Prior to trial, the State filed a motion in limine to allow it to introduce evidence that defendant was driving with a revoked license at the time of the accident. The trial court allowed the testimony, concluding that the jury could consider defendant's conscious decision to violate the law by driving with a revoked license when determining whether he was reckless within the meaning of the aggravated manslaughter and vehicular homicide statutes. That testimony took on various forms, including McCray's testimony, defendant's stipulation, crossexamination testimony, during summation, and in the trial court's jury instructions.

The jury convicted defendant of first-degree aggravated manslaughter, second-degree vehicular homicide, and third-degree unlawful taking of a means of conveyance. Following the verdict, the trial court found defendant guilty of driving while intoxicated and of operating a motor vehicle while his license was suspended. At sentencing, the court granted the State's motion to impose an extended term based on defendant's persistent offender status pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C: 44-3a, which record included driving while intoxicated on five prior occasions and driving while on the revoked list on fourteen prior occasions.

Defendant appealed, challenging the revocation testimony. The Appellate Division found that the trial court improperly admitted that evidence and vacated defendant's convictions, concluding that there was no logical nexus. Moreover, the Appellate Division determined that the evidence was prejudicial and constituted harmful error.

The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification.

HELD: A defendant's operation of a vehicle with a revoked license, absent any indication of the reasons for that revocation, is not probative of recklessness within the meaning of the aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C: 11-4a, or vehicular homicide, N.J.S.A. 2C: 11-5, statutes. The evidence concerning defendant's revocation, however, was not clearly capable of producing an unjust result in respect of defendant's aggravated manslaughter, vehicular homicide, and unlawful taking by a means of conveyance convictions.

1. Aggravated manslaughter and vehicular homicide both contain the element of recklessness, defined by the Code of Criminal Justice as a conscious disregard of a "substantial and unjustifiable risk that the material element exists or will result from" the defendant's conduct, and "a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the actor's situation." N.J.S.A. 2C: 2-2b(3). Evidence is probative if it tends "to prove or disprove any fact of consequence to the determination of the action." N.J.R.E. 401. (Pp. 12-13)

2. Unlike driving while intoxicated, speeding, or some other conduct from which a reckless state of mind may be inferred circumstantially, the mere fact that a defendant is an unlicensed driver does not by itself suggest an awareness of risk. Revocation introduced along with the reasons for that revocation, however, may be probative of recklessness when the defendant again engages in unsafe conduct identical or similar to that which resulted in the revocation. Because the State did not provide the reasons for defendant's revocation, that issue is not before this Court. (Pp. 14-17)

3. Considering all of the circumstances in this case, including the large amount of alcohol consumed by defendant and his consumption of both anti-anxiety and anti-depressant prescription drugs with alcohol a few hours before the accident, evidence of defendant's revocation did not lead the jury to a result it otherwise might not have reached on vehicular homicide and aggravated manslaughter. Moreover, the evidence presented regarding defendant's operation of McCray's car, and the nature of the accident, supported the jury's finding that defendant unlawfully exercised temporary control over McCray's Acura and operated that car in a manner that created the risk of injury to others or of damage to the car itself. Admission of defendant's revocation did not have the capacity to produce an unjust result in respect of defendant's conviction of third-degree unlawful taking of a means of conveyance. The trial court's introduction of defendant's revocation constituted harmless error in respect of defendant's convictions on aggravated manslaughter, vehicular homicide and unlawful taking by a means of conveyance. (Pp. 17-23)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED. We reinstate defendant's convictions and remand the matter solely for a determination of whether the trial court improperly imposed an extended term under N.J.S.A. 2C: 44-3a, or whether defendant's sentence was excessive.

JUSTICE LONG filed a separate, dissenting opinion in which JUSTICE ALBIN joins, stating that defendant was prejudiced by the revocation evidence and arguing that except in a very limited class of cases, revocation evidence should be barred, and the State should be required to prove the relevance of the underlying facts.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES COLEMAN, VERNIERO, and LaVECCHIA join in JUSTICE ZAZZALI's opinion. JUSTICE LONG filed a separate dissenting opinion, in which JUSTICE ALBIN joins.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Zazzali, J.

Argued February 19, 2003

The primary issue in this appeal is whether a defendant's operation of a vehicle with a revoked license, absent any indication of the reasons for that revocation, is probative of recklessness within the meaning of the aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4a, or vehicular homicide, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5, statutes.

This matter arose after defendant Benhart Bakka was involved in a vehicular accident on the Garden State Parkway that killed his friend Wayne Teague. A jury convicted defendant of first-degree aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4a(1), second-degree vehicular homicide, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5, and third degree unlawful taking of a means of conveyance, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-10(c). The Appellate Division reversed defendant's convictions, finding that the trial court improperly admitted evidence that defendant was driving with a revoked license at the time of the accident. State v. Bakka, 350 N.J. Super. 43, 55-56 (2002). The panel below found that the improper evidence "clearly had the capacity to influence" the jury's verdict and therefore remanded for a new trial on all counts. Id. at 58-59.

We agree with the Appellate Division that evidence that defendant's license has been revoked by itself cannot be probative of recklessness. We conclude, however, that evidence concerning defendant's revocation was not clearly capable of producing an unjust result in respect of defendant's aggravated manslaughter, vehicular ...


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