On appeal from the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, Agency Docket No. 54664.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skillman, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 6, 2012
Before Judges Parrillo, Grall and Skillman.
The opinion of the court was delivered by SKILLMAN, J.A.D. (retired and temporarily assigned on recall).
The question presented by this appeal is whether a violation of a South Carolina statute that imposes a "civil fine" of not more than $500 upon a person who is found in possession of drug paraphernalia constitutes a "convict[ion] . . . for a drug offense . . . in the court of [another] state" within the intent of N.J.S.A. 39:5-30.13, which mandates a suspension of the convicted person's motor vehicle license for a minimum of six months. We conclude that such a violation is not a "drug offense" under the definition set forth in N.J.S.A. 39:5-30.12, which subjects the offender to an automatic suspension of his or her motor vehicle license under N.J.S.A. 39:5-30.13.
Appellant Lori Ritz is a New Jersey resident who was issued a New Jersey motor vehicle license. On August 1, 2009, appellant was driving through South Carolina to visit her sick mother in Florida. She was accompanied by her two children and a male passenger. Appellant was pulled over by a South Carolina State Trooper, who conducted a search of appellant's purse, the car, and her male passenger. That search revealed "rolling cigarette papers" in the passenger's possession. Based on this discovery, the State Trooper issued a traffic ticket to appellant for the regulatory offense of possession of drug paraphernalia. According to appellant, the Trooper told her that "because my passenger did not have a license that he would have to issue me that ticket for the paraphernalia and he told me also . . . . 'Listen, just pay the ticket because it doesn't go any further than this. If you don't pay the ticket, however, it will be sent back to New Jersey.'" After being issued the ticket, appellant continued on her planned trip to visit her mother in Florida. Upon her return to New Jersey, appellant sent the $350 fine for the violation to South Carolina.
Thereafter, the Motor Vehicle Commission sent appellant a notice of proposed suspension of her motor vehicle license under N.J.S.A. 39:5-30.13 based on her alleged conviction of a "drug offense" in South Carolina. Appellant requested a hearing regarding this proposed suspension, and the Commission referred the matter to the Office of Administrative Law.
The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) to whom the case was assigned concluded that appellant's violation of the South Carolina drug paraphernalia statute constituted a "drug offense" within the intent of N.J.S.A. 39:5-30.12. The ALJ also concluded that in view of appellant's need for a motor vehicle license to maintain employment and care for her family, the license should be suspended only for the minimum period of 180 days required by N.J.S.A. 39:5-30.13. The ALJ's recommended decision became the final decision of the Motor Vehicle Commission after the Commission did not adopt, modify or reject the decision within forty-five days, as required by N.J.S.A. 52:14B-10(c).
N.J.S.A. 39:5-30.13 provides in pertinent part:
The [Motor Vehicle Commission]*fn1 shall suspend, revoke, or postpone the driving privilege in this State for a period of not less than six months or more than two years of every person convicted of . . . a drug offense in any federal court or in the court of any other state, or the District of Columbia.
N.J.S.A. 39:5-30.12 defines a "drug offense" as used in N.J.S.A. 39:5-30.13 to mean a conviction . . . for the possession, distribution, manufacture, cultivation, sale, transfer, or the attempt or conspiracy to possess, distribute, manufacture, cultivate, sell, or transfer any substance, the possession of which is prohibited under the federal Controlled Substances Act or a conviction . . . for any violation of a law substantially similar in nature to the "Comprehensive Drug Reform Act of 1987"[.]
These provisions, which were enacted in 1993, L. 1993, c. 296, have not previously been the ...