On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, Docket No. L-4751-03.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Parker and Messano.
Defendant Jonathan Nobile appeals the June 13, 2006, order of the Law Division which, after de novo review, affirmed the municipal court's prior denial of defendant's petition for post-conviction relief (PCR). We have carefully considered the record in light of appropriate legal standards. We affirm for reasons other than those expressed by the Law Division judge, but remand the matter for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
The salient facts are these. Defendant was convicted in Sparta Township municipal court of driving while intoxicated (DWI) on July 25, 1995 and again convicted in Byram Township municipal court of DWI on September 17, 1996. He contends that both convictions were without the benefit of counsel.
On February 23, 2006, and again on March 16, 2006, defendant pled guilty in Sparta Township municipal court to DWI for a third and fourth time. All the appropriate administrative fines and penalties were imposed, defendant's driver's license was suspended for two consecutive ten-year periods, and two consecutive 180 day terms of imprisonment were imposed pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a)(3). The court stayed the terms of imprisonment pending defendant's appeal.
Defendant then filed a PCR petition in Byram Township municipal court claiming his prior conviction in that court in 1996 was uncounseled and he sought relief pursuant to State v. Laurick, 120 N.J. 1, cert. denied, 498 U.S. 967, 111 S.Ct. 429, 112 L.Ed. 2d 413 (1990). His application was summarily denied by the municipal court judge who determined that defendant's application was time-barred by R. 7:10-2(b)(2), and that defendant had not shown any excusable neglect for failing to bring the application sooner.*fn1
Defendant appealed to the Law Division where the judge affirmed the municipal judge's determination. Although initially uncertain whether a PCR petition was the appropriate mechanism for the relief sought by defendant, the judge concluded defendant's petition was time-barred noting, "[I]t is generally a good idea to bring post conviction relief attacks on underlying convictions within a reasonable time." This appeal ensued.
Defendant contends that his right to challenge the 1996 uncounseled DWI conviction in Byram Township pursuant to the holding in Laurick is independent of any time limit contained in the court rules. Alternatively, he argues that his application fits within exceptions to the Rule's time constraints and therefore is not untimely. Lastly, he argues that his failure to timely file his PCR was based upon excusable neglect. In sum, defendant contends he was entitled to a hearing before the Byram Township municipal court and that it was error to summarily dismiss his petition without one.
The State argues that defendant's PCR petition was properly dismissed because it was untimely without exception or excusable neglect under R. 7:10-2. Alternatively, the State contends that the transcript from the entry of defendant's guilty plea before the Byram Township municipal court in 1996 demonstrates he was not entitled to any relief pursuant to Laurick.
We begin by examining R. 7:10-2 which governs PCR petitions in municipal court. It provides, in pertinent part,
(a) Petition for Relief. A person convicted of an offense may . . . file . . . a petition for post-conviction relief captioned in the action in which the conviction was entered.
(b) Limitations and Exclusiveness.
(1) A petition to correct an illegal sentence may be ...