March 9, 2010
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
ADRIAN CAMPIS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Municipal Appeal No. 009-04-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued February 3, 2010
Before Judges Stern and J. N. Harris.
On July 15, 2008, defendant was charged with leaving the scene of an accident, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-129, by civilian complainant Joel Rodriguez. Defendant was found guilty in the Hackensack Municipal Court, and subsequently appealed the conviction to the Law Division, where the case was reviewed de novo. Defendant was again found guilty when the trial court independently reviewed the record and found that the State had proven defendant's culpability beyond a reasonable doubt. This appeal ensued, and we affirm.
On the afternoon of June 28, 2008, the complainant was operating a motorcycle northbound on River Street in Hackensack. Defendant was traveling along the same route, driving a Cadillac with his wife and mother-in-law as passengers.
Complainant alleged that he was stopped in front of defendant's car at a red traffic light at the intersection of River and Berry Streets, and was struck by defendant's Cadillac momentarily after the light turned green as defendant drove around the motorcycle in an attempt to continue northbound. Defendant repeatedly denied any knowledge of striking complainant's motorcycle or person at this intersection.
Defendant continued on River Street with complainant in pursuit, and both vehicles ended up stopping at another traffic light a few blocks up the road. It was at this time that complainant contends he was gesturing to defendant to pull over, in an effort to exclaim that defendant's Cadillac had just struck and damaged the motorcycle and ran over his foot.
Instead, defendant believed that complainant was challenging him to a race, or that he was the undeserved victim of complainant's apparent road rage.
At some point during this exchange, the other passengers in defendant's vehicle allegedly became increasingly fearful of the events that were unfolding, and defendant testified that one of his passengers called the police to report the road rage incident. Complainant conceded that he did not call the police himself.*fn1
Both vehicles continued to travel northbound on River Street, and again met up at a third traffic light, this time at the corner of River Street and University Plaza. It was at this time that defendant attempted to turn onto an adjacent side street and pull his car over, allegedly only now believing for the first time that the two vehicles had made contact. While defendant's vehicle remained stopped, complainant parked his motorcycle and approached defendant's car, allegedly pounding on the driver's side door and kicking the vehicle, damaging the Cadillac in a continued emotional effort, albeit in vain, to enlighten defendant about the accident.
The police responded to the scene forthwith, finding the vehicles parked outside of a nearby Burger King restaurant. Officer Ziegelhofer was one of two responding police officers, and immediately noticed damage to both vehicles upon his arrival at the location. After the parties gave their markedly different accounts of the incident, Officer Ziegelhofer collected defendant's license, registration, and insurance information, compiling all of this data into a police report, a copy of which was provided to complainant. The other officer compiled a property damage report, but neither officer issued a complaint for the incident. According to Officer Ziegelhofer, this was "based on the fact that  [the defendant] did not believe, in my opinion, that he was involved in [an] accident, he wasn't aware at the time he had left [the scene of an accident.]"
It was not until more than two weeks later, on July 15, 2008, that the complainant issued a formal charge with the Hackensack Police Department against defendant for this incident. Thereafter, on September 22, 2008, October 6, 2008, and November 17, 2008, the Hackensack municipal judge heard the matter, and concluded that defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of violating N.J.S.A. 39:4-129 for leaving the scene of an accident. The municipal court imposed a fine of $506 plus $33 in court fees, and sentenced defendant to a six-month period of license suspension, a sentence that was stayed pending appeal.
Subsequently, defendant filed a notice of appeal with the Superior Court, and the matter was heard by Judge Lois Lipton on April 22, 2009. After conducting a de novo review, Judge Lipton also found defendant guilty, and imposed a sentence consistent with the one previously issued by the municipal court. The trial court again permitted a stay of the license suspension, pending the timely filing of this present appeal.
When a municipal decision is appealed to the Law Division, the review is de novo, although it gives "due regard to the municipal judge's opportunity to view the witnesses." State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 157 (1964). Since the Law Division judge is not in a position to judge the credibility of the witnesses, she should defer to the credibility findings of the municipal court judge. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 472-74 (1999). See R. 3:23-8(a) (regarding criminal trials de novo). Conversely, the issue in this court is whether there is sufficient credible evidence present in the record to uphold the findings of the Law Division, not those made by the municipal court. Johnson, supra, 42 N.J. at 162. But like the law Division, we are not in a good position to judge credibility, and should therefore not make new credibility findings. Locurto, supra, 157 N.J. at 470. Instead, we should simply defer to the trial court's credibility determinations. State v. Cerefice, 335 N.J. Super. 374, 383 (App. Div. 2000).
