DWI reserved and remanded where trial judge did not make findings of fact
STATE v. ARTHUR T. CHESTER, III,
SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE
APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 14, 2011 - Decided
Before Judges Graves and Koblitz.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Salem County, Municipal Appeal No. 06-10.
Stefankiewicz & Barnes, L.L.C., attorneys for appellant (David A. Stefankiewicz, on the brief).
John T. Lenahan, Salem County Prosecutor, attorney for respondent (Thomas A. DeSimone, Assistant Prosecutor, on the brief).
Defendant Arthur T. Chester, III appeals his conviction for driving while intoxicated on December 22, 2008, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. He filed a motion to suppress, alleging that the motor vehicle stop was unconstitutional. The municipal court judge denied the motion to suppress, finding that the 4:45 a.m. stop of defendant's car at a security checkpoint to a nuclear plant in Lower Alloways Creek was constitutional. Although defendant's brother testified that he, rather than defendant, drove the car, the municipal judge concluded that defendant was the driver. Defendant stipulated that he was under the influence of alcohol. Testing revealed a .14 blood alcohol content.
Defendant was again found guilty after a trial de novo in the Law Division, conducted by agreement on the papers without oral argument.
On appeal, defendant raises the following arguments:
THE STATE DID NOT CARRY ITS BURDEN OF PROVING THAT THE MOTOR VEHICLE STOP AND SEIZURE WAS LAWFUL.
THE STATE FAILED TO PROVE THAT DEFENDANT OPERATED THE MOTOR VEHICLE.
The Law Division judge did not make sufficient findings of fact or conclusions of law to allow us to review her decision. The judge put no reasons on the record and made no factual findings. She prepared an order stating in pertinent part the following:
1. The stop of the defendant was supported by reasonable suspicion based on the totality of the circumstances.
2. The State did prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant operated the motor vehicle while intoxicated; therefore the defendant's appeal is DENIED.
When considering appeals from the municipal court, the Law Division must consider the record de novo and make independent findings of fact and conclusions of law in support of an independent finding of guilty or not guilty. State v. Ross, 189 N.J. Super. 67, 75 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 95 N.J. 197 (1983) (citing State v. States, 44 N.J. 285, 293 (1965)); see also Pressler & Verniero, Current N.J. Court Rules, comment 1.2 on R. 3:23-8 (2012).
Under our court system, defendants are entitled to two independent considerations of the evidence, one by the municipal court after a trial and one de novo on the record by the Law Division. State v. Avena, 281 N.J. Super. 327, 333 (App. Div. 1995) (citing State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 157 (1964)); see also Pressler & Verniero, Current N.J. Court Rules, comment 1.2 on R. 3:23-8 (2012). If defendant appeals, we then apply the appellate standards of review in analyzing the Law Division decision. Our analysis is limited to a determination of whether the Law Division's de novo findings "could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record." State v. Adubato, 420 N.J. Super. 167, 176 (App. Div. 2011) (citing State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964)). We "consider only the action of the Law Division and not that of the municipal court." Id. at 175-76 (citing State v. Oliveri, 336 N.J. Super. 244, 251 (App. Div. 2001)).
We therefore remand this matter to the Law Division to make findings of fact and conclusions of law.