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State of New Jersey In the Interest of H.M.


June 19, 2012


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Salem County, Docket No. FJ-17-74-11.

Per curiam.



Submitted April 25, 2012

Before Judges Sapp-Peterson and Ostrer.

This case requires us to construe L. 1986, c. 34, which amended the statute on obstructing the administration of law, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1, to make certain violations a fourth-degree crime. The issue arises in H.M.'s appeal from an adjudication of juvenile delinquency. Following a bench trial, the Family Part found H.M. committed an offense that if committed by an adult would constitute fourth-degree obstructing, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1b. The court acquitted H.M. of additional charges that would have constituted the adult crimes of third-degree resisting arrest, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2a(3)(a), and second-degree hindering apprehension, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3a(5). We reverse, and remand for entry of an adjudication of delinquency on the lesser included disorderly persons form of obstructing, and for a new disposition.


H.M.'s offense arose out of a police encounter with an adult. On May 25, 2010, Millville Police Officer Matthew Radcliffe while on automobile patrol observed Charles Hannah on the porch of the home where H.M. resided. There was an outstanding warrant for the arrest of Hannah on charges of attempted murder. Officer Radcliffe advised Hannah he was under arrest pursuant to the warrant. Hannah then attempted to flee into the house, but the door was locked. The officer exited his vehicle, entered the porch and attempted to place Hannah under arrest.

According to Officer Radcliffe's testimony, as Hannah struggled, he called for H.M. to unlock the door. H.M. then opened the door. Hannah fell into the house. As Officer Radcliffe shouted that Hannah was under arrest, H.M. shut the door against the officer, pushing him out of the house, and then H.M. locked the officer out. Officer Radcliffe testified he ultimately gained entry into the home by kicking the door off its hinges. He struggled with Hannah inside the house. H.M. shouted at the officer using vulgar terms to get out of the house. However, H.M. did not physically interfere as Officer Radcliffe subdued Hannah and brought him out of the house, where the officer arrested him with the assistance of other officers. An assisting officer then attempted to arrest H.M. for hindering the apprehension of Hannah, and H.M. refused to offer his hands for the placement of restraints and had to be physically subdued.

Officer Radcliffe's testimony was corroborated in part by Sergeant Mike Harvey, who testified that he responded to the rear of the property as back-up. Using his radio, he authorized Officer Radcliffe to force entry into the residence after the officer's struggle with Hannah on the porch. He could hear the struggle continue in the house, but he had no personal knowledge of H.M. impeding Officer Radcliffe's entry into the house.

H.M. testified in his defense, along with his thirteen-year-old cousin, A.M., and his girlfriend, Cachet Habersham, both of whom were in the house during the altercation, and H.M.'s grandmother, the house's owner, who arrived home hours later. A.M. testified that she heard someone banging on the door; she thought the struggle outside involved Hannah and "my uncle." She alerted Habersham and H.M., who went downstairs and opened the door, causing Hannah to fall into the house.

A.M. testified that she could see the officer on the porch after Hannah fell in, but she did not hear the officer say anything. She said H.M. closed the door, but she did not see H.M. shove Officer Radcliffe out. Hannah entered the house, and ultimately fled upstairs. The officer started banging on the door and twisting the door knob, and then H.M. opened the door for the officer.

Habersham was also near the door when H.M. first opened the door, to let Hannah in, but asserted she did not see Officer Radcliffe nearby. She heard Officer Radcliffe kicking the door. H.M. then opened it again, and the officer entered, accusing H.M. of obstructing justice.

H.M. admitted he opened the door for Hannah, and saw Officer Radcliffe outside the doorway. But, he denied the officer said anything to him. H.M. said he closed the door, but denied he did so to obstruct the officer and he denied using force against the officer. He claimed Officer Radcliffe was spraying mace, and he closed the door to protect himself from mace, but he denied knowing that the officer was trying to arrest Hannah. While Officer Radcliffe kicked on the door, H.M. questioned Hannah, who told him the police had a warrant for his arrest. H.M. claimed he castigated Hannah for bringing the police to his grandmother's house, and told him he needed to surrender because the police were kicking on the door. H.M. said he then opened the door, and told Officer Radcliffe to arrest Hannah. H.M. testified that he shouted at the officer to get out of the house only after Officer Radcliffe and Hannah upset some furnishings as they struggled.

