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State v. Rowland

October 11, 2007; as amended October 15, 2007

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
ERIC ROWLAND, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Somerset County, 06-10-856-I.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Coburn, P.J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Argued September 25, 2007

Before Judges Coburn, Fuentes and Grall.

Eric Rowland is the defendant in a one-count indictment alleging, in essence, that he knowingly engaged in the home-improvement business without having met the statutory requirement of registering with the Division of Consumer Affairs. The Law Division judge interpreted the statute as requiring proof that defendant knew that his conduct violated the law. Since the evidence submitted to the grand jury did not include proof of such knowledge, the judge dismissed the indictment. The State appeals, contending that the judge misinterpreted the statute by requiring proof that defendant knew the law.

This is the evidence presented to the grand jury. In July 2006, Martin Korab of Hillsborough called defendant to renovate a bathroom in his house after seeing defendant's advertisement under the name Mercury Woods Carpentry in a telephone book. On August 5, defendant gave Korab a written proposal and a diagram of the work. Korab signed the proposal and gave defendant a check for $3,750. When defendant failed to proceed, Korab called the police, but thereafter they resolved their differences, agreeing that defendant could begin the work. However, when defendant applied for a work permit from the Hillsborough Building Department, he was turned down because he was not registered with the Division of Consumer Affairs. The building department explained to Korab why it had rejected the permit, and Korab asked defendant to return his deposit.

Defendant refused to comply, insisting that he was at least entitled to be compensated for preparing the plans and completing the permit application. Korab again called the police, who determined that neither defendant nor his company, Mercury Woods Carpentry, was a registered contractor. When questioned by the police, defendant said he was unaware of the registration requirement until he applied for the permit.

The indictment charged defendant with violating the Contractors' Registration Act, N.J.S.A. 56:8-136 to -152. The act was adopted in 2004 with an effective date of December 31, 2005. L. 2004, c. 16, § 1. In relevant part, the act states that on or after December 31, 2005, no person shall offer to perform, or engage, or attempt to engage in the business of making or selling home improvements unless registered with the Division of Consumer Affairs in accordance with the provisions of this act. [N.J.S.A. 56:8-138(a).

Although the act provides for regulatory relief, it also provides that violations may be dealt with under the Consumer Fraud Act, N.J.S.A. 56:8-1 to -106, or by criminal prosecution. The penalty section of the act reads as follows:

a. It is an unlawful practice and a violation of P.L. 1960, c. 39 (C.56:8-1 et seq.) to violate any provision of this act.

b. In addition to any other penalty provided by law, a person who knowingly violates any of the provisions of this act is guilty of a crime of the fourth degree. [N.J.S.A. 56:8-146 (emphasis added).]

The Law Division judge interpreted the statutory phrase "a person who knowingly violates any of the provisions of this act," as meaning that the State had to prove defendant's knowledge of the law. That construction is inconsistent with the New Jersey Criminal Code and with the interpretation that courts generally give to that or similar statutory phrases.

With certain exceptions that are not relevant here, our criminal code makes ignorance of the law irrelevant. This result is achieved by N.J.S.A. 2C:2-2(d), which is made applicable by N.J.S.A. 2C:1-5(b) to offenses defined by other statutes such as the ...


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