Motor Vehicle Conviction Overturned Due To Judge Improperly Considering Factors

Most people have their first, and usually only, court experience in a local municipal court.  Although there are no jury trials in municipal court, the workings of the court are substantially similar.  For example:  The burden of proof is still beyond a reasonable doubt.  The rules of evidence still apply.  A defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.  A defendant has a right to remain silent and the exercise of that right cannot be used against a defendant when the court renders its decision.  All that being said, quite often individuals walk out of municipal court with the sense that none of those factors applied to them or were applied in their case by the court.

On April 6, 2015, the Appellate Division ruled in State v. Duque, that the municipal court judge improperly found the defendant guilty of a motor vehicle violation for Failure to Keep Right contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:4-82.   In this case, the Bergenfield Municipal Court judge determined that the police officer who issued the summons against the defendant was a credible witness because he was a three year member of the Bergenfield Police Department and had previously testified in that court.  The Bergenfield Judge further determined that there was no reason for the officer to have issued the summons other than the facts he put on the record.  The defendant appealed and the Law Division upheld the Municipal Court judge’s ruling.  The defendant again appealed and the Appellate Division reversed the defendant’s conviction.

In its ruling, the Appellate Division found that “The municipal court judge credited the testimony of the officer over the conflicting testimony of the defendant because the judge was familiar with the officer from other cases and because the officer had no motive to issue an erroneous charge against the defendant.”  The Appellate Division concluded that “The first of these reasons was an improper consideration by the trial court, and the second not sufficient by itself to reach a credibility determination in favor of the officer.”  The Appellate Division ruled that :

“Defendant had neither an opportunity to challenge the officer’s testimony in other cases nor the ability to prove herself also a credible witness in the judge’s eyes over the course of a number of different matters.  In addition, the fact that a charge was brought by the officer does not in itself lend credibility to the testimony that supports that charge.  Such a basis for judging credibility flies in the face of the presumption of innocence and the prosecution’s burden to prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt.

The ruling of the Appellate Division points out the issues one routinely faces when appearing in municipal court.  Namely, the municipal courts quite often give deference to police officer testimony because they have previously testified before the same judge in the same court.  Courts often conclude that because police officers have previously been found credible then they must presently be credible in the case before the court.  Secondly, the issuance of a summons doesn’t mean one is automatically guilty as charged yet courts routinely (and improperly) conclude that the officer wouldn’t have issued the summons if the violation didn’t occur.

Let the Law Office of Thomas V. Campo resolve your case in a manner that is fair, just and reasonable.  If you or a loved one are facing any type of Motor Vehicle or Criminal Charge please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Thomas V. Campo for a free consultation at 732-691-3427.

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