In any criminal proceeding, including this one on appeal, the state has the burden to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, all of the elements of the offense. State v. Hill, 199 N.J. 545, 559 (2009). This burden cannot be shifted to the defendant, even while asserting an affirmative defense. State v. Delibero, 149 N.J. 90, 99 (1997).
New Jersey courts have been frequently required to interpret the requirements of N.J.S.A. 39:4-129 in order to determine whether a particular defendant complied with the statute in order to avoid a conviction. We have consistently explained that "[t]he purpose of the hit-and-run statute is to prohibit an automobile driver involved in an accident from evading his responsibilities by escaping or departing before his identity is made known." State v. Valeriani, 101 N.J. Super. 396, 399 (App. Div. 1968) (citing State v. Gill, 47 N.J. 441, 443 (1966)); see also State v. Saulina, 177 N.J. Super. 264, 267 (App. Div. 1980).
When the statutory requirements and relevant case law are "considered in light of the foregoing legislative history and canons of statutory construction it seems clear . . . that the Legislature . . . intended to impose upon an operator of a motor vehicle, who knowingly becomes involved in an accident, specific and unequivocal duties, i.e., (1) to stop immediately and render the prescribed assistance, and (2) to exhibit appropriate identification not only to the driver or occupants, if any, of the vehicle collided with and to any person injured or struck, but also to 'any police officer or witness of the accident.'" State v. Gill, supra, 89 N.J. Super. at 109.
Essentially, the elements that the State is required to prove in this case were (1) defendant was operating a motor vehicle; (2) defendant knowingly collided with another vehicle, injuring a person or causing damage to property; and (3) defendant left the scene of the accident, or failed to provide his license and vehicle registration to the other driver or police officer. See N.J.S.A. 39:4-129(a),(c). Judges are permitted to draw a permissive inference, based on the totality of the circumstances and their credibility determinations, to conclude that defendant had knowledge that he was involved in an accident. State v. Walten, 241 N.J. Super. 529, 534-35 (App. Div. 1990)("The conclusion that 'knowledge' exists is not mandated by proof of the underlying fact of injury. The trier of fact must be free to accept or reject the inference based upon the totality of the evidence, mindful always that the burden of proof never shifts from the State.").
Defendant testified that he believed there was contact between the vehicles only after the parties stopped at the third traffic light, near the Burger King. In support of this argument, Officer Ziegelhofer testified that defendant may not have even realized he was in an accident at the time the police arrived at the scene. However, Judge Lipton made determinations regarding the testimony of the witnesses, and she was entitled to draw a permissive inference regarding the state of mind requirement contained in N.J.S.A. 39:4-129. Judge Lipton made further findings regarding defendant's alleged intent to inform the police himself about the accident, stating that she was "not convinced from the transcript that there was a telephone call from defendant's car to police headquarters."
Such conclusions by the trial court go to the issue of defendant's credibility and to the State's evidence of culpability. While it could be argued that the purpose of the statute was fulfilled because defendant did not achieve anonymity by fleeing the scene and he willingly gave all pertinent information to the responding police officer, Judge Lipton made factual and credibility findings that led her to conclude otherwise.
All of the issues raised by defendant on appeal require us to determine whether the conviction is supported by "'sufficient credible evidence present in the record,' considering the proofs as a whole." State v. Ebert, 377 N.J. Super. 1, 8 (App. Div. 2005) (quoting State v. Johnson, supra, 42 N.J. at 162). In conducting that review after the "Municipal Court and the Superior Court 'have entered concurrent judgments on purely factual issues,' we will not disturb [the judges' factual] findings 'absent a very obvious and exceptional showing of error.'" Ibid. (quoting State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 474 (1999)). The standard governing this court's review requires us to defer "unless we are 'thoroughly satisfied that the finding is clearly a mistaken one and so plainly unwarranted that the interests of justice demand intervention and correction.'"
Ibid. (quoting Johnson, supra, 42 N.J. at 162).
Having thoroughly reviewed the record, we discern no basis to disturb the April 22, 2009 order. We affirm substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge Lipton in her April 22, 2009 oral opinion.