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State v. Moran

July 13, 2010

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
LAURA MORAN, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 408 N.J. Super 412 (2009).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(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).

Defendant Laura Moran was found guilty in Aberdeen Municipal Court of reckless driving (N.J.S.A. 39:4-96), as well as improper display of a license plate (N.J.S.A. 39:3-33) and obstruction of the windshield (N.J.S.A. 39:3-74). In addition to the penalties imposed for violation of those statutory provisions, the municipal court judge suspended Moran's driving privileges for forty-five days under N.J.S.A. 39:5-31.

During the proceedings in municipal court, Moran represented herself. The State called Officer Roger Peter of the Aberdeen Township Police Department to testify about the observations of Moran's vehicle he had made while parked in a patrol car near the intersection of Lloyd Road and Route 34 at around 2:00 a.m. on August 3, 2007. Officer Peter testified that he observed a tractor-trailer stopped at a red light in the northbound lane of Route 34 and that behind it was another vehicle. Just as the light was turning green, Moran proceeded northbound on Route 34 in the left-turn-only lane and passed the two vehicles without making the left turn. Instead, she crossed the Lloyd Road intersection and cut in front of the tractor-trailer. After stopping Moran's car, Officer Peter noted that she was uncooperative, refusing to hand over the appropriate documentation or to step out of her car. With the assistance of a back-up officer, Officer Peter was able to open Moran's car door, whereupon she voluntarily exited the vehicle. Officer Peter determined that Moran was not intoxicated. She was issued summonses for reckless driving, improper display of a license plate, and obstruction of the windshield. Moran was highly emotional, obstreperous, and disruptive during the municipal court proceedings. Before sentencing, the municipal court judge reviewed Moran's history of numerous motor vehicle infractions. The court justified the imposition of the license suspension under N.J.S.A. 39:5-31 based on both Moran's driving in a "willful and wanton [manner] in violation of the rights and safety of others and [her]self" and her "demeanor" in court.

The Superior Court, Law Division, in a trial de novo, upheld Moran's reckless-driving conviction and imposed the same sentence, finding that her willful violation of the reckless-driving statute, combined with her past driving infractions, justified the license suspension. During this stage of the proceedings, Moran was represented by appointed counsel and challenged the constitutionality of N.J.S.A. 39:5-31, which empowers the court to suspend a defendant's license. The Law Division rejected Moran's constitutional challenge that the statute invested municipal court judges with "unbridled discretion" and did not give fair notice of the penalty.

On appeal, the Appellate Division upheld the constitutionality of N.J.S.A. 39:5-31. The panel found that Moran had "fair notice" of the potential for a driver's license suspension, as contained in the statute, because it is the published law of the State and every person is presumed to know the law. In addition, the appellate panel rejected Moran's arguments that the statutory language of N.J.S.A. 30:5-31 is constitutionally overbroad and vague. The panel appreciated Moran's concern that no guidelines or standards are provided nor is a limit on the length of the suspension set; however, it concluded that arbitrary municipal court sentences could be corrected at a sentencing de novo in the Law Division and by the process of appellate review. The panel did offer guidance to judges in exercising their discretion whether to suspend a license under the statute and, if so, the length of such suspension. The panel directed judges to consider: 1) the factors discussed in Cresse v. Parsekian; 2) relevant aggravating and mitigating factors in the Code of Criminal Justice that could be tailored to motor vehicle offenses; and 3) the length of suspensions authorized for specific offenses in the Motor Vehicle Code as a basis for comparison and proportionality. Applying those standards, the panel reviewed Moran's extensive history of driving infractions, the seriousness of the offense, and the need for deterrence and concluded that the forty-five day suspension constituted an appropriate exercise of discretion.

The Supreme Court granted Moran's petition for certification.

HELD: The license suspension provision of N.J.S.A. 39:5-31, which is published in the Motor Vehicle Code of the New Jersey Statutes Annotated, is not "hidden," and defendant, like all motorists, is presumed to know the law. To ensure that license suspensions meted out pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:5-31 are imposed in a reasonably fair and uniform manner, so that similarly situated defendants are treated similarly, the Court today defines the term "willful violation" contained in N.J.S.A. 39:5-31 and enunciates sentencing standards to guide municipal court and Law Division judges.

1. The Court agrees with the Appellate Division that Moran was on fair notice of the penalty provisions that flowed from her reckless-driving violation. Ignorance of a sentencing provision that is published in the codified laws of this State is not a defense because every person is presumed to know the law. The claim that the penalty provision of the statute is "hidden" from reckless drivers is not supported by general legal principles or reality. The sentencing-enhancement provision of N.J.S.A. 39:5-31 is in the Motor Vehicle Code, not secreted in other statutory schemes; therefore, the Court rejects Moran's argument that she was not on "fair notice" of a potential license suspension for reckless driving. (Pp. 9-12)