All defense witnesses testified the front door showed evidence of having been kicked, and showed traces of what appeared to be mace, but the door was not kicked off its hinges. H.M.'s grandmother testified about the damage to personal property in her home and on her porch.

The judge found H.M. knew Officer Radcliffe was attempting to perform an official function when he closed the door, but he was unpersuaded that H.M. forcibly pushed Officer Radcliffe out of the house.

I can't tell from the evidence who he [H.M.] believed Mr. Hannah was having the scuffle with. But, he opens the door. And then, after he opens the door, everybody agrees that Mr. Hannah falls through the door . . . . [A]nd there's no doubt that Mr.

[H.]M[.] sees the - Mr. Hannah with the policeman at that point.

And, the statute says for obstructing the administration of law or other government function, a person commits an offense if he purposely obstructs, impairs, or perverts the administration of law or other government function, or prevents or attempts to prevent a public servant from lawfully performing an official function by means of - this is 2C:29-1, which is - a, which is what Mr. [H.]M[.] is charged with. And, it says, by means of flight, intimidation, force, violence, or physical interference, or obstacle - and I emphasize the word obstacle - or by means of any independent [un]lawful act . . . .

And, to me, the real question is, at the time that Mr. Hannah fell through the door and you saw the policeman there, which is admitted, did you close the door with the intent to obstruct the police officer. And, the police officer says he was pushing on the door when he pushed back. But, there's no doubt you closed the door. I believe you closed the door to interfere with the police officer. I believe you knew the police officer was there. He wasn't there . . . to do anything except do something with Mr. Hannah. I believe you knew at that second that he was there to effect a lawful action against Mr. Hannah; whether it's arrest or something else is not really material.

But, . . . he was performing a lawful function. You knew he was doing it, and you closed the door to put an obstacle in his way to prevent him from carrying out the arrest . . . . And, I believe he did that purposely to stop the arrest because otherwise, the door would have stayed open. The police officer would have come in, which he did a few seconds later after the kicking the door. And, in that moment, Mr. Hannah ran from the - into the kitchen, maybe in an attempt to leave, and then upstairs and attempt to hide. And, that was all fostered by Mr. [H.]M[.]'s actions. So, therefore, I believe that he violated 2C:29-1. I make those findings by clear and convincing evidence that I've heard and find that as a fact.*fn1

Unpersuaded that H.M. "pushed on the door at the same time officer was pushing on the door[,]" the judge stated he could not find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that H.M. used force, intimidation or deception in obstructing Officer Radcliffe's efforts to arrest Hannah. Therefore, he acquitted H.M. of hindering apprehension. He also acquitted H.M. of resisting arrest.

At a disposition hearing on December 21, 2010, the court confirmed that he found H.M. guilty of fourth-degree obstruction. The court imposed an indeterminate term of no more than one year, plus four months of parole supervision, to run consecutive to his then-current term of incarceration. H.M. was in custody, having been found to have violated parole supervision that followed a thirty-month term of incarceration. The court rejected the defense's request that the court expressly provide the sentence would be served consecutive to the sentence for violating parole. The court reasoned that the pre-existing term was not for violating parole, but was a part of the original sentence, which was for possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose.

On appeal, H.M. presents the following arguments:








H.M. argues the evidence was insufficient to support a finding of any violation of the obstructing statute. Alternatively, he argues the evidence was insufficient to support a finding he committed an offense equivalent to the fourth-degree version of obstructing; and the court failed to make explicit findings to support such a finding. As to H.M.'s alternative argument, we agree.

We review the trial judge's factual findings to determine whether they were supported by sufficient, credible evidence in the record. State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964). We defer to the judge's findings that are the product of his opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to develop a "feel" of the case. Id. at 161. We do not "engage in an independent assessment of the evidence as if [we] were the court of first instance." State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 471 (1999). However, "[a] trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference." Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).

