Patel v. New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, A-86 September Term 2008; Supreme Court; opinion by LaVecchia, J.; decided November 10, 2009. On certification to the Appellate Division, 403 N.J. Super. 373 (App. Div. 2008). [Sat below: Judges Winkelstein, Fuentes and Gilroy in the Appellate Division.] DDS No. 05-1-xxxx [21 pp.]

This appeal involves the assessment of motor vehicle penalty points for a third or subsequent offense in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.2, driving in an unsafe manner likely to endanger a person or property. The issue is whether, based on the timing of her offenses, plaintiff is entitled to relief under N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.2(e), which provides that an offense that occurs more than five years after “the prior offense” shall not be considered a “subsequent offense” for the purpose of assessing points.

Plaintiff Hina K. Patel is a repeat violator of the unsafe driving statute. In March 2002, she committed a driving offense and pleaded guilty to unsafe driving in May 2002. She committed another offense in August 2002, and pleaded guilty to unsafe driving on September 17, 2002. She pleaded guilty to a third unsafe driving violation in June 2006, for an offense that occurred in April 2006. Then, on Sept. 5, 2007, she received citations for which she entered a guilty plea to unsafe driving in November 2007.

Patel was fined in accordance with the statute’s progressive fine structure for each of her four unsafe driving convictions. Patel was assessed fines for each of her violations and four penalty points for her third offense. When she was assessed four additional points for her fourth conviction in 2007, Patel wrote to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) objecting because her fourth conviction had occurred more than five years after both her first and second offenses. Because only her third offense had occurred within five years of the 2007 offense (the fourth unsafe driving conviction), Patel argued that the 2007 offense must be treated as a “second offense” under the statute. According to Patel, because N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.2(c) does not authorize points for second offenses, she should not be subjected to motor vehicle penalty points for the 2007 violation. The MVC informed her that “a third and subsequent violation” of the unsafe driving statute “within a five year period will be issued 4 points,” and because this was her fourth violation since 2002, her “Driver History record will remain the same.”

Patel appealed. The Appellate Division upheld the MVC’s determination to assess points for her fourth unsafe driving conviction. The panel observed that N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.2(e) exempts an individual from points when more than five years have elapsed between a subsequent offense and the prior offense. The panel concluded that the assessment of points on Patel’s “subsequent” fourth conviction was proper because her third offense had occurred within five years of her fourth. The panel discerned a legislative intent to apply the exemption from points when the “subsequent” offense occurs more than five years after “the prior offense,” that is, the most recent prior offense, not “any prior offense.” In Patel’s case, “the prior offense” was her third offense, which was within five years of her fourth offense.

The Supreme Court granted Patel’s petition for certification.

Held: Under N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.2(e), the exemption provision for assessing motor vehicle penalty points for an unsafe driving offense that occurs more than five years after “the prior offense,” “the prior offense” refers only to the most recent preceding offense based on both a plain reading of the statute and a review of the legislative history. Thus, the MVC correctly imposed motor vehicle points on Patel for having a fourth unsafe driving conviction in 2007, only one year after the date of her prior, third, unsafe driving offense.

The unsafe driving statute provides that for first and second offenses, motor vehicle penalty points shall not be assessed. Subsection d states that a person convicted of “a third or subsequent offense” shall be assessed points. Subsection e states that an offense “that occurs more than five years after the prior offense shall not be considered a subsequent offense for the purpose of assessing motor vehicle penalty points under subsection d.” The MVC interpreted the statute to require that Patel’s fourth violation subjected her to the imposition of points. It explained that points are assessed if the third “and” subsequent offense occurred during a five-year period; that is, points must be assessed if five or fewer years had elapsed between her third and her subsequent fourth offense.

The Court finds the MVC committed no grievous error in interpreting the unsafe driving statute, and the Appellate Division was correct in affirming the MVC’s action.

A plain reading of subsection e supports the construction that “the prior offense” refers only to the most recent preceding offense. “The” indicates that the Legislature was contemplating only one prior offense, not each or any prior offense. The “prior offense” contemplates only one offense. Use of “the” signifies that the noun to which it attaches is the most prominent, and the natural assumption from the plain language is that the Legislature contemplated the most recent prior offense. However, because that is not explicitly stated, the meaning of “the prior offense” could arguably be found to contain some ambiguity. Accordingly, the Court examines the legislative history.

Before enactment, the unsafe driving statute underwent several revisions. The precursor to the present subsection d allowed for the discretionary assessment of points for third and subsequent convictions. A substitute bill made it mandatory to assess points for third and subsequent convictions and also created the five-year exception in subsection e. As the Assembly Judiciary Committee explained, an offense “which occurs more than five years after the prior offense would not be considered a subsequent offense” for the purpose of assessing points. On signing the bill, the governor issued a news release explaining that a “person convicted of a third or subsequent offense” may be assessed points “if the offense occurs within five years of the prior offense.”

The Court concludes that the Legislature meant the words “the prior offense” in subsection e to refer to the offense immediately preceding a “subsequent” offense. The MVC’s interpretation is a reasonable construction of the language used by the Legislature, gives meaning to every word used, and advances the overall legislative intent to punish drivers with motor vehicle points for multiple unsafe driving offenses that are close in time. The MVC correctly imposed motor vehicle points on Patel for having a fourth unsafe driving conviction in 2007, only one year after the date of her prior, third, unsafe driving offense.

Although not necessary to the disposition of the appeal, the Appellate Division further expressed approval of the MVC’s interpretation that the five-year exception did not apply to “third” offenses, but only to a “subsequent” offense.

Chief Justice Rabner and Justices Long , Albin , Wallace , Rivera-Soto and Hoens join in Justice LaVecchia ‘s opinion.

— By Debra McLoughlin

For appellant — Michelle M. Tullio (Lanfrit & Tullio; Darren D. Dapas on the brief). For respondent — Nicole T. Minutoli, Deputy Attorney General (Anne Milgram, Attorney General; Melissa H. Raksa, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Mala Narayanan, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).