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State v. Smith

July 30, 2009

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
MARTIN F. SMITH, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County, Municipal Appeal No. 06-121.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stern, P.J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Argued April 1, 2009

Before Judges Stern, Waugh and Ashrafi.

Defendant appeals his conviction on trial de novo for violating N.J.S.A. 39:4-125. His principal contention is that he did not make a "U turn" and that the proofs do not warrant a finding that he did. However, the statute does not require proof that defendant actually made a 180-degree turn. We affirm the conviction because defendant was found guilty of turning his vehicle "around so as to proceed in the opposite direction on a highway" on which a "no U turn" sign was conspicuously posted ― conduct which N.J.S.A. 39:4-125 prohibits.

On his appeal, defendant raises additional contentions that we also address. In sum, he argues:

I. THE REVIEWING COURT SHOULD DETERMINE WHETHER THE LOWER COURT COULD HAVE REASONABLY REACHED ITS FINDINGS BASED ON SUFFICIENT CREDIBLE EVIDENCE PRESENT IN THE RECORD.

II. THE INTERESTS OF JUSTICE REQUIRE INTERVENTION AND CORRECTION OF THE LAW DIVISION'S FINDING.

A. THE STATE DID NOT PROVE BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT THAT DEFENDANT-APPELLANT VIOLATED N.J.S.A. 39:4-125.

B. THE STATE FAILED TO PRODUCE SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE THAT THE SIGN AT ISSUE DOES NOT REQUIRE ENGINEERING JUSTIFICATION OR THAT THE SIGN AT ISSUE WAS PROPERLY PLACED.

C. DEFENDANT/APPELLANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS SHOULD HAVE BEEN GRANTED.

D. THE FAILURE TO APPOINT COUNSEL TO DEFENDANT/APPELLANT AT THE MUNICIPAL LEVEL SHOULD RESULT IN A DISMISSAL OF THE ACTION.

I.

When defendant appeared for the trial in the municipal court on August 29, 2006, the arresting officer was on vacation. Defendant objected to an adjournment, and the municipal judge stated "[i]f the officer's not here next time, it's automatically dismissed." The officer was not present when the case was called on the next scheduled date, October 3, 2006. The prosecutor explained that the officer had appeared earlier that day, but "he left at 2 o'clock because I didn't need him because I didn't think [defendant] was here." Defendant had not "checked in," or stood in line to note his appearance, "like he was supposed to." The judge offered to permit defendant to present his case "by affidavit, and that would not require [defendant] to come back." However, the judge denied defendant's motion to dismiss the complaint "[b]ecause the officer was here."

At the subsequent trial, Officer Matthew Ruggier of the Parsippany Police Department testified that on February 22, 2006, he observed the following:

I observed the vehicle traveling south on Littleton Road several -- maybe 100 to 200 yards prior to Park Road as a reference point make -- attempt to make a left u-turn to travel north on Littleton Road. And I don't know exactly if he saw me and discontinued the u-turn and went into the driveway but ultimately turned left into the driveway of I believe it's 829 Littleton Road. And then I pulled in behind him, and he was backing up, and he saw me. And then I directed him back -- as he was backing up back into the driveway so we were out of the roadway, obtained his credentials, and subsequently issued him a summons for no u-turn.

The location is marked with a universal no u-turn sign along with double-yellow lines and the yellow hash marks in the roadway.

Ruggier acknowledged that, while he believed "the intentions of the vehicle operation was to change direction," defendant pulled into the driveway before planning to proceed "in the opposite direction and then proceed[] northbound." The roadway also had double yellow lines to prohibit a left turn at that location. Sergeant Brian Valentine of the Mountain Lakes Police Department was "traveling to Morristown on a traffic detail" at the time. He testified as follows:

I was approximately two or three cars behind the vehicle. There was a traffic jam heading south. We were stuck for several minutes. The vehicle did a u-turn in front of me. I observed the vehicle make a u-turn, turn 180 ...


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