We have no difficulty in concluding there was sufficient, credible evidence in the record to support an adjudication of delinquency on a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1a - disorderly persons obstructing the administration of law. However, the evidence did not support, nor did the court expressly find defendant was guilty of the additional elements essential to a finding of fourth-degree obstructing. We turn first to the statute.

As originally enacted, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1 provided it was a disorderly persons offense to obstruct the administration of law. The statute provided:

A person commits a disorderly persons offense if he purposely obstructs, impairs or perverts the administration of law or other governmental function or prevents or attempts to prevent a public servant from lawfully performing an official function by means of flight, intimidation, force, violence, or physical interference or obstacle, or by means of any independently unlawful act. This section does not apply to flight by a person charged with crime, refusal to submit to arrest, failure to perform a legal duty other than an official duty, or any other means of avoiding compliance with law without affirmative interference with governmental functions.

[L. 1978, c. 95, now codified at N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1a, as amended by L. 1986, c. 34, § 1, and L. 2000, c. 18, § 1.]

In 1986, the Legislature considered legislation that, as introduced, would simply have treated all violations of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1 as a fourth-degree offense. Senate No. 103 (pre-filed for introduction 1986). The bill was amended, however, to redesignate the original paragraph of the section as subsection a; delete the reference to disorderly persons offenses in subsection a; add a new subsection, b, which made certain forms of obstructing a fourth-degree crime; and provided that in all other cases, obstructing is a disorderly persons offense. The new subsection b provided: "An offense under this section is a crime of the fourth degree if the actor obstructs the detection or investigation of a crime or the prosecution of a person for a crime, otherwise it is a disorderly persons offense." The Judiciary Committee explained, "S-103 was amended by the committee to provide that the obstruction of the administration of justice would be graded as a crime of the fourth degree only if the offense involved the obstruction of the detection, investigation, or prosecution of a crime." Senate Judiciary Committee, Statement to S. 103SCa (Jan. 30, 1986).*fn2

There was ample evidence to support the court's finding that H.M. violated N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1a. In closing the door knowing the officer was present and had been struggling with Hannah, H.M. "purposely obstruct[ed]" the officer's "governmental function . . . by means of an . . . obstacle" consisting of the door. The court expressly declined to find that H.M. knew Officer Radcliffe was attempting to arrest Hannah; but the court found it sufficient that H.M. knew Officer Radcliffe was performing a governmental function of some kind, and H.M. purposely obstructed the officer. As the judge noted, "I believe you knew at that second that he was there to effect a lawful action against Mr. Hannah; whether it's arrest or something else is not really material."

However, the court did not expressly address the elements of the fourth-degree crime. Nor are such findings implicit.

The court did not find that H.M. obstructed the "detection or investigation of a crime" or "the prosecution of a person for a crime." N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1b. As required by Rule 1:7-4, a trial judge's findings in a bench trial should be sufficient to enable the reviewing court "to evaluate what elements the judge considered . . . to determine legal error." State ex rel. L.W., 333 N.J. Super. 492, 498 (App. Div. 2000) ("[I]n a criminal, quasi-criminal, or juvenile bench trial, a judge should . . . make specific findings of fact regarding elements of the offense . . . .").

When a trial judge omits reference to essential elements of an offense, and fails to make findings related thereto, a court generally may remand for further findings. Id. at 498-99; State v. Smith, 253 N.J. Super. 145, 149 (App. Div. 1992). However, a remand is inappropriate when the appellate court determines the record evidence is insufficient to sustain the unaddressed elements; instead, double jeopardy principles preclude a remand and compel acquittal. Burks v. United States, 437 U.S. 1, 18, 98 S. Ct. 2141, 2151, 57 L. Ed. 2d 1, 14 (1978) ("[T]he Double Jeopardy Clause precludes a second trial once the reviewing court has found the evidence legally insufficient, [and] the only 'just' remedy available for that court is the direction of a judgment of acquittal."); State v. Tropea, 78 N.J. 309, 313-14 (1978).

