May 31, 2012
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
RUDOLPH GARON, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Municipal Appeal No. 93-2010.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 30, 2011 -
Before Judges Graves and J.N. Harris.
Following a trial de novo in the Law Division, defendant Rudolph Garon was convicted of operating his motor vehicle in violation of the compulsory insurance provisions of N.J.S.A. 39:6B-2. His driver's license was suspended for one year, and he was required to pay a $300 fine and $33 in court costs. We affirm.*fn1
The facts are straightforward. On May 10, 2010, after a license plate check revealed defendant's driver's license and registration were suspended, Officer Thomas J. Carroll of the Middlesex Borough Police Department stopped defendant while he was driving his 2008 Jeep Grand Cherokee. When Carroll asked defendant for his license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance, defendant produced an insurance card that had expired in March 2010. Carroll issued defendant summonses for operating an uninsured vehicle, N.J.S.A. 39:6B-2; driving with a suspended registration, N.J.S.A. 39:3-40; and failing to surrender his driver's license, N.J.S.A. 39:5-35.
On October 7, 2010, a trial was held in Middlesex Borough Municipal Court. The State called its only witness, Carroll, who testified to the details of the stop. The State also introduced an order of registration suspension sent to defendant by the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) on March 3, 2010, and an order of driver's license suspension sent to defendant by the MVC on April 18, 2010. The orders stated the registration for defendant's vehicle was indefinitely suspended as of March 3, 2010, and defendant's driver's license was indefinitely suspended as of April 2, 2010, due to defendant's failure "to present proof of NJ Motor Vehicle Liability Insurance." The State also produced proof of mailing for both orders of suspension.
Defendant testified that he had obtained insurance through State Farm for many years, and that State Farm had issued a policy that covered the Jeep Grand Cherokee. According to defendant, he received a renewal bill from State Farm in January or February 2010, but his insurance coverage lapsed because his wife failed to mail the check he gave her to pay for the insurance premium. Defendant also testified he did not receive any notice from State Farm that his insurance policy would be terminated. On cross-examination, defendant acknowledged that the address on both suspension orders was correct, but he testified he never received either of the MVC suspension orders. Defendant also acknowledged that after he gave the check to his wife, he did not review his monthly bank statements to see whether the check for the insurance premium had been cashed.
In an oral opinion, the municipal court judge found it was "defendant's obligation to keep his motor vehicle, both as the owner and operator, properly insured." In addition, the municipal court judge found that defendant "knew or should have known he didn't have insurance." Consequently, defendant was convicted of operating an uninsured motor vehicle, but he was found not guilty of the other charges. Defendant's sentence was stayed pending the outcome of his appeal to the Law Division.
In the Law Division, defendant claimed the municipal court erred because it did not consider whether State Farm properly terminated his automobile insurance policy. In a written decision, the Law Division judge found that defendant's vehicle was not insured when he was stopped on May 10, 2010, and that defendant "had actual notice that his . . . insurance was cancelled or not renewed." The judge concluded that the State's proofs, coupled with "the strict liability nature of the uninsured motorist offense," were sufficient to establish a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:6B-2. Defendant's sentence was stayed pending appeal.
On appeal to this court, defendant argues that his conviction should be reversed because he "never received adequate notice that State Farm cancelled or did not renew his policy." We do not agree.
"The obvious purpose and intent of N.J.S.A. 39:6B-2 is to keep uninsured vehicles off the road for the protection of the public who may be injured or damaged by their operation." State v. Hayducka, 337 N.J. Super. 168, 172 (App. Div. 2001). The statute provides, in pertinent part, as follows:
Any owner or registrant of a motor vehicle registered or principally garaged in this State who operates or causes to be operated a motor vehicle upon any public road or highway in this State without motor vehicle liability insurance coverage required by this act, and any operator who operates or causes a motor vehicle to be operated and who knows or should know from the attendant circumstances that the motor vehicle is without motor vehicle liability insurance coverage required by this act shall be subject, for the first offense, to a fine of not less than $300 nor more than $1,000 and a period of community service to be determined by the court, and shall forthwith forfeit his right to operate a motor vehicle over the highways of this State for a period of one year from the date of conviction. [N.J.S.A. 39:6B-2.]
The statute distinguishes between owners or registrants of vehicles and operators of vehicles. An owner is strictly liable for operating a motor vehicle without liability insurance coverage, but an operator is liable only if he knew or should have known that the vehicle he was operating was not insured. State v. Hochman, 188 N.J. Super. 382, 387 (App. Div. 1982). Here, defendant does not dispute that he owned the vehicle he was driving when he was stopped by Officer Carroll on May 10, 2010. Thus, the State was not required to prove that defendant knew his vehicle was uninsured.
It is also clear from the record before us that defendant's State Farm insurance policy expired because it was not renewed.
The standards governing the renewal of insurance policies are set forth in N.J.A.C. 11:3-8.3, which provides that "[e]very insurer shall make an offer to the insured named policyholder . . . to renew such policy upon its expiration date," and "[e]ach renewal offer shall be in the usual form of either a renewal policy, a certificate, or a renewal offer or bill." Additionally, defendant confirmed he received a bill from State Farm to renew his policy, as he normally did twice per year. Thus, State Farm fulfilled its legal obligation to defendant under N.J.A.C. 11:3-8.3. State Farm did not seek to cancel defendant's policy, and it was not necessary for State Farm to comply with N.J.S.A. 17:29C-8, which applies to policy cancellations.
We are satisfied that Judge Michael A. Toto properly found that: (1) defendant was the owner of the vehicle he was driving; (2) the vehicle was registered in New Jersey; (3) defendant operated the vehicle on a public road or highway in this state; and (4) the vehicle was without liability insurance coverage required by N.J.S.A. 39:6B-1. Accordingly, Judge Toto correctly concluded that defendant violated N.J.S.A. 39:6B-2.