Thursday, July 16, 2015
Conviction reinstated for violation of 39:4-88(b) lane violation
Conviction reinstated for violation of 39:4-88(b) lane violation
State v. Reynold Regis (A-81-10) (066947)
Argued September 26, 2011 -- Decided December 14, 2011
PATTERSON, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
In this appeal the Court considers N.J.S.A. 39:4-88(b), which provides that on a roadway “divided into clearly marked lanes for traffic,” a motor vehicle “shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from that lane until the driver has first ascertained that the movement can be made with safety.” The issue is whether the first and second clauses of N.J.S.A. 39:4-88(b) identify two separate, independent offenses or combine to describe a single offense.
During the early evening of August 4, 2008, State Trooper Dennis I. Cappello observed Reynold Regis’ vehicle repeatedly swerve over the fog line and onto the shoulder of Route 280 near Roseland, New Jersey. Trooper Cappello signaled Regis to stop, and upon approaching the car, detected the odor of burnt marijuana. The trooper administered two field sobriety tests to Regis, both of which he failed. Regis and his passenger, Camilla Reynolds, were arrested. Regis was charged with driving under the influence of a controlled dangerous substance, possession of CDS, and failure to maintain a lane. The Roseland Municipal Court found Regis not guilty of possession of CDS (Reynolds testified that the marijuana was hers) but guilty of driving under the influence and of failure to maintain a lane.
Regis appealed his conviction to the Law Division, which conducted a de novo review of the facts. Construing N.J.S.A. 39:4-88(b) to incorporate two independent offenses, the Law Division concluded that the State had proven the elements of the first offense identified in the statute, namely failure to drive “as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane.” The Appellate Division affirmed Regis’ conviction for driving under the influence, but reversed the determination of the Law Division with respect to N.J.S.A.39:4-88(b). The Appellate Division held that the two clauses of the statute “clearly” describe only one offense: failing to maintain a lane of travel by changing lanes without first ascertaining that the lane change can be conducted safely. Although it did not find that N.J.S.A. 39:4-88(b) was ambiguous, the panel nonetheless invoked the rule of lenity to construe N.J.S.A. 39:4-88(b) in Regis’ favor, citing a divide in the case law construing similar statutes in various states. The panel concluded that given the lack of evidence that Regis’ lane changes were unsafe, he was not guilty of violating the statute.
The Supreme Court granted the State’s Petition for Certification.
HELD: N.J.S.A. 39:4-88(b) describes two separate and independent offenses, one for a driver’s failure to maintain a lane to the extent practicable and the other for changing lanes without ascertaining the safety of the lane change.
1. The Court construes a statute that has been part of New Jersey’s traffic safety laws since 1931. Other than changing “any street or highway” to “roadway” as part of the Legislature’s comprehensive reform of New Jersey’s motor vehicle laws in 1951, the language of the statute at issue has remained virtually intact. The issue before the Court is a question of law and the Appellate Division’s construction of the statute is subject to plenary review. The Court’s objective is to determine the meaning of the statute to the extent possible by looking to the Legislature’s plain language. It is only when a statute’s language is ambiguous that the Court should resort to extrinsic aids. Guided by these principles, the Court holds that while courts have adopted two alternative interpretations of N.J.S.A. 39:4-88(b), the better construction of the statute is that it consists of two separate, independent clauses, each of which addresses a distinct offense. N.J.S.A.39:4-88(b) contains two separate legal predicates directing the conduct of drivers: “shall be driven” in the first clause and “shall not be moved” in the second. The Legislature’s use of the word “shall” in each clause underscores its intent to impose two separate requirements upon the drivers of motor vehicles. Moreover, as used in the statute, the word “and” confirms the Legislature’s intent that a driver comply with both of the affirmative duties set forth in N.J.S.A. 39:4-88(b). The statute’s two clauses address different circumstances. The first clause imposes a continuous requirement upon the driver: to maintain his or her vehicle in a single lane, by avoiding drifting or swerving into an adjoining lane or the shoulder, unless it is not feasible to do so. The statute’s second clause addresses a related, but discrete, mandate of the Code. It requires a driver to ascertain the safety of switching lanes before conducting a lane change. The Appellate Division’s limitation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-88(b) to the violation identified in the statute’s second clause would render the first clause inoperative. On the other hand, the Court’s construction of N.J.S.A. 39:4-88(b) gives meaning to all of the statute’s language, and thereby effects the intent of the Legislature. The Court’s construction of N.J.S.A. 39:4-88(b) is thus consonant with established principles of statutory construction. (pp. 6-14)
2. Applying statutes that are identical or very similar to the statute before the Court, courts of other states have reached varying and inconsistent conclusions. The Appellate Division concluded that it was compelled to invoke the rule of lenity “in light of the great divide in cases construing the Uniform Vehicle Code § 11-309(a).” The rule of lenity is an important principle of statutory construction; if a statutory ambiguity cannot be resolved by analysis of the relevant text and the use of extrinsic aids, the rule requires that the ambiguity be resolved in favor of the defendant. The rule of lenity, however, is not invoked simply because there are competing judicial interpretations of the statutory language, in New Jersey or elsewhere. Instead, the rule is applied only if a statute is ambiguous, and that ambiguity is not resolved by a review of “all sources of legislative intent.” That is not the case here. (pp. 14-17)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and defendant’s conviction and sentence for violating N.J.S.A. 39:4-88(b) are REINSTATED.