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State of New Jersey v. Jake Huff

July 24, 2012


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County, Municipal Appeal No. 10-030.

Per curiam.


Submitted May 31, 2012 -

Before Judges Sapp-Peterson and Ostrer.

This appeal requires us to construe the motor vehicle code provision that generally commands motorists (1) to drive their vehicle "on the right half of the roadway" if the road is "of sufficient width"; and (2) to drive "as closely as possible to the right-hand edge or curb of the roadway, unless it is impracticable to travel on that side of the roadway[.]" N.J.S.A. 39:4-82. On de novo review of the municipal court's judgment of conviction, the Law Division found defendant guilty of violating N.J.S.A. 39:4-82. We affirm.


Shortly after 8 p.m. on April 8, 2010, Mendham Township Police Patrolman Mark Ehrenburg, along with Officer Vincent Pagano, noticed a black vehicle operated by defendant repeatedly cross the double-yellow lines of Hardscrabble Road, and at times, continuously travel in the center of the road. Ehrenburg and Pagano followed the vehicle by a couple car lengths, traveling about 5 mph below the 40 mph posted speed limit. In front of the black vehicle, they observed two cars that traveled within the double-yellow lines, and one vehicle behind their police vehicle. Ehrenburg did not observe any obstructions in the roadway.

The officers performed a motor vehicle stop. As recorded on the police vehicle's on-board video, defendant admitted he drove in the middle of the road, and asserted he was taught to do so in driving school. Officer Ehrenburg issued a complaint-summons charging a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-82.

At trial in the Municipal Court, the State relied on Ehrenburg's testimony, which recounted those events, and the on- board video, which depicted defendant traveling in the middle of the roadway and crossing the double-yellow lines. At one point, as depicted on the video, defendant's vehicle virtually straddled the double-yellow lines. Officer Ehrenburg also testified there was room on Hardscrabble Road for two cars to pass each other, but he conceded he did not know what the standards were for road widths.

At the end of the State's case, defendant moved to dismiss, arguing the State had not proved the road was "of sufficient width." The State argued that "of sufficient width" was not a technical term, and meant only that a vehicle could safely travel on the right without being forced to cross the double-yellow lines. Municipal Court Judge Gary F. Troxell agreed, and denied the motion.

The defense presented two experts, Alexander Litwornia, an expert in road and traffic engineering, and John Desch, an expert in professional engineering, accident reconstruction and traffic safety. Litwornia had examined Hardscrabble Road. He described it as a two-lane rural roadway, between eighteen and twenty-two feet wide, with no shoulder, fog line, sidewalks or lighting, with adjacent trees and mailboxes. He stated that at various places, the double-yellow lines were not precisely centered. As a result, a driver could cross the lines in places without actually crossing the center of the road. At one point where defendant had crossed the double-yellow lines, a mailbox was inches from the roadway.

Litwornia testified that Hardscrabble Road, which he described as a Colonial road, did not meet various modern roadway standards. According to the standards in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (Manual or MUTCD), the double-yellow lines on the road were unwarranted, because such lines are suggested only for roads at least twenty feet wide, carrying 6000 vehicles a day. Hardscrabble Road's 2007 daily volume was less than 2000 vehicles.

He also testified that the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) recommended four feet of so-called "shy distance," that is, the distance between the right edge of a vehicle and any objects on the roadway. But, he opined, a driver should have at least two feet of shy distance. Also, according to AASHTO standards, a road with Hardscrabble Road's volume and speed limit should have been a minimum of twenty-two feet wide, with six-foot shoulders on each side.

Litwornia conceded that the width and shy distance standards he cited were intended to apply to new construction. But, he maintained the lining of Hardscrabble Road was improper, because municipalities were required to comply with the Manual in determining when to line a road. Litwornia testified that the presence of double-yellow lines tends to encourage faster and more hazardous travel speeds.

Desch, the defense's second expert, testified that he had inspected Hardscrabble Road and observed the road to be very narrow in places, winding and hilly, and required the driver's complete attention. Desch opined that defendant's maneuvers were justified by the mailboxes and other obstructions on the roadside. Having reconstructed many deer-related accidents, Desch explained a deer could at any time suddenly emerge from vegetation on the side of the roadway, so it made sense to move to the left.

Desch opined defendant's maneuvers also enabled him to maintain an adequate sight distance for oncoming traffic. Desch explained moving to the left enabled defendant to better view oncoming traffic, and to assess whether the car two vehicles ahead of him was braking. Desch opined it was safer for defendant to drive where he did than remain on the right half of the roadway, and defendant "was being careful and observant of what the roadway was doing ahead of him." Although he agreed it was practicable for defendant to remain in his half of the road, it was safer for him to drive down the center of the road that evening.

Judge Troxell relied on the videotape in finding, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the road was "of sufficient width" but defendant repeatedly failed to remain on the right half of the roadway; and no obstacles in the roadway made it "impracticable" to comply with the law. The judge imposed a fine of $106.00 and $33.00 in costs.

Upon de novo review, Judge Ironson also relied on the video and found it consistent with Ehrenburg's testimony. Based on the statute's apparent plain meaning, the judge determined N.J.S.A. 39:4-82 required that the road be of sufficient width to physically allow the driver to drive on the right half of the roadway. He found no indication that a determination of "sufficient width" under the statute depended on factors such as travel volume, shy distance or sight distance.

Applying that interpretation, the judge concluded beyond a reasonable doubt the road was "of sufficient width," noting that the other vehicles in front and behind defendant were able to remain on the right half of the roadway, and the video showed cars traveling in the opposite direction without crossing the double-yellow lines. The court also found it was "practicable" for defendant to keep to the right given road conditions.

Although there were mailboxes and dirt embankments on the side of the road at each of the places defendant encroached on the center of the road, the objects did not make it impracticable for defendant to stay to the right. The judge noted that other vehicles on the road at the same time as defendant were able to keep right. Also, there was no evidence deer were present on the night in question, and mere concern of deer crossings did not authorize motorists to violate N.J.S.A. 39:4-82. Finally, the court rejected defendant's argument that the complaint should be dismissed because the double-yellow lines were an allegedly illegal and ...

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