On appeal from the Office of Administrative Law, OAL Docket No. MVH 9598-01.
Before Judges King, Lintner and Lisa.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: King, P.J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
The defendant, Paul D. Ripley (Ripley), appeals a New Jersey Division of Motor Vehicle (DMV) decision of December 16, 2001 suspending his license. Ripley pled guilty in Utah to the charge of alcohol-related reckless driving. Pursuant to the Interstate Driver License Compact (IDLC or Compact), DMV suspended his license for two years.
Ripley contends that the DMV decision should be reversed because DMV wrongly equated New Jersey's DWI statute with Utah's alcohol-related reckless driving statute. DMV may suspend a license under the IDLC for two reasons: (1) the conduct in Utah would constitute the offense of driving under the influence in New Jersey; and (2) the Utah statute for alcohol-related reckless driving is substantially similar to New Jersey's statute for driving under the influence. We find neither reason applicable here and reverse.
In Ogden, Utah on November 9, 2000 Ripley was arrested and charged with driving while under the influence of alcohol. Ripley's breathalyzer test allegedly showed a reading of.089%. On July 2, 2001 he entered a guilty plea with the prosecutor's consent to"alcohol-related reckless driving," downgraded from the original charge of driving under the influence of alcohol. He received a jail sentence of ninety days, which was suspended, and a probation term of one year. He also paid a $1,000 fine and was ordered to attend alcohol counseling in New Jersey.
New Jersey DMV notified Ripley on February 1, 2001, siX months before he entered his guilty plea, that it planned to suspend his New Jersey driving privileges on February 27, 2001 for 720 days because of the Utah"conviction." As noted, the IDLC requires New Jersey DMV to treat a conviction in another state for driving under the influence of alcohol as if it occurred in New Jersey.
Ripley's driving privileges in New Jersey had been suspended for driving under the influence on two prior occasions, February 11, 1986 and April 13, 1987, more than ten years earlier. N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a)(2) provides that DMV may forfeit an offender's license for two years upon a second DWI conviction. DMV treated the Utah conviction as a second offense because of the ten-year lapse. See N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a)(3).
Ripley promptly requested an administrative hearing. He alleged that the Utah offense does not constitute a cognate offense in New Jersey and his guilty plea did not constitute an appropriate conviction. The Administrative Law Judge rejected his arguments and found that the Utah conviction was substantially similar to New Jersey's statute for driving while intoxicated. She affirmed the suspension of his driving privileges for 720 days. DMV adopted ALJ Celentano's recommendation and then suspended his driving privileges for 720 days, effective December 16, 2001. On December 24, 2002 we stayed the suspension pending appeal.
Generally, this court will not disturb a state agency decision unless the decision is"arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or it is not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole." Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980). However, while an appellate court must respect the agency's expertise, the interpretation of a statute is a judicial function and we are"in no way bound by the agency's interpretation of a statute or its determination of a strictly legal issue." Mayflower Sec. Co. v. Bureau of Sec., 64 N.J. 85, 93 (1973).
The Compact requires the New Jersey DMV to suspend a license when the driver is convicted of driving while under the influence of alcohol in another state. ...