On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County, Municipal Appeal No. 57-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Reisner and Alvarez.
Defendant Antonios Stamos appeals from a Law Division order dated December 10, 2007, finding him guilty of a traffic offense, on a de novo appeal from the municipal court, and finding him guilty of contempt of court. We reverse.
Defendant was originally ticketed on August 26, 2006, at approximately 10:30 p.m., for creating a risk of an accident, N.J.S.A. 39:4-56. He was convicted of that offense in municipal court. However, on his Law Division appeal, defendant was convicted of making an illegal U-turn, N.J.S.A. 39:4-125. The municipal court also fined defendant $150 for what it characterized as "contempt of court," a penalty also imposed by the Law Division on defendant's appeal.
The original traffic ticket advised defendant of a September 12, 2006 court date. On August 28, 2006, defendant submitted a written adjournment request due to his college schedule and asked for a Friday hearing. The Municipal court clerk wrote back to defendant on September 11, 2006, explaining that court only met on Tuesdays and asking defendant to contact the court to obtain a new hearing date. However, on September 22, 2006, the court sent defendant a notice for failure to appear. Defendant responded on October 19, 2006, indicating that he was still waiting for a new trial date. The trial was rescheduled for November 28, 2006. By letter dated October 27, 2006, defendant announced that "I am adjourning the above case" until the court allowed him to depose Trooper James Dolan, the officer who had ticketed him, and until the court responded to several additional requests.*fn1
The hearing was later rescheduled to January 9, 2007. On January 8, 2007, defendant faxed the court a letter confirming an earlier conversation with "Chris" at the clerk's office, that defendant was requesting an adjournment because he was ill. He sent a follow-up letter on January 12, 2007. However, on January 22, 2007, the court issued defendant a notice that an arrest warrant had been issued for contempt of court as the result of an unanswered traffic summons. On January 23, 2007, defendant faxed the court a long letter explaining why he had not appeared and asking that the warrant be recalled. He also filed an appeal to the Law Division from the issuance of the warrant.
The court hearing was rescheduled to March 6, 2007. It was sent to defendant with a letter from the municipal court administrator advising that the warrant had been recalled but defendant must appear on March 6. Although the State has provided us with an illegible copy, there seems no dispute that when defendant did not appear on March 6, another warrant issued on March 7, 2007. On March 28, 2007, defendant sent the court a letter advising that he "did not forget about the pending traffic case" and "I am temporarily adjourning this case" because he was attending college and had not yet received a decision on his earlier appeal to the Law Division.
The municipal trial finally took place on June 26, 2007. Trooper James Dolan testified that on August 26, 2006, he was on routine patrol in Bordentown. He was traveling behind a silver Acura on Route 130 southbound. Both vehicles stopped for a red light at the intersection of Route 130 and Crosswicks Avenue. Trooper Dolan saw the Acura turn right onto Crosswicks and "make an illegal U-turn in order to catch the green light to go up to 130 northbound instead of going around the jug-handle, which is what you needed to do." Dolan stopped the Acura, which defendant was driving. After explaining the offense to defendant and observing that defendant's car had New York plates, Dolan "figured he may be unfamiliar with the area." Defendant also indicated that he did not know what he had done wrong. Dolan therefore decided to give defendant "a break" by citing him for creating a risk of an accident, a "no-point violation," instead of for making an illegal U-turn, which was a "two-point violation."
According to Dolan, there were no other vehicles traveling on the roadway at the time. He testified that there was a "jughandle" available about fifty feet after the traffic light at Crosswicks, and that defendant should have used the jughandle instead of turning right onto Crosswicks, making an immediate U-turn in the roadway, and proceeding through the green light to make a left turn onto Route 130 northbound. Although Dolan testified that defendant made a right turn while the light was red, he agreed this was lawful, and he only stopped defendant after observing him making the U-turn on Crosswicks. On cross-examination, Dolan clarified that he stopped defendant's car after defendant had turned left at the light from Crosswicks onto Route 130 northbound. Dolan "noticed that there was no oncoming traffic coming from northbound or coming out of Crosswicks and I made a U-turn to . . . pull [defendant] over."
Dolan also admitted that there was no solid double yellow line on Crosswicks where defendant made his U-turn. The weather was dry and clear, the street lighting was good, and the officer did not see any "no U-turns" signs on Crosswicks Avenue. The municipal judge precluded defendant from asking Dolan whether there were any signs on Route 130 advising drivers of an upcoming jughandle or a legal U-turn opportunity beyond the intersection, and the State presented no evidence of such a sign. Nor did Dolan present any testimony as to how defendant's U-turn created a risk of an accident, in the apparent absence of other traffic on Crosswicks Avenue.
Defendant, who was representing himself, testified that he and his fiancé were "lost and . . . were just driving around to find a hotel or motel room." They saw a motel across the street on northbound Route 130 and decided to stop there. He turned right at the light at Crosswicks and drove to where the "double yellow line broke" before turning around. Defendant observed that "[t]here [were] no vehicles around." He "pulled far to the right side of the road, waited for a couple of seconds, looked, no vehicle was behind, coming, whatsoever. I made what's called a three-point K-turn." When the light turned green, he turned left onto Route 130 northbound.
Defendant testified that the next day he returned to the scene and took pictures of the roadway to document that there was "no sign indicating where or when you can make a legal U-turn." The judge sustained the State's objection to the pictures on the grounds that they were irrelevant to the charge of creating a risk, and defendant "didn't get cited for [an] illegal ...