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State v. Harden

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


July 21, 2010

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
DAVID HARDEN, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Gloucester County, Municipal Appeal No. A-49-08.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted June 22, 2010

Before Judges Carchman and Parrillo.

Defendant David Harden appeals from an order of the Law Division, after a trial de novo, finding him guilty of a traffic violation, N.J.S.A. 39:4-66.2. We affirm.

On April 7, 2008, at around 12:10 p.m., defendant was driving northbound on Crown Point Road, in West Deptford, intending to enter a private business, Matteo's Scrap Yard (Matteo's). Crown Point Road runs parallel to Route 295.*fn1

Matteo's is not accessible to vehicles traveling northbound on Crown Point Road. The only method of reaching Matteo's is by traveling on the southbound side of Crown Point Road, which is a one-way street. In order to access Matteo's from this southbound route, a vehicle must enter the southbound lane at or prior to Red Bank Avenue, which is a cross street, located slightly northeast of Matteo's.

When traveling northbound on Crown Point Road, the road forms a jug-handle before Matteo's becomes accessible by vehicle. This jug-handle prevents northbound traffic from being able to directly access Matteo's, rather requiring all vehicular traffic to move southbound. At the end of the jug-handle, before cars from the northbound side of Crown Point Road may enter the southbound roadway, there is a stop sign. Additionally, there is signage visible to drivers on the northbound side of Crown Point Road, indicating that the southbound side is a one-way street.

Within the jug-handle, about twenty feet before the stop sign, there is a dirt-covered area that cuts northward from the middle of the jug-handle, through a grass median, and ends directly across from Matteo's. According to West Deptford Patrol Officer Jeffrey Pallies, the path was "an area with dirt," that looked like cars have driven over it, was not paved, and did not look like a road. At the end of this dirt path, which defendant described as a "road[]", a vehicle must cross the southbound side of Crown Point Road to reach Matteo's. While the land where the dirt path is located is owned by the State of New Jersey, it is not designated as an official road and there are no signs identifying the property as private or State-owned.

Consequently, any vehicle attempting to reach Matteo's from the northbound side must follow the jug-handle, go southbound all the way down Crown Point Road, go under Route 295, come back up on Route 295 North, exit at Red Bank Avenue, turn left onto Crown Point Road, and then travel southbound before making a right turn into Matteo's. Essentially, the only access to Matteo's is from southbound Crown Point Road, from a point north of the jug-handle.

On April 7, 2008, defendant entered the jug-handle from the northbound side of Crown Point Road, and prior to the stop sign, turned his vehicle onto the dirt path. Defendant then traversed the dirt path and subsequently crossed the southbound side of Crown Point Road to enter Matteo's, which has its entrance located directly across from the end of the dirt path. Although not a regular customer, defendant had been to Matteo's about five times before. Officer Pallies followed defendant into Matteo's and conducted a motor vehicle stop at 12:10 p.m. Officer Pallies issued defendant a citation for operating a motor vehicle on public or private property to avoid traffic signals or signs, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-66.2.

Defendant's initial appearance before the municipal court was set for June 24, 2008, but was relisted for August 5, 2008. The matter was again relisted for September 16, 2008, either due to the officer's unavailability or the court's inability to hear it on that date. On September 16, 2008, the matter was relisted for October 21, 2008, due to the officer's absence. During the September hearing, the court offered to dismiss the case and have defendant pay only court costs of $33, however, defendant refused the offer of dismissal. At that time, the court also denied defendant's motion to dismiss for want of a speedy trial, finding no resultant prejudice to defendant.

The matter proceeded to trial on October 21, 2008, six-andone-half months after issuance of the citation. At the close of evidence, which consisted solely of Officer Pallies' testimony and photographs of the area in question, the court found defendant guilty of violating N.J.S.A. 39:4-66.2 and imposed a $206 fine and $33 in court costs. The municipal court judge reasoned thus:

[Defendant] makes the argument that this is in fact the state highway. With all due respect,... it's ludicrous. It's not a highway. Anybody who would apply common sense would not determine that it's a highway.

....

Anybody looking at the photos, D-1 through D-9, and in particular D-9, D-1, D-7, and D-6 would come to the conclusion that the dirt area is not a road. It's a shortcut. It's a cut through. It's what kids to when they're walking home from school through the woods. They develop a path off the sidewalks because it's faster to get home. That's what was happening here.

You talk about the spirit of the law. When I look at D-1, if you come across this dirt pathway as it's been testified to by Officer Pallies that you did, in order to get off the dirt, the only way you can get off the dirt is you've got to go back onto the paved portion. And what you're doing is you're entering a highway that is solely for southbound traffic on Crown Point Road.

