On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic County, L-0082-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued: September 16, 2009
Before Judges Axelrad and Espinosa.
On October 23, 2006, a 200l Mercedes Benz automobile was seized by the Atlantic City police following the arrest of its registered owner, Konstantine Charalidis, while using it, on various drug charges. Following the seizure, the State filed a complaint seeking civil forfeiture of the car and other related property, including jewelry and cash. Charalidis filed an answer to the complaint. The State agreed to a return of the jewelry and Charalidis agreed to a forfeiture of the cash.
A bench trial was conducted before Judge Nelson Johnson, during which Charalidis stipulated he used the Mercedes in furtherance of unlawful activity. The sole issue was who, in fact, was the owner of the Mercedes on the day it was utilized in furtherance of the criminal activity. Charalidis argued that his mother, Ekaterini Karatza Charalidis (Karatza) was the beneficial or equitable owner of the car and that, because she lacked knowledge as to its use in criminal activity, the forfeiture should be denied. See N.J.S.A. 2C:64-5b ("Property seized under this chapter shall not be subject to forfeiture if the owner of the property establishes by a preponderance of the evidence that the owner was not involved in or aware of the unlawful activity and that the owner had done all that could reasonably be expected to prevent the proscribed use of the property by an agent.").
Karatza testified that on June 16, 2006, she transferred title to one of her cars, the Mercedes, to her twenty-six-year-old son, who has lived apart from her since the age of eighteen, listing it as a gift. According to Karatza, it was understood and agreed with her son that he would have temporary use of the Mercedes while she was abroad because his car was not operable, but the Mercedes would continue to be her property and its ownership would be transferred back to her upon her return. She further explained that her transfer of title was motivated, in part, by a desire to avoid potential civil liability because of her son's prior accident and poor driving habits.
Upon receipt of title, Charalidis registered the car through June 2007, and secured his own insurance, which was paid through December 20, 2006. Karatza went abroad from August 5 through September l5, 2006. However, the Mercedes remained titled in Charalidis' name for about five weeks after Karatza's return to the country, her explanation being that the retransfer was not a priority. Title was not transferred back to Karatza until October 26, 2006, three days after Charalidis' arrest for the sale of drugs while using the Mercedes.
Judge Johnson expressly did not find credible Karatza's testimony regarding her intent, noting in particular the five-week lapse in retransfer of title and its coincidental timing after Charalidis' arrest. Accordingly, the court concluded that Charalidis failed to rebut the presumption that he, as the registered owner of the Mercedes, was its real owner on the day of his arrest, and ordered the vehicle forfeited to the State. See State v. One (l) Ford Van, Econoline, 154 N.J. Super. 326, 332 (App. Div. l977), certif. denied, 77 N.J. 474 (1978); Tinsman v. Parsekian, 65 N.J. Super. 217, 222 (App. Div. 1961).
On appeal, Charalidis argues the trial court improperly rejected his mother's claim based on his status as the registered owner of the Mercedes and thus failed to afford rights to those with an interest in the property as required by the forfeiture statute and case law. We are not persuaded by these arguments and affirm substantially for the reasons articulated by Judge Johnson on the record following trial and in his written supplementation pursuant to Rule 2:5-1(b).
Our scope of review is limited. We will not disturb the trial judge's factual findings and legal conclusions "unless we are convinced that they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice." Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974) (quoting Fagliarone v. Twp. of N. Bergen, 78 N.J. Super. 154, 155 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 40 N.J. 221 (1963)).
On appeal, Charalidis essentially disputes Judge Johnson's credibility assessment and factual findings and urges us to substitute his view of the facts as to his mother's intent regarding her ownership interest in the Mercedes prior to the arrest and its potential forfeiture for those found by the trial judge. We decline to do so. We defer to the credibility findings of the trial judge "because [the judge] had the 'feel' of the case and was able to determine questions of believability by observing the demeanor of witnesses[,]" Housing Auth. v. Thomas, 318 N.J. Super. 191, 194 (App. Div. l999), and because such findings are based on substantial, credible evidence in the record, Rova, supra, 65 N.J. at 485.
Charalidis further argues the trial judge erred as a matter of law, basing his conclusion of ownership solely on the fact that Charalidis was the registered owner of the Mercedes. We disagree. N.J.S.A. 39:1-1 defines the owner of a motor vehicle as "a person who holds the legal title[.]" Charalidis retained all indicia of ownership of the Mercedes on October 23, 2006. It is undisputed the Mercedes was gifted to Charalidis on June l6, 2006, and through the date of his arrest and seizure of the car, Charaladis remained its titled and registered owner, paid for the insurance and was its named insured, and retained primary possession, use and control of the car, garaging it at his own residence and driving it on a regular basis. In contrast, the record is devoid of any credible evidence that Karatza retained an equitable or beneficial ownership interest in the Mercedes ...