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State v. Clarke


November 23, 2007


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Municipal Appeal No. 2006-025.

Per curiam.


Argued November 8, 2007

Before Judges Parker and Lyons.

Defendant Christopher Clarke appeals from an order entered on July 31, 2006, finding him guilty of refusal to submit to a breathalyzer test, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4a,*fn1 after de novo review.

The facts giving rise to this appeal are as follows. On March 3, 2004, Montclair Police Officer Thomas Flynn (Flynn) observed two cars parked in a no parking zone near the South Park Bar & Grill. There was a conspicuous "No Parking" sign and a yellow curb indicating a no parking zone. One of the vehicles belonged to defendant.

As Flynn began to issue a summons for the parking violation, defendant appeared and told Flynn it was his vehicle. According to Flynn, defendant's breath smelled of alcohol, his eyes were "somewhat glassy," his speech was slurred, and he was swaying and staggering. Defendant's demeanor was "belligerent, upset and angry." Flynn thought that defendant was under the influence of alcohol and told him not to drive the car and to have someone else move it from the no parking zone. Defendant ignored the officer, got into the car, put the keys in the ignition, and began to move it in reverse. When Flynn reached into the vehicle for the keys, defendant struck him. Flynn then attempted to remove defendant from the vehicle and arrest him. Defendant continued to struggle until the officer got him out of the car and on the ground. During the struggle, defendant had been reaching toward the left side of the driver's seat, where Flynn found a knife over fifteen inches in length after he had removed defendant from the vehicle. A second knife was also found on the side of the driver's seat. Defendant was placed in the back of Flynn's patrol car. Flynn testified that he was "overwhelmed" by the strong odor of alcohol from defendant while they were in the patrol car. Flynn then transported defendant to police headquarters. Flynn testified that defendant was "swaying back and forth in the rear of the -- the car. . . .

[H]e was bobbing, weaving, even sobbing at one point." At police headquarters, Flynn read defendant the entire standard statement including the "Additional Statement" section regarding the breathalyzer test and the opportunity to have a blood test. Defendant refused the breathalyzer test, after which he complained of chest pains and shortness of breath. The first aid squad transported defendant to Mountainside Hospital. Flynn sent a standard blood collection evidence kit with a backup officer, who went to the hospital to guard defendant. At the hospital, defendant refused the blood test.

When defendant was returned to police headquarters from the hospital, approximately five hours after the initial stop, defendant said he wanted to take the breathalyzer test. The test was not given to him because of the lapse in time since the incident.

At trial, defendant produced two witnesses who claimed they had been in the bar before the incident. One testified defendant did not appear intoxicated but he did not know how many drinks defendant had that night. The other said that he saw defendant "sipping" his drink and that defendant "had one drink, maybe," before the incident.

Defendant also produced a private investigator who testified that he saw a videotape of the incident. The municipal court judge found, however, that the tape was very brief and "[i]t's a tough tape to make much out of." Defendant also testified on his own behalf, stating that he had not even finished one drink that night. He further claimed that he was never offered the opportunity to take the breathalyzer test before he was taken to the hospital and that he would have taken it if it had been offered to him. He claimed that he had previous altercations with Flynn and that Flynn offered him the breathalyzer test when he returned from the hospital and he did not refuse.

The municipal court found defendant guilty of refusal. After a de novo review, the Law Division found that "[o]n two occasions the defendant was asked to take a breathalyzer test. He was advised of the consequences of his failure to do so, nevertheless continued in his failure until some many hours later -- way too long to effect a cure, if there ever is one, of a refusal charge."

In this appeal, defendant argues:




THE SUBJECTIVE OPINION OF A POLICE OFFICER AND NOTHING MORE DOES NOT QUALIFY AS PROOF BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT IN A REFUSAL CASE. Defendant argues that proof beyond a reasonable doubt of defendant's refusal to take a breathalyzer test is required. We agree. That principle has been firmly established in Cummings, supra, 184 N.J. 84. However, we are satisfied, after reviewing the record and the opinion of Judge Thomas R. Vena of the Law Division, that the statutory elements, which the State must prove for prosecutions under N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4a, were met beyond a reasonable doubt. See Cummings, supra, 184 N.J. at 96.

The scope of appellate review of municipal court convictions is exceedingly narrow. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 470-71 (1999). On appeal from the Law Division's de novo review and disposition, the appellate division applies the substantial evidence rule to the Law Division's proceedings. Id. at 469-71. See State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161-62 (1964); State v. Ebert, 377 N.J. Super. 1, 8 (App. Div. 2005); State v. Cerefice, 335 N.J. Super. 374, 383 (App. Div. 2000). The Supreme Court has stated that an appellate tribunal must review the record in the light of the contention [that the trial court erred in its determination of the facts], but not initially from the point of view of how it would decide the matter if it were the court of first instance. It should give deference to those findings of the trial judge which are substantially influenced by his opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to have the "feel" of the case, which a reviewing court cannot enjoy.

The aim of the review at the outset is rather to determine whether the findings made could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record. This involves consideration of the proofs as a whole . . . . When the reviewing court is satisfied that the findings and result meet this criterion, its task is complete and it should not disturb the result, even though it has the feeling it might have reached a different conclusion were it the trial tribunal. [Johnson, supra, 42 N.J. at 161-62 (internal citations omitted).]

We are satisfied, following our thorough review of the record and Judge Vena's detailed and considered opinion, that there is sufficient credible evidence present in the record to sustain the conviction of defendant.

Defendant argues, however, that "the subjective opinion of a police officer and nothing more does not qualify as proof beyond a reasonable doubt in a refusal case." We disagree. The record clearly indicates that the police officer had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that defendant was operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol. See State v. Pavao, 239 N.J. Super. 206, 209-10 (App. Div. 1990). The officer testified that defendant's speech was slurred; that he was swaying and staggering; that there was a strong odor of alcohol from defendant; and that his demeanor was "belligerent, upset, and angry." The finding of the Law Division that the elements of refusal were met may be supported by the testimony of the police officer standing alone. The New Jersey Supreme Court has found that "[t]he reasonable doubt standard also may be satisfied by uncorroborated testimonial evidence." In re Samay, 166 N.J. 25, 31 (2001). Accordingly, for the reasons set forth in Judge Vena's thorough and detailed opinion, we affirm defendant's conviction. Any stay of defendant's sentence is hereby vacated.


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