In this case, we are convinced there was insufficient record evidence to support a conviction of the fourth-degree offense. Although subsection b does not expressly state the required mens rea for a fourth-degree offense, it is implicit that the purposeful state of mind required by subsection a applies to subsection b. Providing a less demanding mens rea would be inconsistent with the legislative intent, which was simply to reserve for harsher sanctions a subset of offenses already covered by the purposeful mens rea in subsection a. Thus, in order to prove a violation of subsection b, the State must prove not only that an accused purposefully obstructed detection, investigation, or prosecution, but also that the detection, investigation or prosecution pertained to a crime, as opposed to less serious violations of law.

We find support for this construction by contrasting N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1b with the hindering statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3, which does not limit itself to hindering the apprehension or prosecution of persons charged solely with crimes. N.J.S.A. 2C:39-3 covers hindering apprehension or prosecution "of another for an offense or violation of Title 39 of the New Jersey Statutes or a violation of chapter 33A of Title 17 of the Revised Statutes." (emphasis added). This broad coverage was expressly intended to avoid the kind of mens rea proofs required in N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1b - knowledge of the nature of the offense allegedly committed by the persons whose detention, investigation or prosecution was obstructed.

Our present [hindering] statute applies only to lending aid to persons whose offense amounts to a high misdemeanor. Federal law, some states, and the Code extend the prohibition to aiding all lesser offenses.

This follows from our purposes to deter obstruction of justice . . . . Furthermore, there are situations where the aider does not know what crime the putative offender may have committed . . . . [I]t seems undesirable to introduce into prosecutions of this sort an issue of law (and defendant's knowledge thereof) as to the classification of the primary offense. [Final Report of N.J. Criminal Law Revision Comm'n (October 1971) (Comment no. 3 to N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3).]

We find insufficient evidence in the record that H.M. knew Hannah was accused of a serious crime. No evidence was presented, for example, that Hannah's alleged involvement in an attempted homicide was widely publicized, or specifically known by H.M. The State implicitly concedes Officer Radcliffe was not engaged in the detection, investigation, or prosecution related to the attempted murder. Instead, the State argues, "In closing the door on the officer H.M. obstructed the officer's detection and investigation of a crime, that of his friend [Hannah] fleeing an arrest."

We are unpersuaded. First, once Hannah took refuge in the house, eluding Officer Radcliffe's grasp, Officer Radcliffe was engaged in efforts to arrest Hannah - on the warrant, and perhaps, for charges arising out of his resisting arrest and flight. Officer Radcliffe was not detecting or investigating what he was fully aware of, because it had occurred in his presence.

Second, the court specifically declined to find that H.M. knew Officer Radcliffe was attempting to arrest Hannah, as opposed to performing some other governmental function. So, the evidence was insufficient to show H.M. knew his obstruction pertained to Hannah's alleged commission of a crime arising out of his flight - such as third- or fourth-degree resisting arrest, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2a(2), (3), or hindering one's own apprehension, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3b.

In light of our determination the evidence was insufficient to support a finding H.M. committed what would have been fourth-degree obstructing, we are compelled to enter a judgment of acquittal on that charge. However, "a guilty verdict on a greater offense may be molded and reduced by a court to convict on a lesser included offense upon a finding that the conviction for the greater offense was not justified." State v. Carlos, 187 N.J. Super. 406, 417 (App. Div. 1982), certif. denied, 93 N.J. 297 (1983). In light of the trial judge's supported findings, the judgment should be molded to adjudicate H.M. delinquent for what would be a disorderly persons obstructing offense under N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1a. Consequently, the court must determine anew the appropriate disposition for H.M., as he received a term of incarceration commensurate with committing the fourth-degree offense. Compare N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-44d(1)(f) (maximum one year incarceration for what would constitute fourth-degree adult crime) with N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-44d(1)(g) (maximum six months incarceration for what would constitute disorderly persons offense by adult).

Given our determination, we do not reach the remaining issues on appeal.

Reversed and remanded for resentencing. We do not retain jurisdiction.

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