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State v. Bealor

July 20, 2006

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
JUSTIN BEALOR, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 377 N.J. Super. 321 (2005).

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).

This appeal requires that the Court address whether lay opinion is sufficient to prove the offense of driving while intoxicated when the intoxicating agent is marijuana and not alcohol, or whether additional expert opinion is required.

On July 11, 2002, defendant Justin Bealor was driving in Sea Isle City, Cape May County, when his erratic driving caught the attention of State Police Troopers Michael Donahue and Jason Innella. Donahue and Innella initiated a motor vehicle stop. The officers observed a twelve-pack of beer, ripped open, on the back seat of the car, and upon approaching the vehicle noted an odor of alcohol "emanating" from defendant as well as from the vehicle. Defendant admitted to drinking "a couple of beers" and the officers further observed, among other things, that defendant was slow, that his clothes were "messy and muss," and that he had an "emotionless stare on his face" and slurred speech. For their safety, the officers patted defendant down and uncovered "a multi-colored smoking pipe with marijuana residue in it." Defendant was arrested and advised of his Miranda rights. At police headquarters, defendant submitted to two breathalyzer tests and provided a urine sample. While at police headquarters, defendant became "agitated" and had to be physically restrained.

At the municipal court trial, the State presented the observations of the State Troopers, along with the testimony of two forensic scientists employed by the State police. The scientists testified to the presence of marijuana metabolite -- "a psychoactive ingredient in marijuana" -- in defendant's urine, and the presence of burnt marijuana in the glass smoking pipe. Defendant did not proffer a defense. Instead, he argued that "marijuana intoxication really cannot be proven without an expert [in respect of] intoxication by drugs at the time of the event." The municipal court rejected that argument, noting that the State had presented evidence both of the fact of intoxication (through the testimony of Donahue), and the cause of the intoxication (through the testimony and opinions of the qualified forensic scientists). The municipal court found defendant guilty of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of marijuana, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.

On de novo appeal to the Law Division, defendant argued that "[r]ecognizing someone being under the influence of marijuana versus some other narcotic drug or under [the influence of] alcohol is something the lay person can't do." The Law Division found that, under the circumstances, there was no need for expert testimony as to the level of defendant's intoxication. The Law Division reimposed the municipal court's sentence.

The Appellate Division reversed. The Appellate panel found that "[t]he State failed to present any evidence of the quantity of marijuana metabolites in defendant's urine, nor did the State present any evidence linking defendant's driving or post-arrest conduct with marijuana intoxication." Noting that "[m]arijuana intoxication . . . is not a matter of common knowledge such that an inference of intoxication may be drawn solely from a lay witness's testimony respecting defendant's behavior[,]" the Appellate Division concluded that "a per se rule cannot be applied to a [driving while intoxicated] charge involving marijuana in the absence of any evidence as to the effect of marijuana on defendant's behavior or physical appearance."

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

HELD: Although evidentially competent lay observations of the fact of intoxication are always admissible, lay opinion in respect of the cause of intoxication other than from alcohol consumption is not admissible. However, competent lay observations of the fact of intoxication, coupled with additional independent proofs tending to demonstrate defendant's consumption of narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drugs as of the time of the defendant's arrest, constitute proofs sufficient to allow the fact-finder to conclude, without more, that the defendant was intoxicated beyond a reasonable doubt and, thereby, to sustain a conviction under N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.

1. Since 1924, because sobriety and intoxication are matters of common observation and knowledge, New Jersey has permitted the use of lay opinion testimony to establish alcohol intoxication. Founded on that premise, lay opinion consistently has been admitted to prove that a defendant was "operat[ing] a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor" in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, the driving while intoxicated statute. This appeal requires that we explore a related question: whether, similar to alcohol intoxication, intoxication arising as a result of the consumption of narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drugs also can be proved by lay opinion, or whether additional proofs are required. (Pp. 13-14)

2. N.J.R.E. 701 sets forth the prerequisites for the admission of lay opinion testimony, with the purpose of ensuring that lay opinion is based on adequate foundation. Nothing in Rule 701 relieves "the obligation of a party to meet the requirements of a rule of law that the fact be proved either by a preponderance of the evidence or by clear and convincing evidence or beyond a reasonable doubt, as the case may be." N.J.R.E. 101(b)(1). We have repeatedly made clear that, in motor vehicle violation cases, the State's burden of proof unquestionably is beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, we must examine whether the record in this case contains sufficient proofs to sustain the State's burden of proving that marijuana intoxication is now a matter of common knowledge and observation. We conclude that it does not. For that reason, we decline the State's invitation that we overrule the extant proscription against lay opinion testimony in respect of marijuana intoxication. The State did not tender any proofs at any state of these proceedings to show that there is now a general awareness of the indicia or symptoms of marijuana intoxication. To take the step the State invites us to take, our adversary system requires more: factual proofs presented to a fact-finder tempered by the fire of confrontation, cross-examination and adverse proofs. We are, therefore, constrained from reaching the threshold issue pressed by the State. (Pp. 14-17)