There's no signage anywhere, and you take the real risk that somebody driving down that road, looking at a dirt area, certainly doesn't expect a vehicle to be coming out of there, let alone any kind of a truck, tractor trailer or otherwise, and cutting across the road in front of him when there's no signal there.

....

And I'm satisfied way beyond a reasonable doubt that you're guilty. Common sense tells me that. The spirit of the law tells me that. But more importantly, all the facts, and particularly the photographs tell me that clearly and precisely. You're going to get somebody hurt and that's why it's -- the signs are there.

....

That's why the signs are there and that's why the pavement is there. You drive on the pavement.

Defendant filed a timely appeal, and on March 13, 2009, the Law Division, on its de novo review of the record, adjudicated defendant guilty of the statutory violation, but reduced the fine to $200, as the original $206 fine was above the amount allowed by N.J.S.A. 39:4-66.2.

This appeal follows, in which defendant raises the following issues:

I. THE EVIDENCE ON RECORD DOES NOT PERMIT A FINDING THAT APPELLANT WAS GUILTY BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT

A. THE ROAD UPON WHICH APPELLANT TRAVELED CANNOT BE CHARACTERIZED AS PUBLIC OR PRIVATE PROPERTY, THE TRAVELING ACROSS OF WHICH IS A VIOLATION OF MOTOR VEHICLE TRAFFIC REGULATION.

B. APPELLANT DID NOT HAVE THE REQUISITE CULPABILITY TO BE FOUND GUILTY OF THE OFFENSE BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT.

C. THE PURPOSE OF THE LAW SUGGESTS THAT APPELLANT SHOULD NOT BE FOUND GUILTY OF THE OFFENSE.

II. THE CONSTITUTION BARS THE IMPOSITION OF THE FINE ON APPELLANT BASED ON THE RIGHT TO A SPEEDY TRIAL

We have considered each of these issues in light of the record, the applicable law, and the arguments of counsel, and we are satisfied that none of them is of sufficient merit to warrant extended discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(2). We add, however, the following comments.

The scope of appellate review is limited to determining whether the record contains sufficient credible evidence to support the findings of the Law Division. State v. Avena, 281 N.J. Super. 327, 333 (App. Div. 1995). Factual findings of the trial judge are generally given deference, especially when they "are substantially influenced by [the judge's] opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to have the 'feel' of the case, which a reviewing court cannot enjoy." State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161 (1964); State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 471 (1999). "Moreover, when the Municipal Court and the Superior Court 'have entered concurrent judgments on purely factual issues,' we will not disturb those findings 'absent a very obvious and exceptional showing of error.'" State v. Ebert, 377 N.J. Super. 1, 8 (App. Div. 2005) (quoting Locurto, supra, 157 N.J. at 474). This court is "bound by the trial court's findings of fact even though we may have reached a different conclusion, 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). Accordingly, this court is obliged, as was the Law Division judge, to defer to the trial court's credibility findings. State v. Cerefice, 335 N.J. Super. 374, 383 (App. Div. 2000). By the same token, a "trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference" on appeal. Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995). Here, the essential issue is a mixed question of fact and law: whether the dirt-covered area that cuts northward from the middle of the jug handle, through a grass median, and ends directly across from Matteo's is a "public road or highway" under N.J.S.A. 39:4-66.2, and is there sufficient evidence to support defendant's conviction.

N.J.S.A. 39:4-66.2 prohibits a motorist from operating a vehicle on public or private property that is not a public road or highway. Here, the undisputed evidence is that the property is State-owned and not designated as an official road; that defendant made the conscious decision to leave the roadway and drive onto the dirt path, thus avoiding two traffic control signs of which he was aware; and that by doing so, defendant created a danger to other motorists as well as to himself. We are satisfied that the uncontradicted evidence supports the findings of fact and conclusions of law of both the municipal court and the Law Division.

We are equally satisfied that defendant suffered no constitutional deprivation of his speedy trial right. See Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 530, 92 S.Ct. 2182, 2192, 33 L.Ed. 2d 101, 117 (1972); State v. Szima, 70 N.J. 196, 200-01, cert. denied, 429 U.S. 896, 97 S.Ct. 259, 50 L.Ed. 2d 180 (1976). "There is no set length of time that fixes the point at which delay is excessive." State v. Tsetsekas, 411 N.J. Super. 1, 11 (App. Div. 2009). Moreover, no claim is made that any of the delay attributable to the prosecution was the result of "deliberate attempts to hamper the defense." Id. at 12. As did the municipal court judge, we discern no prejudice to defendant from the six-and-one-half month interval between citation and trial. There is no proof that defendant was unable to defend the charge against him, and he suffered no penalties in the interim. Under the circumstances, the relatively short delay in this matter does not warrant dismissal of the charge against defendant.

Affirmed.


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