On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Somerset County, Municipal No. 10-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 14, 2008
Before Judges Lintner and Sabatino.
Following his arrest outside of a convenience store in Hillsborough Township, defendant Jaheim Hoagland was charged with various non-indictable offenses. A trial ensued in the municipal court on September 20, 2005, at which defendant was convicted of possession of fifty grams or less of marijuana, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10a(4); resisting arrest, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2a(1); possession of a controlled dangerous substance in a motor vehicle, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:4-49.1, and the use of unapproved tinted windows, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:3-77. The municipal judge sentenced defendant to ninety days in the county jail, plus various fines, court costs and the suspension of driving privileges.
Defendant appealed his convictions to the Law Division, raising a variety of substantive and evidentiary arguments. He also challenged his sentence as excessive. The County Prosecutor filed opposing papers with the Law Division. Counsel furnished the Law Division with briefs, as well as four volumes of transcripts of the municipal court proceedings and a videotape of defendant's encounter with the police.
The Law Division judge heard oral argument on November 8, 2006. At the conclusion of the argument, the judge did not render an oral bench ruling with findings of fact and conclusions of law. Instead, the judge reserved decision and advised counsel that he would "write a decision and send it out to you." Despite that advice, the judge failed to issue a written or oral ruling on the merits. The judge simply entered a judgment of conviction later that day, adopting the municipal court's disposition of guilt and sentence. The judgment contains no independent findings of fact or conclusions of law.
In his brief to this court, defense counsel represents that the judge did not, in fact, ever issue a written decision, and the prosecutor's brief does not express disagreement with that representation.
Defendant appealed the Law Division's judgment, contending that (1) his convictions are against the weight of the evidence; (2) his sentence was excessive; (3) he was denied the right to call exculpatory witnesses at trial; and (4) he was denied effective assistance of counsel because his trial attorney failed to file a motion to suppress evidence the police had seized at the time of his arrest. We granted defendant's unopposed application for bail pending appeal.
We are unable to conduct an informed and appropriate review of defendant's contentions on appeal because the Law Division judge apparently failed to make necessary findings of fact and conclusions of law, based upon the municipal record. The Law Division judge was obligated to make such de novo findings under R. 1:7-4 (non-jury cases) and R. 3:23-8 (municipal appeals). See, e.g., State v. States, 44 N.J. 285, 293 (1965); State v. Clarksburg Inn, 375 N.J. Super. 624, 639 (App. Div. 2005).
As a general matter, "[d]etailed findings . . . should be given by the trial court, not only for our use in the event of an appeal, but for the parties' review so that they can consider the court's sound reasons for reaching a fair result." Tronolone v. Palmer, 224 N.J. Super. 92, 104 (App. Div. 1988). This principle is especially important in the context of de novo judicial review. "A trial de novo by definition requires the trier to make his own findings of fact." State v. Ross, 189 N.J. Super. 67, 75 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 95 N.J. 197 (1983). In such a de novo context, the Law Division judge cannot simply adopt the municipal court's determination without comment, but rather must perform "an independent fact-finding function in respect of defendant's guilt or innocence." Ibid.
The absence of such stated findings and reasons here makes our review of the Law Division's judgment virtually impossible. Although we presume that the omission was the result of the judge's simple oversight or perhaps a clerical filing error, the circumstances represent "'a disservice to the litigants, the attorneys and the appellate court.'" Curtis v. Finneran, 83 N.J. 563, 569-70 (1980) (quoting Kenwood Assocs. v. Bd. of Adj. of Englewood, 141 N.J. Super. 1, 4 (App. Div. 1976)).
Given that the Law Division judge has since retired, we are constrained to remand this matter for a new trial de novo, which shall be conducted expeditiously and shall be decided with sufficient oral or written findings in compliance with the Rules of Court. Defendant's bail is continued, subject to the renewed examination of bail by the Law Division if so requested.
The judgment of November 8, 2006 is vacated, and the matter is remanded to the Law Division for proceedings consistent with this ...