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State of New Jersey v. Matt Meenan

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


June 4, 2012

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
MATT MEENAN, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County, Municipal Appeal No. 75-10.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted May 2, 2012 --

Before Judges Graves and Koblitz.

Defendant Matt Meenan was charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI), N.J.S.A. 39:4-50; careless driving, N.J.S.A. 39:4-97; and failure to signal, N.J.S.A. 39:4-126, on April 30, 2010. Following a trial, defendant was convicted of DWI. The municipal court judge suspended defendant's driver's license for ninety days, required him to complete twelve hours at an intoxicated driver resource center, and it imposed appropriate monetary penalties. The other charges were dismissed. On appeal, the Law Division imposed the same sentence. We affirm.*fn1

The arresting officer, State Trooper Nathan Nabinger, was the only witness to testify at defendant's trial in the Mansfield Township Municipal Court. Nabinger testified he had just completed a stop at approximately 10:30 p.m. on April 30, 2010, and he was still parked on the northbound shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike when he first observed defendant's vehicle traveling in the right lane. According to Nabinger, the vehicle crossed over the fog lane by approximately six inches, and it came very close to his patrol car. Nabinger testified he followed defendant's vehicle for approximately four miles. During that time, he noted "the vehicle was going back and forth within the right lane between the fog lane and the white lane dividers." He also observed the vehicle change lanes to pass a tractor trailer without signaling.

At that point, Nabinger activated his overhead lights and initiated a stop. Upon approaching defendant's vehicle, Nabinger observed defendant's "eyes were sagging, they were bloodshot, and [defendant's] face had a sleepy appearance." Nabinger testified he "smelled a strong odor of either air freshener or cologne" coming from the car. When Nabinger asked defendant if he had consumed any alcoholic beverages, defendant stated he had "[t]wo beers."

After defendant produced his license and registration, Nabinger told him "to turn the vehicle off, but to keep his headlights on for the purpose of field sobriety tests." According to Nabinger, defendant "appeared a little confused" and immediately turned his headlights off. Nabinger then instructed defendant to turn his headlights on and to walk to the front of his vehicle. Nabinger testified defendant "put his hand on the hood and kind of leaned against his car" as he proceeded to the front of the vehicle.

Nabinger stated he detected an odor of an alcoholic beverage on defendant's breath as he explained the field sobriety tests to defendant. After Nabinger demonstrated the walk-and-turn test, defendant stated: "I can't do that. . . . I'm going to be honest with you. I had some things to drink. I shouldn't have drove but I did." Nevertheless, defendant attempted to complete the test. Nabinger described his performance as follows:

He . . . began to walk along the imaginary straight line. He was looking down, counting with each step. His first step was heel-to-toe. All other steps beyond that were not heel-to-toe. It was a matter of, you know, three or four inches or so between . . . each step beyond that. A couple of the steps, he stepped off the imaginary line. I believe it was . . . two of his steps. He's stepping to the side, you know, as an effort to maintain his balance. After he got to step number nine . . . he took one final step and began to rotate his body to turn and as he was doing that he wobbled. It appeared to me that he was losing his balance and at that point I grabbed onto Mr. Meenan.

At that point, Nabinger concluded defendant was "under the influence." Nabinger did not ask defendant to perform any additional field sobriety tests because he did not "know exactly what [defendant] may or may not do," and there was "a fair amount of traffic on the road." Accordingly, defendant was arrested for DWI and transported to the Moorestown State Police barracks.

At the barracks, Nabinger read defendant his Miranda*fn2 warnings, and defendant agreed to answer some questions. In response to Nabinger's questions, defendant said he had four alcoholic drinks between 7:45 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. that evening.

In the Law Division, defendant argued the State failed to prove Trooper Nabinger was qualified to administer field sobriety tests, the trooper never demonstrated to defendant how to do the walk and turn test, and the test was conducted on "uneven ground." The Law Division rejected defendant's arguments, reasoning as follows:

[T]his is a man unfortunately that I find beyond a reasonable doubt had too much to drink before operating his motor vehicle. He admitted that he probably shouldn't have drank and he probably . . . is absolutely correct.

You have to take all of the circumstances and I do find that the circumstances here . . . have been presented in a truthful way, even in consideration of the roadway being on a slant . . . . It was otherwise a flat road but for water run-off slant. The fact that the trooper didn't present any credential, he wasn't asked for it, frankly, below but he did testify about his training. And I want the record to reflect that, first of all, he did say that he had been trained at the state police academy as to how to perform the tests and the fact that he did not walk nine steps is of no great merit as far as I'm concerned in deciding whether or not the defendant was not given a fair shake at performing the test. He obviously was shown three steps, a third of the way and then the trooper's decision to not do nine steps and turn around on a person he has stopped, not knowing who he is on that roadway at that time, I don't think was out of line whatsoever.

. . . I don't believe this trooper had to demonstrate the entire test. He's not himself being tested here. It is the defendant. Yes, the defendant has to be advised in a way that he would know what he's being asked to do and under the circumstances here the defendant was told specifically what to do. He was shown at least partial three, four steps what to do and he didn't do it correctly, he lost his balance. The trooper stopped the test on the roadway due to where it was and the performance that he viewed.

On appeal to this court, defendant argues "the State did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt [that] defendant was intoxicated." We do not agree.

Our scope of review is limited. We "consider only the action of the Law Division, and not that of the municipal court." State v. Oliveri, 336 N.J. Super. 244, 251 (App. Div. 2001) (citing State v. Joas, 34 N.J. 179, 184 (1961)). Review in the Law Division is de novo on the record. R. 3:23-8(a). The Law Division must give "due, although not necessarily controlling, regard to the opportunity of the magistrate to judge the credibility of the witnesses." State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 157 (1964). Likewise, we defer to findings by a municipal court that are substantially influenced by its "opportunity to hear and see the witnesses." Id. at 161. Our function is to determine whether the findings of the Law Division "could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record." Id. at 162. When we are satisfied that the findings and conclusions of the Law Division meet that criterion, we "should not disturb the result" even though we "might have reached a different conclusion" or the case was "a close one." Ibid.

N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a) prohibits the operation of a motor vehicle "while under the influence of intoxicating liquor." "The language 'under the influence' . . . means a substantial deterioration or diminution of the mental faculties or physical capabilities of a person . . . ." State v. Tamburro, 68 N.J. 414, 420-21 (1975). The statute does not require the State to prove defendant was "absolutely 'drunk' in the sense of being sodden with alcohol. It is sufficient if [he] has imbibed to the extent that his physical coordination or mental faculties are deleteriously affected." State v. Emery, 27 N.J. 348, 355 (1958).

In the present matter, the field sobriety testing and overall observations of Trooper Nabinger provided ample evidence of defendant's guilt. See State v. Bealor, 187 N.J. 574, 585 (2006) ("Since 1924, because sobriety and intoxication are matters of common observation and knowledge, New Jersey has permitted the use of lay opinion testimony to establish alcohol intoxication."); see also State v. Morris, 262 N.J. Super. 413, 421-22 (App. Div. 1993) (finding defendant guilty of DWI based on the strong odor of alcohol on his breath, his agitated behavior, the fact that he was "very wobbly," his slurred speech, and his bloodshot eyes). We therefore affirm substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Thomas Kelly on May 26, 2011.

Affirmed.


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