The State Knowingly Files a “Quixotic” Appeal

State v. Witt, 435 N.J. Super. 608 (App. Div. 2014).  Only the Supreme Court of New Jersey can overrule one of its own decisions.  But a party who wishes to challenge a Supreme Court decision must first visit the Appellate Division and take its lumps there.  That is what happened in this opinion by Judge Fisher.

This was an interlocutory appeal of a decision of the Law Division to grant defendant’s motion to suppress evidence seized during a warrantless search of his car.  The State sought to “overturn the rule of law announced in State v. Pena-Flores, 198 N.J. 6 (2009),” regarding warrantless searches of automobiles, while candidly conceding that the Appellate Division “does not have the authority to overturn Pena-Flores.”  As Judge Fisher said, leave to appeal was granted not because the Appellate Division could consider the State’s request to overrule Pena-Flores, but “because it is our general practice to grant the State’s motions for leave to appeal the suppression of evidence.”  Indeed, successful suppression motions are one of the most frequent categories for grants of leave to appeal.

The panel found the State’s arguments unworthy of discussion in a written opinion, given that the Appellate Division had “no authority to ‘replace’ Pena-Flores with some other legal principles,” an act that would be the sole province of the Supreme Court.  In fact, as Judge Fisher observed in a footnote, because Pena-Flores had stated that it was “reaffirming over three decades of jurisprudence,” the State would “also be seeking the Supreme Court’s overruling of numerous other precedents.”

For completeness, Judge Fisher went on to address the particular facts and circumstances of this case.  The panel concluded that both the stopping of defendant’s vehicle in the first instance and the warrantless search of the car were unjustified by applicable legal principles.

Pena-Flores was a 4-3 decision, with Justices Long (who wrote the majority opinion), LaVecchia, Wallace, and Hoens in the majority, and Chief Justice Rabner and Justice Rivera-Soto joining the dissent written by Justice Albin.  Whether the Court as currently constituted would reconsider the principles of Pena-Flores just five years later remains to be seen, though there are precedents for the Court doing so.  See, e.g., Olds v. Donnelly, 150 N.J. 424 (1997)  (retreating from entire controversy doctrine principles announced two years earlier in Circle Chevrolet Co. v. Giordano, Halleran & Ciesla, 142 N.J. 280 (1995)); Tretina Printing, Inc. v. Fitzpatrick & Associates, Inc.,  135 N.J. 349 (1994) (discarding the standards for reviewing an arbitration award stated two years earlier in Perini Corp. v. Greate Bay Hotel & Casino, Inc., 129 N.J. 479 (1992)).  This case might not be the best vehicle for reconsidering Pena-Flores, though.  Since both the stop and search could be affirmed as improper on the grounds given by Judge Fisher, a ruling on the constitutional issues presented by Pena-Flores would be unnecessary and would violate the principle of cases such as Donadio v. Cunningham, 58 N.J. 309 (1971), that the Court will not reach out to decide constitutional issues unless it is necessary to do so.