October 28, 2013
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
MICHAEL BANDLER, Defendant-Appellant.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued July 9, 2013
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic County, Municipal Appeal No. 38-12.
Michael Bandler, appellant argued the cause pro se.
John Santoliquido, Special Deputy Attorney General/Acting Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for respondent (James P. McClain, Acting Atlantic County Prosecutor, attorney; Mr. Santoliquido, of counsel and on the brief).
Before Judges Ostrer and Hayden.
Defendant appeals his Law Division conviction in a trial de novo for a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-125. His main contention is that he did not violate the statute because his turn into a parking space could not be characterized as a U-turn. We agree with defendant and reverse his conviction.
The underlying material facts are not in dispute. On May 21, 2012, defendant was driving northbound on Philadelphia Avenue in Egg Harbor City en route to the post office. Philadelphia Avenue is divided by a double yellow line and signs in the area indicate that no U-turn is permitted. The avenue is lined with parking spaces on either side of the street, which are set at an angle relative to the direction of traffic. As defendant approached the post office, which is located on the west side of Philadelphia Avenue in the middle of the block, he noticed an available parking space in front of the building. The parking spaces were angled to permit drivers traveling southbound on Philadelphia Avenue to pull into he spots.
Defendant signaled he was turning left, and, when traffic was clear, he initiated a left-hand turn across the double yellow line to pull into the angled parking space on the opposite side of the street. As defendant drew near to the vacant parking space, another driver, parked in the adjacent space, began to back out of her space and struck defendant's vehicle. A police officer responding to the accident issued defendant a summons for effectuating an illegal U-turn in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-125.
After a trial in the Egg Harbor City Municipal Court on June 16, 2008, the municipal judge found defendant guilty. The judge determined that the street was properly marked with signs prohibiting U-turns and defendant had violated the statutory prohibition against U-turns. The judge reasoned that a driver does not have to turn around 180 degrees to violate the statute; rather, "[a]n indication to turn in the opposite direction of where you're traveling is enough, the opposite direction being facing in some manner, whether it's 10 degrees or more[.]" Since defendant was making a left turn, not at a ninety degree angle, but "more southerly, " to enter the angled parking space, the judge found that his actions violated N.J.S.A. 39:4-125 and imposed a fine of $56 and court costs of $33.
Defendant appealed and a trial de novo took place on October 26, 2012, in the Law Division. The trial judge also found defendant guilty. He reasoned, based on State v. Smith, 408 N.J.Super. 484 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 200 N.J. 477 (2009), that a complete 180-degree U-turn is not required and since defendant's turn was slightly in a southerly direction to maneuver into the angled parking space, he had made an illegal U-turn. The court imposed the same fines as assessed by the municipal court. This appeal followed.
On appeal, defendant contends that the purpose of his turn was to park his car, not to proceed in the opposite direction. As such, he argues, the turn was not prohibited by N.J.S.A. 39:4-125. He also contended that, if N.J.S.A. 39:4-125 prohibited a turn to park a vehicle, it is impermissibly vague.
In reviewing a trial court's decision on a municipal appeal, we determine whether sufficient credible evidence in the record supports the trial court's decision. State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 157 (1964); State v. Cerefice, 335 N.J.Super. 374, 383-84 (App. Div. 2000). We must accord deference to the trial court's findings of facts and determinations of credibility. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 474 (1999). "[T]he rule of deference is more compelling where, as in the present case, two lower courts have entered concurrent judgments on purely factual issues" and we should not seek to alter the factual findings "absent a very obvious and exceptional showing of error." Ibid.
However, our review in this case deals with the meaning of N.J.S.A. 39:4-125 as it pertains to the undisputed facts. Accordingly, we exercise plenary review of the trial court's statutory construction, State v. Regis, 208 N.J. 439, 446 (2011), as well as legal conclusions that flow from established facts. State v. Handy, 206 N.J. 39, 45 (2011).
The key issue in this appeal is whether the facts constitute a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-125. This requires us to construe the statute. Based upon our plain reading of the statute, we conclude that the facts here do not constitute a violation.
"Well-known principles of statutory construction guide [our] analysis[.]" State v. Hudson, 209 N.J. 513, 529 (2012). "The overriding goal is to determine as best we can the intent of the Legislature, and to give effect to that intent." Ibid. (citing State v. Shelley, 205 N.J. 320, 323 (2011); DiProspero v. Penn, 183 N.J. 477, 492 (2005)). To that end, we must look to the plain language of the statute as the best indicator of the intent of the Legislature. Ibid. "If the plain language leads to a clear and unambiguous result, then our interpretive process is over." Richardson v. Bd. of Trs., 192 N.J. 189, 195 (2007) (citing DiProspero, supra, 183 N.J. at 492); see also N.J.S.A. 1:1-1. Extrinsic evidence, including legislative history, need only be utilized in the presence of some ambiguity in the statutory language. Richardson, supra, 192 N.J. at 195-196.
N.J.S.A. 39:4-125 provides in pertinent part that no vehicle "shall be turned around so as to proceed in the opposite direction on a highway which shall be conspicuously marked with signs stating 'no U turn.'" The question here is whether defendant turned his vehicle "so as to proceed in the opposite direction." The evidence supports defendant's contention that he did not.
Defendant made a sharp left-handed turn, went completely across the other lane, and would have pulled into an angled parking space had his car not been struck by another driver. Defendant did not intend to, and did not, proceed south on Philadelphia Avenue for even a short distance before attempting to pull into the parking space. Although defendant's car turned slightly diagonally to the southwest, it never proceeded in the opposite direction of travel. Thus, within the plain meaning of the statutory language, defendant did not effectuate a turn "so as to proceed in the opposite direction on a highway."
This case is distinguishable from Smith, supra, where we held that "the statute prohibits the turning around of a vehicle to proceed in the opposite direction, as opposed to a 180-degree turn[.]" 408 N.J.Super. at 492. We found that the defendant had effectuated an illegal U-turn within the meaning of the statute when, traveling south, he made a left-hand turn into a driveway, backed out, and proceeded north on the same road. Id. at 489. The defendant in Smith made the turn into the driveway with the intent to turn around and proceed in the opposite direction Ibid Here defendant was not pulling into the space so that he could then back out and proceed in the opposite direction Defendant was pulling into the space so that he could park there and go to the post office
If the Legislature desired to make such an action constitute an illegal U-turn it would have stated so in more explicit terms See Twp. of Pemberton v. Berardi, 378
N.J.Super 430 443 (App Div 2011) The phase "so as" while not defined in the statute commonly means "with the purpose or result" By using the words "so as to proceed in the opposite direction" the Legislature defined a specific action involving a turn for the purpose of changing the direction of one's vehicle to be able to go in the opposite direction That simply did not happen here
Based on the plain language of N.J.S.A.39:4-125 we are satisfied that defendant did not effectuate an illegal U-turn when he attempted to pull into the angled parking space