3. Having rejected the State's invitation to place lay opinion testimony regarding marijuana intoxication on the same footing as lay opinion testimony as to alcohol intoxication, we must address whether, in the absence of lay opinion testimony, the evidence tendered here was sufficient to prove that defendant was under the influence of marijuana while he operated a motor vehicle. The driving while intoxicated statute expresses the Legislature's desire to prohibit driving while intoxicated; whether the cause of intoxication is alcohol or narcotics, hallucinogens or habit-forming drugs is largely irrelevant. Expert proofs are not a necessary prerequisite for a conviction for driving while under the influence of alcohol. By the same token, the driving while intoxicated statute "does not require that the particular narcotic[, hallucinogen or habit-producing drug] be identified." State v. Tamburro, 68 N.J. 414, 421 (1975). The statute also does not define the quantum of narcotics, hallucinogens or habit-producing drugs required in order to violate its prohibition. Instead, as with alcohol intoxication, the issue is simple: was the defendant "under the influence" of a narcotic, hallucinogen or habit-producing drug while he operated a motor vehicle. The aggregate of the State's proofs was more than sufficient to permit the fact-finder to conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that defendant violated the driving while intoxicated statute. The rule adopted by the Appellate Division panel -- that the nexus between the facts of intoxication and the cause of intoxication can only be proved by expert opinion -- impermissibly impinges on the traditional role of the fact-finder and is explicitly disavowed. Thus, we adopt the rationale employed by both the municipal court and the Law Division and hold that additional expert opinion was not necessary in order to sustain defendant's conviction. (Pp. 17-23)

4. Expert testimony remains the preferred method of proof of marijuana intoxication. We arrive at that conclusion in the knowledge that it is not too difficult a burden for the State to offer an expert opinion as to marijuana intoxication. Prosecutors in municipal courts throughout the State routinely qualify local and state police officers to testify as experts on the subject of marijuana intoxication. (Pp. 23-25)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, defendant's conviction is REINSTATED, and the cause is REMANDED to the Law Division for such additional proceedings as may be required consistent with this opinion.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, ALBIN, and WALLACE join in JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Rivera-soto

Argued May 1, 2006

N.J.S.A. 39:4-50 does not prohibit solely the "operat[ion of] a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor[.]" The driving while intoxicated statute also prohibits the "operat[ion of] a motor vehicle while under the influence of . . . narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug[s.]" Framed in the latter context, this appeal requires that we address whether lay opinion is sufficient to prove the offense of driving while intoxicated when the intoxicating agent is marijuana and not alcohol, or whether additional expert opinion is required.

We hold that, although evidentially competent lay observations of the fact of intoxication are always admissible, lay opinion in respect of the cause of intoxication other than from alcohol consumption is not admissible because, unlike alcohol intoxication, "[n]o such general awareness exists as yet with regard to the signs and symptoms of the condition described as being 'high' on marihuana." State v. Smith, 58 N.J. 202, 213 (1971). However, we further hold that competent lay observations of the fact of intoxication, coupled with additional independent proofs tending to demonstrate defendant's consumption of narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drugs as of the time of the defendant's arrest, constitute proofs sufficient to allow the fact-finder to conclude, without more, that the defendant was intoxicated beyond a reasonable doubt and, thereby, to sustain a conviction under N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.

I.

The transcripts of the trial held in the Municipal Court disclose that, during the early morning hours of July 11, 2002, defendant Justin Bealor was driving in Sea Isle City, Cape May County, when his erratic driving caught the attention of State Police Troopers Michael Donahue and Jason Innella.*fn1 According to Donahue, he and Innella were traveling behind defendant's car and observed it "weaving across the double lines, several times." Defendant then turned east onto JFK Boulevard, a divided road, but was traveling in the westbound lanes, into what would have been on-coming traffic. Donahue and Innella turned on to the eastbound lanes of JFK Boulevard and followed defendant "until there was a break in the median." At that point, Donahue and Innella crossed over into the westbound lanes and ...


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