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State v. Cummings

June 23, 2005

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
JOHN R. CUMMINGS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

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).

On January 7, 2003, John R. Cummings was stopped by Mahwah Township Police Officer Michael Blondin for illegally crossing the center line of traffic. Officer Blondin believed that Cummings was under the influence of an intoxicant and arrested him. At the police station, Officer Blondin requested twice that Cummings submit to a breathalyzer test. Cummings twice refused. Officer Blondin issued citations to Cummings for driving while intoxicated and refusing to submit to a breathalyzer test in violation of the Refusal Statute.

On May 29, 2003, Cummings, represented by counsel, appeared before the Mahwah Municipal Court and moved to dismiss the citation charging him with refusing to submit to a breathalyzer test. Cummings asserted that the preponderance of the evidence burden of proof set forth in the Refusal Statute violated his due process rights and that he was constitutionally entitled to a trial by jury. Both applications were denied. Cummings then entered a conditional guilty plea. The municipal court sentenced Cummings to $605 in fines, court costs, surcharges and penalties and assessments; twelve hours of instruction at the Intoxicated Driver Resource Center; and a six-month suspension of the right to operate a motor vehicle.

On appeal, the Law Division conducted a trial that consisted solely of argument on the two legal contentions. The Law Division rejected the constitutional due process challenge to the preponderance of the evidence burden of proof embodied in the statute, found Cummings guilty of refusing to submit to the breathalyzer test, and imposed the same sentence as had the municipal court. In the Appellate Division, Cummings again maintained that the preponderance of the evidence burden of proof violated his due process rights and that, given the nature of the charges against him, he was constitutionally entitled to a trial by jury. The panel rejected both constitutional arguments.

This Court granted certification to consider only whether the preponderance of the evidence burden of proof in the Refusal Statute violates due process.

Held: Because a breathalyzer refusal case is properly a quasi-criminal matter, the constitutionally required burden of proof is the one applicable to criminal cases: proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This ruling shall have "pipeline retroactivity" effect. The case is remanded to the municipal court, where Cummings is to be afforded the opportunity either to withdraw his plea and proceed to trial under the proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard or to accept his earlier conviction and sentence.

1. As finally passed, the Refusal Statute provides for a preponderance of the evidence standard of proof for breathalyzer refusal convictions. Since the preponderance of the evidence standard was adopted in judicially determined breathalyzer refusal cases, the penalties under the statute have increased significantly. It is against this backdrop that we consider the burden of proof required in order to sustain a conviction under the Refusal Statute. (pp. 6-7)

2. The landscape that informs our consideration of the standard of proof applicable to breathalyzer refusal hearings shifted substantially in 1999. In State v. Widmaier, a unanimous Court held that, at least for double jeopardy purposes under the United States and New Jersey's Constitution, a violation of the Implied Consent Law and a prosecution under the refusal statute must be regarded as quasi-criminal in nature, and barred the State's appeal of an acquittal under the Refusal Statute. The core analytical principles for which State v. Widmaier, stands require a re-examination of the burden of proof in breathalyzer refusal cases. Upon such re-examination, we perceive no meaningful difference between the application of criminal double jeopardy principles to actions under the Refusal Statute, and the application of the criminal burden of proof -- proof beyond a reasonable doubt, in lieu of the civil standard of preponderance of the evidence -- to prosecutions under the Refusal Statute. (pp. 10-11)

3. That analysis leads us inescapably to the conclusion that, despite the clear legislative election as well as prior acceptance of the preponderance of the evidence standard as the appropriate standard for breathalyzer refusal cases, the proper standard of proof here is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. That conclusion is compelled by the application of simple logic. Hence, for prosecutions under the Refusal Statute, the State must prove the statutory elements of a defendant's refusal to submit to a breathalyzer test beyond a reasonable doubt. (p. 11)

4. This ruling should have no discernable adverse effect on the prosecution of those who refuse to submit to a breathalyzer test. Save for the burden of proof, nothing has changed. It is difficult to envision a set of circumstances where the same quality of proofs tendered in the past to establish those elements under the preponderance of the evidence standard will somehow fall short of satisfying the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in the future. (pp. 11-12)

5. We must now address whether the proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard here adopted is to be applied retroactively, a determination that implicates a three-step analysis under State v. Knight. First, we must engage in the threshold inquiry of whether the rule is a new rule of law for purposes of retroactivity analysis. If a new rule of law is announced, we proceed to the second step which involves a consideration of three factors. The first factor, the purpose of the new rule, is often the pivotal consideration. The second and third factors come to the forefront of the retroactivity analysis when the inquiry into the purpose of the new rule does not reveal whether retroactive application of the new rule would be appropriate. The second factor inquires whether law enforcement agents justifiably relied on the old rule. The third factor, the effect a retroactive application would have on the administration of justice, recognizes that the courts must not impose unjustified burdens on our criminal justice system. (pp. 12-14)

6. Once a determination is made that retroactivity is appropriate, this Court has four options in determining the retroactive effect of a new rule of criminal procedures. First, the Court may decide to apply the new rule purely prospectively. Second, the Court may apply the new rule in future cases and in the case in which the rule is announced, but not in other litigation that is pending or has reached final judgment at the time the new rule is set forth. A third option is to give the new rule "pipeline retroactivity," rendering it applicable in all future cases, the case in which the rule is announced, and any cases still on direct appeal. Fourth, the Court may give the new rule complete retroactive effect, applying it to all cases. (pp. 14-15)

7. An application of these principles leads to the threshold conclusion that today we announce a new rule of law. Having so determined, we apply the three factors to be considered in the retroactivity calculus. First, the purpose of the new rule is intended to make the burden of proof in prosecutions for the failure to submit to a breathalyzer test consonant with all other prosecutions under the Motor Vehicle Act. As regards the second factor, one can only conclude that those who administered the rule we change today did so relying on its correctness. The third factor, the effect a retroactive application would have on the administration of justice, weighs heavily against complete retroactive application of this new rule. We select the third retroactivity option, "pipeline retroactivity." This new rule applies in this case, in future cases, and in any case still on direct appeal at the time this new rule is set forth. (pp. 15-16)

8. Cummings' conviction was the product of a plea that preserved the very issue vindicated today. This matter must be remanded to the municipal court where Cummings may elect to withdraw his plea and proceed to trial under the proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard of proof or to accept his earlier conviction and sentence. (p. 17)

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

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, ALBIN, and WALLACE join in ...


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