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State of New Jersey v. Elliott Malone

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


July 1, 2011

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
ELLIOTT MALONE, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Municipal Appeal No. 009-10-10.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued April 12, 2011

Before Judges Payne and Baxter.

Following a trial de novo in the Law Division, defendant Elliott Malone appeals from his conviction on a charge of improper use of a cell phone while driving, N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3. Although the Law Division judge found that defendant's cell phone was equipped with a hands-free device, she also found that defendant was "pressing buttons" on the cell phone, thereby violating the statute. We disagree with the judge's conclusion that such conduct necessarily constitutes a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3, and therefore reverse defendant's conviction.

I. On April 7, 2010, Lieutenant Daniel Siegel of the Tenafly Police Department was on duty driving southbound on a county road when he observed defendant driving in the opposite direction. From a distance of eight feet, Lieutenant Siegel was able to observe defendant holding a cell phone in his hand, and "pushing buttons." Believing such conduct to be a violation of the statute, Siegel effected a motor vehicle stop. There was not "any question in [his] mind" that defendant "had a cell phone and . . . was using it."

On cross-examination, Siegel was asked whether, when he saw defendant "pressing buttons," he "assumed that [defendant] was dialing," to which he answered "[n]ot necessarily." Defendant could have been "doing anything else" on the cell phone, such as "sending a text." When asked whether defendant was using "a hands-free device . . . on [his] ear," Siegel answered, "I have no idea."

Defendant testified, asserting that at the time in question, he "was not using the phone for sending text messages, receiving text messages, [or] activating any function of the phone." He offered his cell phone records in evidence, which the judge declined to accept because the cell phone record had not been authenticated, as required by N.J.R.E. 901. Defendant also contended that even if he had been "pressing buttons," as Lieutenant Siegel testified, this would not be a violation of the statute, because the statute permits a driver to hold the phone in one hand to activate, deactivate or initiate a function of the telephone.

The municipal court judge denied defendant's motion to dismiss. The judge accepted as credible the Lieutenant's testimony that he saw defendant holding the cell phone in his hand and "pushing buttons." In rejecting defendant's claim that his cell phone was equipped with a hands-free device, the judge observed that "if that had been the case, [defendant] would have been pushing it in the Lieutenant's face and showing it to him." Having rejected defendant's contention that his cell phone was equipped with a hands-free device, the municipal court judge found defendant guilty of violating N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3. The judge imposed a $106 fine and $33 in court costs.

In the de novo trial in the Law Division, the judge assessed the record made in the municipal court, but reached a different conclusion on the question of whether defendant had been using a hands-free device, concluding that he had. However, the judge concluded that a hands-free device "is for listening." The judge observed that the statute prohibits a driver from holding a cell phone while driving, but does permit the driver to use one hand "to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the telephone." The judge noted that "[i]t should not take the pressing of buttons to activate a cell phone." She concluded that none of the exceptions contained in the statute was applicable because activating or deactivating the phone "would take [only] one touch of a button," rather than pressing multiple buttons.

The judge also reasoned that "it's counter-intuitive to the statute to believe that someone dialing a phone would be driving safely, because they'd have to be concentrating on either looking at . . . the numbers or pressing the right numbers." Based on this interpretation of the statute, the judge concluded that defendant was guilty of holding his cell phone while driving, observing that the State was only required to show that defendant was "'using' a wireless telephone and that he was on a public road or highway," and the State proved those elements beyond a reasonable doubt.

On appeal, defendant argues: 1) the exclusion of his cell phone records was error; 2) the State's failure to provide him with a copy of Lieutenant Siegel's handwritten notes prior to trial in the municipal court entitled him to the dismissal of the charge; 3) N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3 is unconstitutionally vague; 4) the judge's analysis of the statute was incorrect; and 5) because the State failed to prove all elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt, his conviction must be reversed.

II. We begin our analysis with point four, in which defendant maintains that his conviction must be reversed because the Law Division judge's analysis of the statute was incorrect. In particular, defendant maintains that even if, as the judge found, he was pressing buttons on his cell phone to initiate a call, such conduct is permitted by the statute.

