A Municipal Court Appeal Triggers the Appellate Division’s “Didactic Role as an Intermediate Appellate Court”

State v. Faber, 465 N.J. Super. 1 (App. Div. 2020). Today’s opinion by Judge Fuentes in this case, which originated in Municipal Court and then went to the Law Division, makes an important point: the Appellate Division reviews not the ruling of the Municipal Court, but that of the Law Division, which engages in de novo review of the Municipal Court. As a result, defendant’s conviction on DWI, reckless driving, and failure to maintain lanes was affirmed, though the sentence required correction.

The Municipal Court, in finding defendant guilty, imposed fines and penalties, as well as suspending defendant’s driver’s license for nine months (the applicable statute gave that court discretion to suspend the license of defendant, a first offender,”for a period of not less than seven months nor more than one year”). In conducting de novo review on defendant’s appeal, the Law Division upheld the convictions. But that court reduced the suspension period to seven months because the Municipal Court “erroneously considered defendant’s lack of credibility in his trial testimony as an aggravating factor for sentencing purposes,” and there had been “antagonism between the Municipal Court judge and defense counsel. The Law Division also stayed the sentence pending defendant’s appeal to the Appellate Division, without objection by the State.

Before the Appellate Division, defendant argued that the convictions should be undone because of what Judge Fuentes called “the questionable conduct by the municipal court judge.” But the panel noted that the Law Division “conducted a thorough de novo review of the record developed before the municipal court and made factual findings in support of defendant’s culpability.” That, “together with [the Law Division’s] decision to reduce by two months the period of suspension of defendant’s driver’s license cured any prejudice caused by the conduct of the municipal court judge.” Judge Fuentes “emphasize[d] that [the Appellate Division] reviews the decision of the Law Division, not the municipal court.”

But the Law Division too had erred, in sentencing. That court overlooked the statutory requirements that defendant (a) serve a “period of detainment” as prescribed by the program requirements of the Intoxicated Driver Resource Centers, and (b) install an ignition interlock in his vehicle. Those are mandatory measures that the State did not enforce here. As a result, the court took the initiative to do so.

Finally, in granting a stay pending appeal, the Law Division failed to apply the criteria of State v. Robertson, 228 N.J. 138 (2017) , for such stays. The State did not object based on Robertson either. Accordingly, the Appellate Division flagged this issue “pursuant to our didactic role as an intermediate appellate court,” for the future guidance of prosecutors, the defense, and judges.