On appeal from the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges C.S. Fisher and Grall.
Appellant Arnaldo Martinez seeks our review of the Motor Vehicle Commission's imposition of a 3,600-day suspension of his driver's license due to a third conviction for driving while intoxicated (DWI). Because we agree with appellant's contention that he was entitled to a hearing in order to develop and explore whether he had presented a reason for being treated as a second instead of a third offender, we vacate the agency decision and remand for a hearing.
N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a)(3) requires that upon a third DWI, a driver "shall . . . forfeit his right to operate a motor vehicle" in New Jersey "for 10 years." There is no dispute that appellant was arrested for his first DWI on April 23, 1993, his second on January 16, 1995, and his third on December 6, 1995. The first two offenses occurred in New Jersey; the third occurred in Georgia. Appellant was convicted in the first two matters. The Georgia offense, according to appellant, "fell through the cracks," and went unresolved for eleven years. The reasons for the delay in the disposition of the Georgia DWI are unclear.
On January 15, 2007, the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) sent two suspension notices to appellant. One notice indicated that appellant's driving privileges were scheduled to be suspended for 3,600 days because of the Georgia conviction; the other indicated that his driving privileges were scheduled to be suspended for 180 days due to appellant's operation of a vehicle while his privileges were suspended.
Appellant responded. He asserted that he was "disputing the basis surrounding [the MVC's] decision to suspend." The MVC took the position that this statement did not sufficiently present a legal or factual dispute and issued two final agency decisions on February 16, 2007, which upheld the suspensions referred to in the January 15, 2007 notices. Appellant responded again, urging that a hearing was required so that the MVC could learn of the "facts and circumstances which involved the prior DWIs," including whether appellant had legal representation in the earlier matters. He argued that the circumstances that would be explored at the hearing would present a legitimate reason for treating appellant as a second offender even though he could technically be found to be a third offender. The MVC rejected appellant's request for a hearing and concluded again that appellant would be suspended for the periods of time set forth in the original notices.
In this appeal, appellant argues that the imposition of a 3,600-day suspension constitutes a hardship when viewed in light of what has occurred in the many years that elapsed between the Georgia DWI, which occurred in 1995, and his conviction on that offense, which occurred 2006. He further claims that a hearing should have been conducted to examine these unusual circumstances and the impact the suspension would have on appellant. We agree that the issues should have been explored and developed at an evidentiary hearing.
Appellant asserts that the three DWI offenses occurred at a time when he was young and prone to make "immature and irrational decisions." He claims that he thereafter sought treatment for his alcohol addiction and has since maintained sobriety. In addition, he asserts that he now has a family and is a principal in a construction company, thus rendering onerous the suspension that has been imposed. Although there is no doubt that the Georgia matter, which was finally resolved with a guilty plea in 2006, constitutes appellant's third DWI conviction, and that a rigid application of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a)(3) requires the imposition of a 3,600-day suspension, the circumstances are quite different from those normally encountered.
We intimate no view as to whether the suspension imposed by the MVC is or is not appropriate in the alleged circumstances. We conclude only that a hearing should be conducted in which the circumstances urged by appellant may be developed and explored and following which a determination should be made by the MVC as to whether these circumstances, once ascertained, warrant treating appellant as a second rather than a third DWI offender.
Vacated and remanded for further proceedings in conformity with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.
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