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." State v. Ugrovics, 410 N.J. Super. 482, 487 (App. Div. 2009) (quoting Manalapan Realty,

L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378, (1995)), certif. denied, 202 N.J. 346 (2010). The "scope of review is de novo, without affording [the trial court's] judgment any special deference." Id. at 487-88.

When construing a statute, our primary goal is to determine the legislative intent. State v. Ciancaglini, 204 N.J. 597, 605-06 (2011). "'If the plain language leads to a clear and unambiguous result, then our interpretive process is over.'" State v. Gandhi, 201 N.J. 161, 177 (2010) (quoting Richardson v. Bd. of Trs., Police & Firemen's Ret. Sys., 192 N.J. 189, 195 (2007)). We ascribe to statutory words their ordinary meaning and significance. N.J.S.A. 1:1-1 (stating that in construing both civil and criminal statutes, "words and phrases shall be read and construed with their context, and shall, unless inconsistent with the manifest intent of the [L]egislature or unless another or different meaning is expressly indicated, be given their generally accepted meaning, according to the approved usage of the language"). Moreover, "no word should be rendered inoperative or superfluous." Macysyn v. Hensler, 329 N.J. Super. 476, 485 (2000).

In relevant part, the statute prohibiting the use of a cell phone*fn1 while operating a moving motor vehicle provides that:

The use of a wireless telephone or electronic communication device by an operator of a moving motor vehicle on a public road or highway shall be unlawful except when the telephone is a hands-free wireless telephone or the electronic communication device is used hands-free .

[N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3(a) (emphasis added).]

The statute defines "use" to "include, but not be limited to, talking or listening to another person on the telephone, text messaging, or sending an electronic message via the wireless telephone or electronic communication device." Ibid. "Hands-free wireless telephone" is defined as: a mobile telephone that has an internal feature or function, or that is equipped with an attachment or addition, whether or not permanently part of such mobile telephone, by which a user engages in a conversation without the use of either hand; provided, however, this definition shall not preclude the use of either hand to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the telephone. [Ibid. (emphasis added).]

Thus, the statute prohibits a motorist from talking or listening to another person on the telephone, text messaging or sending an electronic message, unless the motorist uses a hands-free device to accomplish those functions.*fn2 The driver may, however, hold the telephone in one hand for the period of time necessary to "activate, deactivate or initiate a function of the telephone." Ibid.

Defendant argues both that the statute permits the "use" of the wireless telephone when a hands-free device is worn, and that the use of the wireless telephone is not limited to "listening." Defendant contends that a motorist is permitted to use the wireless telephone by holding it in one hand to "activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the telephone," N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3(a), and that this activity may lawfully entail pressing buttons on the telephone. He further argues that pressing buttons to activate or initiate a function of the cell phone does not necessarily mean that a driver is dialing a number on the cell phone, but even if he is, dialing is implicitly permitted to "activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the telephone."

In contrast, the State urges us to conclude that the statute prohibits a motorist from holding a cell phone in his or her hand while driving, unless one of the exceptions contained in N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3(b)(1) or (2) applies. The State also argues that pushing buttons, which it equates with dialing, is not "activating, deactivating or initiating a function" of the phone. Notably, the State observes that the "Legislature has chosen not to include a definition of what constitutes 'activating, deactivating, or initiating a function' of a cell phone. The statute neither expressly permits nor prohibits dialing." Neither has the Legislature explained whether "activating, deactivating, or initiating a function of a cell phone may allow for pressing more than one button."

The first issue we must address is whether N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3(a) limits the "use" of a wireless telephone fitted with a hands-free device to "listening." The statute bans the "use of a wireless telephone . . . by a [motorist] . . . except when the telephone is a hands-free wireless telephone or the electronic communication device is used hands-free[.]" N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3(a). "Use" includes "talking or listening to another person on the telephone, text messaging, or sending an electronic message[.]" N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3. Thus, the plain language of the statute permits motorists to use a wireless telephone for talking, listening, text messaging, or sending an electronic message, provided that the phone is used with a hands-free device, and the motorist is not holding the telephone in his or her hand. The statute does not limit the use of the cell phone fitted with a hands-free device to only "listening." Therefore, the Law Division's conclusion to that effect was error.

