On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at
SYLLABUS BY THE COURT
SYLLABUS (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).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stern, J.
State v. Eileen M. Ciancaglini
Argued November 8, 2010 -- Decided January 19, 2011
(temporarily assigned), writing for a unanimous Court.
The Court considers whether a conviction for refusing to submit to a breathalyzer test, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4a, can be used to enhance a sentence for driving while intoxicated (DWI), N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.
On May 1, 2008, police stopped defendant Eileen Ciancaglini for reckless driving and failure to stay in her lane. During the stop, she appeared to be intoxicated. She consented to a breathalyzer test, which revealed a 0.17% blood alcohol concentration. She was charged with DWI, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. Ciancaglini previously had been convicted of DWI in 1979. She also had a prior 2006 conviction for refusing to submit to a breathalyzer test.
On September 10, 2008, Ciancaglini appeared in municipal court and pled guilty to DWI. Despite her prior convictions, she argued that she should be treated as a first offender. She relied on State v. DiSomma, 262 N.J. Super. 375 (App. Div. 1993), which held that a refusal conviction is not a prior violation under the DWI statute. If her refusal conviction was not considered, Ciancaglini's 2008 DWI conviction was not within ten years of her 1979 conviction and a step-down provision in the DWI statute applied. After finding that the reasoning of the court in DiSomma had been undermined by State v. Cummings, 184 N.J. 84 (2005), the judge sentenced Ciancaglini as a third offender under the DWI statute. Along with fines and other penalties, Ciancaglini received a six-month jail term, a ten-year license suspension, and a ten-year suspension of the registration on any vehicle that she owned.
Ciancaglini appealed to the Law Division, which held that she should have been sentenced as a first offender because no case law supported the use of a refusal conviction as a prior offense under the DWI statute. Along with fines and other penalties, she was sentenced to a thirty-day jail term and a twelve-month license suspension.
The Appellate Division reversed the Law Division judgment and re-imposed the municipal court's sentence. 411 N.J. Super. 280 (App. Div. 2010). The panel held that a refusal conviction qualifies as a prior violation under the DWI statute. Explaining that Cummings changed the burden of proof for a refusal conviction from a preponderance of the evidence to proof beyond a reasonable doubt-the same burden as required for DWI convictions-the panel found no justification for declining to count a refusal as a prior offense under the DWI statute
The Supreme Court granted certification to resolve the conflict between the Appellate Division's decisions in DiSomma and in this matter. 202 N.J. 43 (2010).
HELD: Defendant Ciancaglini's conviction in 2006 for refusing to take a breathalyzer test does not constitute a prior conviction for purposes of determining her sentence for driving while intoxicated in 2008.
1. To interpret a statute, courts look to the Legislative intent, examining first the plain language of the statute. If the statute is clear on its face, courts enforce it; if it is ambiguous or open to more than one meaning, courts may consider extrinsic evidence, including legislative history and committee reports. Any reasonable doubt concerning the meaning of a penal statute must be strictly construed in favor of the defendant. (Pp. 10-11)
2. Although N.J.S.A. 39:4-50 and N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4 are both part of a statutory complex designed to rid the highways of drunk drivers, each is a separate section with a different, albeit related, purpose, and each has different elements. Under the DWI statute, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated subjects the defendant to penalties that are based on the number of prior offenses the defendant has committed. For a first offense in which the driver's blood alcohol content is .10% or higher, the sentence includes a license suspension of seven months to one year, a fine, and a jail term of not more than 30 days. For a second violation, the sentence includes a two-year license suspension, a fine, and a jail term of up to ninety days. For a third or subsequent violation, the sentence includes a ten-year license suspension, a fine, and a jail term of 180 days. However, the DWI statute contains a "step-down" provision that states that "if the second offense occurs more than 10 years after the first offense, the court shall treat the second conviction as a first offense for sentencing purposes and if a third offense occurs more than 10 years after the second offense, the court shall treat the third conviction as a second conviction for sentencing purposes." The refusal statute, N.J.S.A 39:4-50.4a, is similarly structured with penalties based on whether the conviction is the driver's first, second, or third or subsequent offense. It requires the revocation of the right to operate a motor vehicle by any driver who, after being arrested for DWI, refuses to submit to a breathalyzer test. The length of license suspension for refusal mirrors the length of the license suspensions for DWI. However, no custodial sentence is authorized for refusal convictions. (Pp. 11-14)
3. Until the Appellate Division in this case reached the opposite conclusion, DiSomma represented the controlling case for sentencing DWI offenders with a prior refusal conviction. In DiSomma, the Appellate Division examined both the DWI statute and the refusal statute and determined that their provisions were intended to be separate. Concluding that a prior refusal conviction cannot serve as the basis to enhance a subsequent DWI conviction, the defendant, who had a prior conviction for refusal, was sentenced as a first offender after his DWI conviction. Since DiSomma, there have been no legislative revisions to the DWI or refusal statutes suggesting an integration of refusal convictions into DWI sentencing. Although a 1997 amendment to both the DWI and refusal statutes was designed to ensure that DWI and refusal convictions in other jurisdictions qualify as prior offenses under the respective sections in New Jersey, the Legislature never endeavored to provide that a prior refusal conviction could be treated as a prior DWI. (Pp. 15-17)
4. The DWI statute contains no reference whatsoever to the refusal statute, and nothing suggests that the references to prior violations in the DWI statute's lists of penalties are meant to refer to anything beyond DWI convictions. Without any statutory cross-reference, or similar expression, the most natural reading of the DWI statute suggests that the "prior" violations described in N.J.S.A. 39:4-50 are meant to refer only to the DWI section in which they are contained. Such a reading is consistent with the well-established principle that penal statutes must be strictly construed. (Pp. 17-18)
5. While the record is not clear as to whether Ciancaglini's 2006 refusal conviction was or was not incident to an acquittal of DWI, it cannot be reasonably suggested that someone convicted of refusal when found not guilty of DWI can be treated as if he or she were convicted of the DWI offense. If the Legislature wanted to treat a refusal conviction as an enhancer for SWI, even after an acquittal of DWI, it would have to do so in clearer language. (P. 18)
6. The Court determines that it need not decide in this case whether a person can twice take advantage of a step-down under N.J.S.A. 39:4-50 because Ciancaglini's refusal conviction cannot be considered a prior DWI violation for enhancement purposes. As such, she is not precluded from the benefit of the step-down since her first DWI conviction in 1979 was more than ten years prior to her second, the 2008 DWI conviction. (Pp. 19-20)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the Law Division's sentence is REINSTATED.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, RIVERA-SOTO and HOENS join ...