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State of New Jersey v. Zeb Koch

September 26, 2011

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
ZEB KOCH, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Criminal Part, Warren County, Municipal Appeal No. A-41-09-Y17.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued April 4, 2011

Before Judges A. A. Rodriguez and C. L. Miniman.

Zeb Koch was convicted in the Municipal Court of Mansfield of underage consumption of alcohol, in violation of Township of Independence Local Ordinance 121-12.*fn1 It is undisputed that the ordinance makes it unlawful for "any person under the legal age to knowingly possess or consume alcoholic beverage on private property." The municipal court judge imposed a $250 fine, and $33 court costs.

Koch appealed. At a trial de novo in the Law Division, the judge heard oral argument and issued a written decision, finding Koch guilty of the same charge. The judge imposed the same sanctions. Koch appeals from the judgment of the Law Division. We reverse.

These are the salient facts. On May 8, 2009, Koch, an eighteen-year-old high school student, went to a party in Independence with his nineteen-year-old girlfriend Ashley. The party was held at a home on Barkers Mill Road. A neighbor complained to the police that young people attending the party were smoking marijuana and urinating on his lawn. Independence Township Patrolman Joseph DeWitt testified that he responded to the location of the party. He saw that there were thirty to fifty cars parked near the home. It is undisputed that alcoholic beverages were being consumed in and around the home and on its deck. Upon the arrival of DeWitt in a marked squad car, around twenty young people ran into the woods behind the home. DeWitt did not pursue them. He did detain the forty to fifty young people who had not run into the woods. He lined them up; told them they were not free to leave; and proceeded to sniff the breath of each to determine if they had consumed alcohol. It is undisputed that no Miranda*fn2 warnings were given. Specifically, no one was advised that they had the right to refuse to submit to being sniffed, or to remain silent.

According to DeWitt, just before he sniffed Koch, the young man said spontaneously, "I only had one." He remembered that Koch's breath smelled of alcohol. After about twenty minutes, DeWitt told the group that they were free to leave, but must do so with a "sober" driver. No summonses were issued at that time.

Ninety minutes after DeWitt left the scene of the party, he came across Koch again. According to DeWitt, he saw a maroon Pontiac, later determined to be registered to Ashley Perch, stationary on the side of the road. He testified that Koch, Ashley and a young woman were the occupants of the vehicle, but, "the operator of the [Pontiac] when I first arrived was not Zeb Koch." DeWitt distinctly remembered speaking with Koch about Koch and Ashley exchanging places, because "Ashley Perch was only 17 years old and was not allowed to drive after midnight."

Ashley testified that Koch was with her the whole time at the party. He did not drink any alcoholic beverages, nor make any comment to DeWitt about drinking. She would not have let Koch drive her car if he had consumed an alcoholic beverage. According to her, after leaving the party with Koch, DeWitt pulled over her Pontiac. Koch was driving. The Pontiac was moving when DeWitt activated his overhead lights to pull it over. She confirmed that that she was nineteen years old, not seventeen as DeWitt had testified.

Koch testified and denied drinking any alcoholic beverages at the party. He was over eighteen on the day of the party. Ashley was not subject to a midnight curfew for new drivers.

After speaking briefly, DeWitt told Koch to continue driving the Pontiac. The motor vehicle stop ended and no charges were issued against anyone.

The defense attempted to introduce into evidence as Exhibit D-5, a videotape made by a camera in DeWitt's police vehicle. The exhibit was excluded from evidence, but it is part of the record on appeal. We have seen it. D-5 shows that the Pontiac was operated by Koch. It was moving for a considerable distance before DeWitt activated his overhead lights and pulled it over.

Four days later, on May 12, 2009, DeWitt issued a summons for underage drinking to Koch. Several days later, Koch learned about the charge for the first time, when his high school principal told him that he was being suspended ...


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