Justice Patterson’s First Opinion, and the “Rule of Lenity”

State v. Regis, 208 N.J. 439 (2011).  It did not take long for Justice Patterson to write her first opinion for the Supreme Court.  As is usually the case with the first opinion of any new Justice, the case was not unusually complex and the decision was unanimous.  The issue in this case was one of statutory interpretation: whether 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” identifies two separate offenses or just a single offense.  Justice Patterson concluded that the plain language of the statute describes two separate offenses– (1) “failure to maintain a lane to the extent practicable,” and (2) “changing lanes without ascertaining the safety of the lane change.”  The Court found defendant guilty of the first offense.

The decision was not an easy one.  Though Justice Patterson’s analysis of the history and language of the statute supports the result that the Court reached, her opinion acknowledged that courts in other states, “[a]pplying statutes that are identical or very similar to the statute before the Court,” reached differing results.  The Court sided with those states that had found the statutes to describe two separate offenses. 

The Appellate Division believed that the split in the authority from other jurisdictions called for application of the “rule of lenity.”  As Justice Patterson stated, “[t]he 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.”  However, the rule of lenity “is not invoked simply because there are competing judicial interpretations of the statutory language, in New Jersey or elsewhere.”  Because the statute’s plain language “describes two distinct and independent offenses,” the rule of lenity did not apply.