The second issue of interpretation raised by this appeal is whether N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3(a) permits a motorist to briefly hold the cell phone in one hand when using the wireless telephone "hands-free." The definition of "hands-free wireless telephone" is "a mobile telephone that has an internal feature or function, or that is equipped with an attachment or addition, whether or not permanently part of such mobile telephone, by which a user engages in a conversation without the use of either hand[.]" N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3. Although the statute defines a "hands-free wireless telephone" as a device that either functions in a hands-free manner, or becomes hands-free when equipped with "an attachment or addition," the definition of "hands-free wireless telephone" specifies that "this definition shall not preclude the use of either hand to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the telephone." N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3(b).

Thus, the plain language of the statute permits motorists to hold the cell phone in one hand for the limited purpose of activating, deactivating, or initiating a function of the telephone. The State urges us to conclude that the statute prohibits a motorist from holding a cell phone in his or her hand while driving; however, such an interpretation would conflict with the provision of the statute that allows the "use of either hand" to perform specified functions when using a hands-free wireless telephone. Reading the entire definition as a whole, a motorist could use one hand to "activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the telephone," but once engaged in the conversation, the use of the telephone must be "without the use of either hand." N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3(b). Thus, we reject the State's contention that a motorist is not permitted to hold a wireless telephone at any time while driving, as the statute permits a motorist to use one hand to "activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the telephone." Ibid.

The next issue we must address is whether the provision that allows motorists to use "either hand to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the telephone," N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3, permits motorists to dial. While hands-free wireless telephones and accessories allow motorists to engage in the conversation "hands-free," some cell phones require the pushing of a button or buttons, or an icon, to connect or disconnect the hands-free device. Nonetheless, once the wireless telephone is connected to the hands-free device, a motorist cannot engage in a conversation unless he or she "activate[s], deactivate[s], or initiate[s] a function of the telephone." Defendant argues that the statute allows a motorist to dial the phone when activating, deactivating, or initiating a function of the phone, because otherwise, "[o]ne could stare at a phone for hours, but such would not lead to . . . the simple function of a call being made."

As the State notes, the Legislature did not define the terms "activate, deactivate, or initiate a function," nor did the Legislature expressly permit or prohibit dialing. The statute is also silent on whether a motorist is permitted to press a button or buttons to "activate, deactivate, or initiate a function." The State argues the statute was a "preventative measure to discourage motorists from engaging in highly distractive behaviors while they were driving." To support its argument, the State relies on the press release from then-Governor McGreevey, in which he observed that the new law "[r]equiring drivers to keep both hands on the wheel will save lives," and the purpose was to "minimize distractions while driving, making our roads safe."*fn3 While it is clear that the statute was designed to minimize distractions while driving, the plain language does not require drivers to keep both hands on the wheel at all times, but instead requires motorists who are using a hands-free telephone while talking on the phone to do so "without the use of either hand." N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3.

The legislative history is meager, with only short statements supporting the enactment of the Legislation.*fn4 The sponsor's statement indicates that:

Under this bill, the use of cellular telephones equipped for hands-free operation would be permissible in moving vehicles during and beyond a three-month transition period phasing out hand-held cell phones. Hands-free designs or attachments should reduce the distractions associated with dialing, holding, reaching for or picking up a dropped handset. [ Sponsor's Statement to Senate No. 1283 (March 7, 2002) (emphasis added).]

It is clear from the sponsor's statement that the Legislature recognized that the use of a hands-free wireless telephone would "reduce" the distractions associated with dialing, not eliminate the distractions associated with dialing. Thus, the Legislature intended motorists to be able to "activate" the phone through the use of dialing. The Law Division judge's interpretation of the statute that "activating or deactivating does not include dialing" is incorrect.

