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State v. Fisher

July 12, 2004

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
JOHN W. FISHER, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 363 N.J. Super. 108 (2003).

Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Long, Verniero, LaVECCHIA, Albin, and Wallace join in Justice ZAZZALI's opinion.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

The issue in this appeal is whether an officer's failure to attest to probable cause by signing a traffic ticket is an absolute bar to prosecution and, if not, whether the omission must be remedied within thirty days of the commission of the offense under N.J.S.A. 39:5-3(a).

On March 23, 2002, while driving his car, defendant, John W. Fisher was stopped by Boonton Police Officer Richard Krok. Officer Krok arrested Fisher and brought him to police headquarters where a breathalyzer test was administered. The test revealed a blood-alcohol concentration between 0.13 percent and 0.14 percent, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.

Officer Krok issued Fisher three Uniform Traffic Tickets, each labeled "complaint-summons" and each containing separate charges: failure to signal; failure to keep right; and driving while intoxicated (DWI). On all three tickets, Officer Krok documented the date and location of the offense; the motor vehicle violation charged; the date of defendant's court appearance; and Krok's identification number. Although Krok signed two of the three tickets, he failed to sign the DWI ticket.

Three days after the stop, Fisher appeared at his arraignment in municipal court, at which time the court advised him of the three motor vehicle offenses with which he had been charged. Fisher pled not guilty to all three charges and the case was scheduled for a case management conference. Subsequently, on July 13, 2002, with the assistance of counsel, Fisher filed a motion to dismiss the DWI complaint based on the omission of Officer Krok's signature. Fisher alleged that the officer's failure to sign the ticket and the municipal court's failure to remedy that defect within thirty days of the commission of the offense precluded prosecution of the DWI charge. The municipal court denied Fisher's motion, reasoning that he had been properly advised of his rights and the charges pending and had not suffered any prejudice as a result of Krok's error. The court further noted that the omitted signature did not defeat the probable cause supporting the issuance of the traffic ticket. Thereafter, Fisher entered a conditional guilty plea to the DWI charge, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his motion to dismiss. The municipal court sentenced him as a repeat offender, but stayed imposition of the sentence pending resolution of Fisher's appeal.

Fisher filed an appeal with the Law Division. After a trial de novo on the record, that court reversed the municipal court's denial of the motion to dismiss, determining the omission of Krok's signature on the DWI ticket to be fatally defective. In the court's view, that signature was necessary to demonstrate that Krok had probable cause to charge defendant Fisher with the alleged violations. Construing N.J.S.A. 39:5-3(a) as establishing a thirty-day statute of limitations for motor vehicle charges, the court agreed with Fisher that the State's failure to correct the deficient ticket within thirty days of the date of the offense warranted dismissal of the DWI charge. By order, the court acquitted Fisher of the DWI conviction.

The Appellate Division affirmed with some procedural modifications. The panel agreed with the trial court's legal analysis and conclusion that the unsigned ticket was ineffective because it lacked an attestation of probable cause, but it found that the trial court erred in entering a judgment of acquittal. The panel remanded the matter to the Law Division with instructions to vacate the judgment of acquittal and enter an order dismissing the DWI charge.

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

HELD: The police officer's failure in this case to attest to probable cause by signing a traffic ticket was not an absolute bar to prosecution, and that failure may be remedied even beyond thirty days after the commission of the offense.

1. The Uniform Traffic Ticket combines the requisites of the complaint and summons in one form, and accordingly, it enables a law enforcement officer to make the complaint and serve process on the defendant at the time of the stop. (pp. 6-8)

2. The court rules are designed to ensure that traffic offenses are decided on the merits rather than dismissed on technicalities. Thus, both Rule 7:2-4 and Rule 7:17-2 permit amendment of a summons to remedy a technical defect. (pp. 8-9)

3. An officer's failure to attest to probable cause by signing the Uniform Traffic Ticket proves fatal to the prosecution only when that omission defeats the purposes intended to be served by the ticket or when the error otherwise prejudices the defendant. (pp. 9-11)

4. Although an officer's signature on a traffic ticket plays a valuable role in protecting citizens' rights, the absence of that signature on the ticket at the time of its issuance does not render the ticket invalid. Ordinarily, the omission of the signature will not threaten the defendant's right to procedural due process, and in most cases, any danger of unfounded prosecution posed by an unsigned ticket can be eliminated by an amendment under Rule 7:2-4 or 7:14-2.

Thus, there is no principled reason for adopting a per se rule that an unsigned traffic ticket is null and void. To conclude otherwise would undermine the policy of resolving traffic matters on the merits rather than on technicalities. (pp. 11-13)

5. In view of the important safeguards afforded by the officer's attestation of probable cause, the omission of that attestation cannot be cured without amending the ticket. Thus, when a defendant challenges an unsigned ticket on probable cause grounds, the State must amend the defective instrument to reflect that the officer reasonably believed that the defendant had committed the violation alleged. The State may correct the error either by submitting an affidavit or testimony from the law enforcement officer demonstrating that there was probable cause for the ticket's issuance, or by having the officer sign the ticket. (pp. 13-14)

6. N.J.S.A. 39:5-3(a) does not foreclose the State from supplementing the ticket with an attestation of probable cause more than thirty days after the commission of the offense. To the extent that the Appellate Division reached a contrary holding in State v. Brennan, 229 N.J. Super. 342 (App. Div. 1988), it is overruled. (pp. 14-17)

7. In this case, the unsigned ticket, which provided the defendant with adequate notice of the nature of the alleged offense and the date, time, and location of his required court appearance, does not require dismissal of the DWI charge. The ticket not only contained all of the vital information, but also the evidence does not suggest that the officer acted in bad faith in issuing it. Based on those facts, the absence of the officer's signature is an amendable defect under Rules 7:2-4 and 7:14-2. Although there is no reason to doubt that the officer had probable cause to issue the DWI ticket, the matter is remanded to the municipal court to allow the State to supplement the record by having the officer submit an affidavit or provide testimony indicating his belief that probable cause existed, or by offering into evidence a signed copy of the traffic ticket. (pp. 17-18)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to municipal court for further ...


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