Dec. 14, 2016 (Date Decided)
FOR APPELLANT: Michael Richard Powers argued the cause pro se.
FOR RESPONDENT: Jason M. Boudwin, Assistant Prosecutor (Andrew C. Carey, Middlesex County Prosecutor, attorney; Mr. Boudwin, of counsel and on the brief).
Defendant was convicted of obstruction pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1(a) after a trial in municipal court and his appeal to the Law Division.
The state claimed that by way of “physical interference” and by means of an “independently unlawful act,” defendant obstructed a state trooper during the issuance of a summons for a parking violation.
Defendant parked his vehicle in a no-parking area at a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop. When defendant emerged from the building, a state trooper asked for defendant’s license and explained he was issuing a citation because defendant’s car was parked in a no-parking area.
The trooper instructed defendant to enter his vehicle; he testified this instruction was based on his concern for defendant’s safety. Defendant did not comply. In addition, defendant’s hands repeatedly went in and out of his pockets, although the trooper instructed defendant to stop.
The Law Division judge concluded that defendant impeded the trooper by physically interfering and by engaging in an independently unlawful act.
It was unclear how the judge believed defendant’s failure to obey the trooper’s commands physically interfered with his ability to write a parking ticket. Nor was it clear whether the judge believed defendant engaged in additional, unspecified conduct that physically interfered with the trooper. Because of this lack of clarity and the absence of specific findings to support the judge’s conclusion that defendant physically interfered with the trooper, the appellate panel remanded for further findings.
The Law Division judge found that defendant’s actions were “independently unlawful” by force of N.J.S.A. 39:4-57, which provides that “[d]rivers of vehicles … shall at all times comply with any direction, by voice or hand, of a member of a police department” when the officer is in the course of “enforcing a provision of this chapter.” The Law Division judge determined the trooper was enforcing “a provision of this chapter” when issuing a summons because the vehicle was parked in violation of N.J.A.C. 19:9-1.6.
The appellate panel found that defendant was not obligated by N.J.S.A. 39:4-57 to comply with the trooper’s commands that he remove his hands from his pockets or enter his own vehicle. The trooper was not citing defendant for a moving violation or any provision of Chapter 39; he was writing a parking ticket. Thus, the panel rejected the argument that defendant engaged in an “independently unlawful act” as the basis for his obstruction conviction.