2. The term "willful" is used in both N.J.S.A. 39:4-96 and in N.J.S.A. 39:5-31. The term also is found in many provisions of the New Jersey Statutes Annotated. When read in context with related provisions, the word willful conveys a different import in N.J.S.A. 39:4-96 and N.J.S.A. 39:5-31. In the reckless-driving statute, the word "willful" bespeaks a deliberate or intentional disregard of the lives and property of others in the manner in which a driver operates a vehicle. In N.J.S.A. 39:5-31, the term "willful" suggests a deliberate violation of certain motor-vehicle statutes. A willful violation of the reckless-driving statute necessarily involves a state of mind and conduct that exceeds reckless driving itself. Thus, to trigger the license-suspension provisions of N.J.S.A. 39:5-31, a driver must engage in an aggravated form of reckless driving. Reckless drivers act in a way that is likely to endanger a person or property, and those willfully violating the reckless driving statute engage in conduct that is highly likely to endanger a person or property. The difference between reckless driving and a willful violation of the reckless-driving statute is a matter of degree. This distinction will ensure that municipal court judges invoke N.J.S.A. 39:5-31 only in reckless-driving cases that present aggravating circumstances. (Pp. 12-16)

3. N.J.S.A. 39:5-31 does not provide standards or guidelines to channel judicial discretion in the determination of whether to impose a license suspension and for how long. The loss of driving privileges for a reckless-driving conviction is a consequence of magnitude and the need for standards governing license suspensions touches on core constitutional principles. Random and unpredictable sentencing is anathema to notions of due process and disparate sentencing undermines public confidence in the fairness of our justice system. Thus, in setting the necessary sentencing standards and guidelines for municipal and Law Division judges, the Court, pursuant to Article VI, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution, exercises its supervisory authority over our court system for the purpose of achieving just ends. (Pp. 16-22)

4. The Court directs municipal court and Law Division judges to consider the following factors in determining whether to impose a license suspension under N.J.S.A. 39:5-31, and, if so, the length of the suspension: 1) the nature and circumstances of the defendant's conduct, including whether the conduct posed a high risk of danger to the public or caused physical harm or property damage; 2) the defendant's driving record, including the defendant's age and length of time as a licensed driver, and the number, seriousness, and frequency of prior infractions; 3) whether the defendant was infraction-free for a substantial period before the most recent violation or whether the nature and extent of the defendant's driving record indicates that there is a substantial risk that he or she will commit another violation; 4) whether the character and attitude of the defendant indicates that he or she is likely or unlikely to commit another violation; 5) whether the defendant's conduct was the result of circumstances unlikely to recur; 6) whether a license suspension would cause excessive hardship to the defendant and/or dependents; and 7) the need for personal deterrence. Any other relevant factors clearly identified by the court also may be considered. Comparisons to motor vehicle statutes that impose mandatory license suspensions also may be a useful guide in some cases. It is not necessarily the number of factors that apply but the weight to be attributed to a factor or factors. The municipal court or Superior Court judge must articulate the reasons for imposing a period of license suspension. The above will enhance appellate review and be a further safeguard against arbitrariness of sentencing. (Pp. 22-24)

5. Having defined the meaning of "willful violation" and having set standards that will guide the discretion of judges imposing license suspensions under N.J.S.A. 39:5-31, the Court concludes that the statute is neither vague nor overbroad, nor does it give unbridled discretion to sentencing judges. Nonetheless, the Court reverses the decision of the Appellate Division, which affirmed the forty-five day suspension of Moran's driving privileges, because none of the parties or the respective courts had the benefit of today's ruling. (Pp. 24-25)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the municipal court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO, and HOENS join in JUSTICE ALBIN'S opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin

Argued April 27, 2010

Defendant Laura Moran was found guilty in municipal court of reckless driving, a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-96. In addition to imposing penalties specifically referenced in N.J.S.A. 39:4-96, the municipal court judge suspended defendant's driving privileges for forty-five days under N.J.S.A. 39:5-31. The Superior Court, Law Division, in a trial de novo, upheld defendant's reckless-driving conviction and imposed the same sentence. The Appellate Division affirmed and set forth standards for the imposition of license suspensions under N.J.S.A. 39:5-31 in future cases. State v. Moran, 408 N.J. Super. 412, 432-33 (App. Div. 2009).

N.J.S.A. 39:5-31 authorizes a municipal court or Law Division judge to "revoke the license of any person to drive a motor vehicle, when such person shall have been guilty of such willful violation of any of the provisions of [N.J.S.A. 39:1-1 to 39:5G-2] as shall, in the discretion of the [judge], justify such revocation."*fn1 Defendant claims that she did not receive "fair notice" that she was facing a potential license suspension "hidden" in N.J.S.A. 39:5-31. She also challenges the constitutionality of N.J.S.A. 39:5-31, contending that the statute is vague and overbroad, and gives "unbridled discretion" to judges to impose a license suspension without any statutory limitation on the length of such a suspension.

We hold that the license-suspension provision of N.J.S.A. 39:5-31, which is published in the Motor Vehicle Code of the New Jersey Statutes Annotated, is not "hidden," and that defendant, like all motorists, is presumed to know the law. To ensure that license suspensions meted out pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:5-31 are imposed in a reasonably fair and uniform manner, so that similarly situated defendants are treated similarly, today we define the term "willful violation" contained in N.J.S.A. 39:5-31 and enunciate sentencing standards to guide municipal court and Law Division judges. In setting these guidelines, we exercise our supervisory authority over our court system for the purpose of achieving just ends. N.J. ...


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