In State v. Rashaun Bell (A-75-20/084657) (Decided May 16, 2022), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1, which criminalizes the act of leaving the scene of an accident resulting “in the death of another person,” can’t be charged separately for each victim killed in a single accident.
Facts of State v. Bell
As detailed by the New Jersey Supreme Court, a car driven by defendant Rashaun Bell crashed into two teenaged boys riding a bicycle on a roadway in Jersey City. Both boys died as a result of the accident. Defendant and his three passengers fled the scene. Defendant was eventually apprehended and indicted on two counts of leaving the scene of an accident in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1. Defendant moved to dismiss one of the counts, arguing that, as applied here, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1 violated the rule against multiplicity.
The trial court denied defendant’s motion and concluded N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1 holds a driver who knowingly flees the scene of an accident criminally responsible for each person who dies in the accident. The defendant subsequently pled guilty, pursuant to an agreement negotiated with the State, to both counts of the indictment. Consistent with the plea agreement, the trial court sentenced defendant to two consecutive five-year terms of imprisonment. In response to defendant’s appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s ruling, dismissed one of the convictions, vacated the five-year term of imprisonment for that conviction, and remanded the matter to the trial court to amend the judgment of conviction accordingly.
NJ Supreme Court Decision in State v. Bell
The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s interpretation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1. However, it reversed the Appellate Division’s judgment to amend sua sponte the sentence imposed by the trial court.
The court first addressed whether a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1 occurs on a per-accident or a per-victim basis. “We now hold the plain text of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1 reveals the Legislature intended to criminalize the act of leaving the scene of an accident resulting ‘in the death of another person,’ in violation of the tenets of order and civility codified under N.J.S.A. 39:4-129, independent of the number of fatalities,” the court held. “Stated differently, the number of fatalities caused by the accident is not an element of the second-degree offense codified in N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1.”
In reaching its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the Appellate Division’s analysis that the statute’s plain language focuses on the driver’s response and applies only to the act of fleeing from the scene of an accident. Thus, the number of fatalities that may result from the accident is not an element of this offense.
The court also determined that its interpretation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1 is consistent with the rule against multiplicity derived from the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause, which prohibits “multiple punishments for the same offense.” Additionally, its interpretation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1 is in harmony with the doctrine of lenity, according to the court.
The New Jersey Supreme Court next turned to the amendment of defendant’s sentence. “Under these circumstances, the appellate court should have remanded the case to the trial court to permit the parties to negotiate a new plea agreement that the trial court finds acceptable or otherwise schedule the case for trial,” the court held. According to the court, the Appellate Division’s decision to vacate one of defendant’s convictions and sua sponte resentence him to a five-year term of imprisonment materially altered the terms of the plea agreement negotiated by the parties, and accepted by the trial judge, and is untethered to the sentencing guidelines codified in Title 2C. “If we were to uphold the approach adopted here by the Appellate Division, the penal outcome would be wholly unrelated to the legitimate factors trial courts are required to follow in dispensing appropriate criminal punishment,” the court wrote.