On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 403 N.J. Super. 373 (2008).
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
This appeal involves the assessment of motor vehicle penalty points for a third or subsequent offense in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.2, driving in an unsafe manner likely to endanger a person or property. The issue is whether, based on the timing of her offenses, plaintiff is entitled to relief under N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.2(e), which provides that an offense that occurs more than five years after "the prior offense" shall not be considered a "subsequent offense" for the purpose of assessing points.
Plaintiff Hina K. Patel is a repeat violator of the unsafe driving statute. In March 2002, she committed a driving offense and pled guilty to unsafe driving in May 2002. She committed another offense in August 2002, and pled guilty to unsafe driving on September 17, 2002. She pled guilty to a third unsafe driving violation in June 2006, for an offense that occurred in April 2006. Then, on September 5, 2007, she received citations for speeding and failing to have her vehicle timely inspected, for which she entered a guilty plea to unsafe driving in November 2007.
Patel was assessed fines for each of her violations and four penalty points for her third offense. When she was assessed four additional points for her fourth conviction in 2007, Patel wrote to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC), objecting because her fourth conviction had occurred more than five years after both her first and second offenses. Because only her third offense had occurred within five years of the 2007 offense, Patel argued that the 2007 offense must be treated as a "second offense," for which points are not authorized. The MVC informed her that "a third and subsequent violation" of the unsafe driving statute "within a five year period will be issued 4 points," and because this was her fourth violation since 2002, her "Driver History record will remain the same."
Patel appealed. The Appellate Division upheld the MVC's determination to assess points for her fourth unsafe driving conviction. Patel v. N.J. Motor Vehicle Comm'n, 403 N.J. Super. 373 (App. Div. 2008). The panel observed that N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.2(e) exempts an individual from points when more than five years have elapsed between a subsequent offense and the prior offense. The panel concluded that the assessment of points on Patel's "subsequent" fourth conviction was proper because her third offense had occurred within five years of her fourth. The panel discerned a legislative intent to apply the exemption from points when the "subsequent" offense occurs more than five years after "the prior offense," that is, the most recent prior offense, not "any prior offense." In Patel's case, "the prior offense" was her third offense, which was within five years of her fourth offense.
The Supreme Court granted Patel's petition for certification. 198 N.J. 474 (2009).
HELD: Under N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.2(e), the exemption provision for assessing motor vehicle penalty points for an unsafe driving offense that occurs more than five years after "the prior offense," "the prior offense" refers only to the most recent preceding offense based on both a plain reading of the statute and a review of the legislative history. Thus, the MVC correctly imposed motor vehicle points on Patel for having a fourth unsafe driving conviction in 2007, only one year after the date of her prior, third, unsafe driving offense.
1. When interpreting a statute, courts start with the plain language and apply the generally accepted meaning of the words used. If the plain language leads to a clear result, the interpretive process is over. If there is ambiguity that leads to more than one plausible interpretation, a court may turn to extrinsic evidence, such as legislative history, for assistance with its interpretive task. (pp. 5-6)
2. The unsafe driving statute provides that for first and second offenses, motor vehicle penalty points shall not be assessed. Subsection d. states that a person convicted of "a third or subsequent offense" shall be assessed points. Subsection e. states that an offense "that occurs more than five years after the prior offense shall not be considered a subsequent offense for the purpose of assessing motor vehicle penalty points under subsection d." The MVC interpreted the statute to require that Patel's fourth violation subjected her to the imposition of points. It explained that points are assessed if the third "and" subsequent offense occurred during a five-year period; that is, points must be assessed if five or fewer years had elapsed between her third and her subsequent fourth offense. (pp. 6-7)
3. Generally, courts defer to an agency's interpretation of a statute that it is charged with enforcing. Here, the MVC committed no grievous error in interpreting the unsafe driving statute, and the Appellate Division was entirely correct in affirming the MVC's action in Patel's points challenge. (p. 8)
4. A plain reading of subsection e. supports the construction that "the prior offense" refers only to the most recent preceding offense. "The" when used before a noun generally emphasizes one of a group as the most prominent. Thus, "the" indicates that the Legislature was contemplating only one prior offense, not each or any prior offense. The "prior offense" contemplates only one offense. Use of "the" signifies that the noun to which it attaches is the most prominent, and the natural assumption from the plain language is that the Legislature contemplated the most recent prior offense. However, because that is not explicitly stated, the meaning of "the prior offense" could arguably be found to contain some ambiguity. Accordingly, the Court examines the legislative history. (pp. 9-10)
5. Before enactment, the unsafe driving statute underwent several revisions. The precursor to the present subsection d. allowed for the discretionary assessment of points for third and subsequent convictions. A substitute bill made it mandatory to assess points for third and subsequent convictions and also created the five-year exception now found in subsection e. As the Assembly Judiciary Committee explained, an offense "which occurs more than five years after the prior offense would not be considered a subsequent offense" for the purpose of assessing points. On signing the bill, the Governor issued a news release explaining that a "person convicted of a third or subsequent offense" may be assessed points "if the offense occurs within five years of the prior offense." (pp. 10-12)
6. Based on that history, the Court concludes that the Legislature meant the words "the prior offense" in subsection
e. to refer to the offense immediately preceding a "subsequent" offense. The statutory scheme demonstrates a legislative desire to impose increasing penalties for repetitive violations, and to show leniency by including an exemption from points for violations that occur after more than a five-year hiatus in unsafe driving violations. Those legislative policies are harmonized by applying the phrase "the prior offense" to fourth offenders exactly as did the MVC in Patel's case, by looking at the date of her immediately preceding third offense and, because it was not more than five years before her fourth offense in 2007, imposing points for her fourth violation. The MVC's interpretation is a reasonable construction of the language used by the Legislature, gives meaning to every word used, and advances the overall legislative intent to punish drivers with motor vehicle points for multiple unsafe driving offenses that are close in time. The MVC correctly imposed motor vehicle points on Patel for having a fourth unsafe driving conviction in 2007, only one year after the date of her prior, third, unsafe driving offense. (pp. 13-16)
7. Although not necessary to the disposition of the appeal, the Appellate Division further expressed approval of the MVC's interpretation that the five-year exception did not apply to "third" offenses, but only to a "subsequent" offense; that is, the five-year exception applied only to fourth and further offenses. Absent a more explicit direction from the Legislature, the Court rejects the suggestion that the exemption is denied to third offenders. (pp. 16-17)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, ALBIN, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO and HOENS join in ...