The last issue is whether the activation of a wireless telephone with a hands-free device requires the "pressing of buttons." The Law Division judge found that the activation of a wireless telephone "should not take the pressing of buttons." Generally, there are three methods for dialing when using a wireless telephone: (1) the standard method of dialing where the user presses each digit and then presses the call or send button; (2) speed dialing where the user finds the name of the contact in the telephone address book, selects the contact, and then presses the call or send button on the phone; and (3) voice dialing where the user presses a button to activate the voice dialing prompt, and then speaks the name of the contact and the telephone automatically dials that contact.

Even with voice dialing, the most advanced of these three options, a user may still need to press a button on the wireless telephone to activate that feature, or in the alternative, press a button on the wireless earpiece or on the car's audio system. The other two methods of dialing require the user to press more than one button on the telephone, earpiece or car audio system to dial. Thus, it may be necessary for a motorist to press more than one button when dialing on the wireless telephone. There are many ways by which a motorist would "activate" the wireless telephone, and the statute does not limit the methods used by a motorist. As such, the Law Division judge's conclusion that "merely activating or deactivating the phone . . . would take one touch of the button" is incorrect.

Even if we were to agree with the judge's conclusion that "activating or deactivating the phone . . . would take one touch of the button[,]" we cannot ignore the portion of the statute that authorizes a driver to use one hand to "initiate a function of the telephone." That phrase should be given meaning so that "no word [is] rendered inoperative or superfluous." Macysyn, supra, 329 N.J. Super. at 485. "[I]nitiat[ing] a function of the telephone" could involve pressing buttons to find a contact in the address book, to activate the voice dial function, to dial the numbers to place a phone call or to receive an incoming call. Therefore, although activating the telephone (turning it on), or deactivating the telephone (turning it off), may require the touch of only one button, "initiat[ing] a function of the telephone" could require the pressing of multiple buttons.

We therefore conclude, as defendant argues in point four, that the Law Division incorrectly interpreted N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3. In particular, contrary to the judge's findings:

(1) the statute does not limit the use of a hands-free telephone to listening because a motorist using a hands-free wireless telephone is also permitted to hold the wireless telephone in one hand while activating, deactivating or initiating a function of the telephone; (2) initiating a function of the hands-free wireless telephone includes dialing; and (3) it may be necessary to press more than one button to "activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the telephone."

In sum, other than in an emergency, a motorist may only engage in a conversation on a cell phone if the telephone is equipped with a hands-free device; the motorist may not hold the telephone in one hand while talking to, or listening to, the person on the other end of the phone. A motorist is also prohibited from holding the telephone to send a text message or electronic mail. The only circumstance in which a motorist is permitted to hold a wireless cell phone in one hand, with the other hand on the steering wheel, is when the motorist is activating, deactivating or initiating a function of the telephone, which includes answering the phone, ending the phone call or dialing a phone number.

III. We turn to point five, in which defendant argues that the State did not meet its burden of proving him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. As we have noted, the Law Division judge found that defendant's phone had a hands-free device, and defendant was pressing buttons on his wireless telephone while driving on a public highway. The State did not prove that such conduct constituted the use of his phone for any unlawful purpose under the statute in light of the fact that the statute permits a driver to hold his phone in one hand to "activate, deactivate or initiate a function" of his wireless telephone; and the State failed to prove that by pressing buttons, or pressing icons, defendant was using the phone for any other purpose.

We recognize that the pressing of buttons with one hand to send a text message is prohibited by the statute, as it constitutes neither the activating, or deactivating of the phone, or the initiating of a function of the phone. The State did not, however, prove such an improper use. Where the same conduct -- pressing of buttons -- constitutes both lawful and unlawful activity, a defendant must be found not guilty. See Ciancaglini, supra, 204 N.J. at 611 (recognizing the "well-established principle that penal statutes must be strictly construed"). Thus, because the State did not prove that the "pressing of buttons" in this instance constituted a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3, defendant's conviction must be reversed.

In light of that conclusion, we need not reach the claims defendant advances in points one, two and three.

Reversed for the entry of a judgment of acquittal.


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