It’s time to revamp New Jersey’s motor vehicle laws.
Peter H. Lederman, New Jersey Law Journal. April 10, 2017
There are two types of people in this world. One likes to clear things out and keep empty spaces. The other gathers and keeps things, disinclined to throw them away, thinking that there might be some future use, no less sentimental value. I am no doubt, in the latter group, as much as my wife is in the former. It should not be a surprise then, that the recent clearing out my office for new carpet installation, was an occasion of no small moment!
The room was full of esoterica, things I had saved reminding me of clients I had represented, seminar materials, unread issues of the Wall Street Journal, pictures of kids, dogs and the like. It all had to be removed from the room so that the new carpet could be installed.
It also should not be surprising that among removed objects were several nuggets of gold, placed aside many years ago, which indeed deserved a better fate. Among these were three volumes of a new motor vehicle code, proposed to the Legislature by the New Jersey Law Revision Commission intended to replace our present motor vehicle statute, Title 39. Looking through the Commission’s work reminded me of the great need to repeal and replace Title 39. Wait, how about revise and reform Title 39…that sounds better!
What we now call Title 39 is a patchwork quilt of different laws and revisions of laws, adopted over the years governing the operation of motor vehicles in New Jersey. There is often no rhyme or reason to these laws. As one might imagine, laws adopted over the years address problems which arose from driving issues peculiar to that time. Obviously, the operation of motor vehicles on the streets shared with street cars and horse drawn carriages presented different problems than today. Other laws simply should be “revised and reformed.” A close look at Title 39 suggests some of these problems.
NJSA 39:4-50, our DWI statute, basically doubles the fines and driving suspension when the event occurs in what the statute refers to as a “school zone”. As those involved in DWI law know, this increased penalty may have nothing to do with the presence of school children. Rather, enhanced penalties arise when operation occurs within a thousand feet of school property, regardless if operation takes place in the middle of the night, in the middle of the summer, or with no children in sight. It is hard to glean a relationship between increased penalties when none of the children intended to be protected are anywhere near the place of operation. Truth is that a “school zone” violation in reality may be nothing more than a hammer Prosecutors can use to dissuade Defense counsel from vigorously defending their clients. This is because, notwithstanding the strict prohibition against “plea bargaining” in DWI cases, Prosecutors have the authority to dismiss school zone violations in return for guilty pleas to DWI charges. It is not unusual that a Prosecutor will agree to dismiss a “school zone” violation upon a plea to the underlying DWI charge.
NJSA 39:4-49.1 shows similar problems in setting penalties, in this case where a driver is in possession of Controlled Dangerous Substances in his motor vehicles. Certainly, people should not operate motor vehicles with dangerous drugs in their possession. The statute however, allows for a minimum fine of Fifty Dollars but a loss of driving privileges for two years! Fifty Dollars and two years loss of driving privileges just make no sense for violating the same offense. The fine seems to be under kill, just as the two year suspension seems to be over kill. Again, the possibility of losing driving privileges for two years usually causes the Defendant and his attorney to agree to a plea, to eliminate the chance of substantial suspension. Keep in mind the statute’s penalty equates possession of a single “joint” with operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol, as a second offense! Just doesn’t make sense unless you are a Prosecutor.
Two other seemingly harmless laws, can have profound constitutional consequences in certain cases. NJSA 39:3-74 prohibits fuzzy dice, graduation tassels and religious ornaments hanging from a rear view mirror, for supposedly obstructing the driver’s view. Similarly, cars are stopped all the time because some obscure portion of the license plate is “obstructed” contrary to NJSA 39:3-33. Here the penalty is not the issue. The real question is whether these statutes should create opportunities to allow officers to stop motor vehicles in what might be construed “pretextual stops”. These are stops where the fuzzy dice or partially obstructed plate can provide an officer with constitutional cover for conducting a motor vehicle stop, when “reasonable and articulable suspicion” that another offense has occurred cannot be shown.
Several years ago the New Jersey Law Review Commission took Title 39 apart and put it back together as a codified law. Its greatest achievement was to reorganize penalties for offenses into different Classes, much like Title 2C which codified our criminal law. Unfortunately, the Commission’s efforts failed to interest the Legislature enough to seriously consider a new, revised and truly codified motor vehicle law for the State of New Jersey.
The truth is that in large part, our motor vehicle laws are not getting the job done. Unfortunately, I don’t see many people driving the speed limit, stopping at stop signs and yielding at traffic circles. Serious problems such as substance abuse and motor vehicle operation need a fresh, global re-evaluation. If I can get the old newspapers and other dust collectors out of my office to spruce it up, we should be able to take a fresh look at our motor vehicle law, taking the best from our sister States and law revision commissions, then putting together a new Code that innovates and addresses today’s motor vehicle problems. Time to do some spring cleaning indeed!