On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, Docket No. MA 07-080.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 22, 2008
Before Judges Carchman and Simonelli.
Defendant Matthew Jansson appeals from a judgment of conviction of the Law Division after a trial de novo. Defendant was previously convicted in the Wall Township Municipal Court of obstruction of the administration of law or other governmental function, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1(a); one count of cruelty towards an animal, N.J.S.A. 2C:4:22-17; two counts of permitting a dog out unleashed, Twp. of Wall, N.J., Rev. Ordinances, ch. 4, art. I, §65-12 (1978); two counts of allowing a dog to run at large, Twp. of Wall, N.J., Ordinances, ch. 4, art. I, §65-11 (1978); and two counts of failing to license a dog, Twp. of Wall, N.J., Ordinances, ch. 4, art. I, §65-9 (1978). Defendant was acquitted on one count of cruelty towards an animal. Following a trial de novo in the Law Division, defendant was convicted of the same offenses. Judge Chaiet reduced the previously imposed fines to an aggregate of $750 together with costs, and imposed a two-day community service obligation. We affirm.
The relevant facts adduced at trial reveal that at 9:11 a.m. on November 5, 2006, the Wall Township police were dispatched to 3919 Belmar Boulevard in response to a complaint that two Rottweiler dogs were running loose through the neighborhood and were behaving aggressively toward area residents. Several officers participated in tracking the dogs to various properties in the vicinity. At one point, both animals were located in a neighboring backyard, 3443 Woodfield Avenue, where Wall Township Patrolman Todd Verrechia attempted to secure them. During this encounter, the large male dog attacked Officer Verrechia, biting his hand. As a defensive measure, the officer discharged his weapon, piercing the dog's ear. Both dogs escaped under the fencing and into an adjoining heavily wooded area, the larger of the two wounded and bleeding.
Defendant, who had relocated to California from New Jersey in 2004, was visiting in Wall Township. On the morning of December 5, he was hunting in Monmouth County when, at approximately 10:45 a.m., he received a phone call from a former neighbor alerting him that his dogs were running loose, and the Wall Township police were at his former residence. Defendant immediately drove to his former residence to locate and secure the dogs. When he arrived at the house, the police were not present.
Defendant then drove onto Westfield Avenue, which abuts the rear of his former property, parked his vehicle, and entered the woods to search for the dogs. He located the injured male dog, Panzer, first. He observed that the dog was soaked in blood and appeared unable to walk. Defendant, claiming to have no knowledge of the nature or extent of Panzer's injuries at this point, tethered the dog to a tree to secure him and left to get help.
Defendant then drove toward the Garden State Animal Hospital where he spotted his female dog, Gretel, on the side of the road. He stopped to secure her to a tree near where he found her, as he had done with the male dog. Defendant then received a call on his cell phone from Sergeant Greg Carpino of the Wall Police Department who explained that an officer had been bitten. The Sergeant requested immediate proof of the dogs' rabies shots, and defendant agreed to return to his former residence to meet with the officers.
Defendant met the officers at 3923 Belmar Boulevard and advised them that he did not know where the dogs were located. A short time later, he told them that he did know of their whereabouts. He then offered to find the dogs, told the officers where the dogs were and took them to their locations in the woods. After helping to load his dogs on a Monmouth County Humane Society van, defendant was arrested by Wall Township Officer Daniel Donlon. From the time defendant located and tethered the first dog in the woods, until he returned with the authorities to retrieve the dogs, approximately twenty to thirty minutes had elapsed.
As we previously noted, at the time of the incidents which gave rise to the charges, defendant was a resident of California having separated from his wife in 2004. His wife resides in Wall Township, and the dogs were maintained at the Wall Township residence.
Our standard of review of a trial de novo is one of deference to judge's findings recognizing that the trial judge has the unique opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and have a "feel" for the case. State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161 (1964); see also State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 471 (1999). We recently restated the unique review function generated by de novo review. After first reiterating that our review is based on the findings of the Law Division judge, we observed that our deference is: more compelling where, as in the present case, two lower courts have entered concurrent judgments on purely factual issues. Under the two-court rule, appellate courts ordinarily should not undertake to alter concurrent findings of fact and credibility determinations made by two lower courts absent a very obvious and exceptional showing of error. [State v. Clarksburg Inn, 375 N.J. Super. 624, 639 (App. Div. 2005)(quoting Locurto, supra, 157 N.J. at 474)].
On appeal, defendant raises the following issues:
MR. JANSSON IS NOT GUILTY OF OBSTRUCTION BECAUSE HE COOPERATED WITH POLICE DURING THE ENTIRE INCIDENT, LOCATED AND SECURED THE DOGS, SWIFTLY MET WITH POLICE AT THEIR ...