On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Union County, Docket Nos. FJ-20-1483-09, FJ-20-1482-09, FJ-20-1760-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 13, 2010
Before Judges Sabatino and Alvarez.
W.G. appeals from an adjudication of delinquency on a lesser-included fourth-degree offense of unlawful taking of a means of conveyance, commonly known as joyriding, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:20-10(b). Based on our independent review of the record and applicable law, we are constrained to reverse.
On December 21, 2009, at approximately 10:00 p.m., Sergeant John Quick of the New Brunswick Police Department was on patrol when he saw a car proceeding southbound on Route 27 at a high rate of speed. The driver attempted to make a left-hand turn onto Sanford Street, a one-way street, in the wrong direction. Once the driver realized his error, he made a u-turn into oncoming traffic, at which point Quick radioed dispatch and requested a check on the license plate. He was informed the vehicle, a 1994 Honda Accord, had been reported stolen from a parking lot the day before. Quick put on his overhead lights and stopped the car at Sandy and Front Streets. There were four occupants, including W.G. and his brother*fn1 seated in the rear of the vehicle.*fn2 At the time of the stop, the ignition was empty.
When Quick searched the driver, he found a small screwdriver and a key in his right front pocket. Although the key fit the glove box and the trunk, Quick could not insert it in the badly damaged ignition. Starting the motor required the use of an object such as a screwdriver.
Quick testified at trial that, after nineteen years on the police force, he knew the condition of the ignition meant the vehicle was stolen. In fact, Quick described a photograph introduced during his testimony as depicting "an enormous gaping hole in the steering column." As one of the Honda's owners described it, "the place that you turned the key . . . is no longer there. It's just the inside." The other owner testified that the front steering column is visible from the rear.
Defense counsel argued the Rule 3:18-1 motion for acquittal at the close of the State's case based on the theory that the State did not prove the juvenile even knew the car had been stolen. He contended it was not "necessarily reasonable" to assume a person seated in the rear of even a relatively small car at 10:00 p.m. would have noticed the condition of the steering column. He therefore urged the court to acquit W.G. both of receiving stolen property as well as the lesser-included offense of joyriding.
The court denied the Rule 3:18-1 application and adjudicated W.G. delinquent pursuant to subsection (b) of the unlawful taking of a means of conveyance statute: "A person commits a crime of the fourth degree if, with purpose to withhold temporarily from the owner, he takes, operates or exercises control over a motor vehicle without the consent of the owner or other person authorized to give consent." N.J.S.A. 2C:20-10(b). Now on appeal, the following points are advanced on behalf of the juvenile:
NO LEGAL BASIS EXISTED TO FIND BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT THAT THE JUVENILE HAD ACTED WITH PURPOSE TO WITHHOLD A MOTOR VEHICLE TEMPORARILY FROM THE OWNER BY TAKING, OPERATING OR EXERCISING ...