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Careless Driving Requires the State to Provide the Vehicle Was Operated by the Defendant Carelessly or Without Due Caution and Circumspection, in a Manner so as to Endanger, or Be Likely to Endanger, a Person or Property

The NJ Supreme Court held in State v Lutz 309 N.J. Super. 317 (App. Div. 1998) that merely because an accident took place a driver is not guilty of careless driving. The court wrote:
"Finally, we find merit in defendant's contention that the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty of careless driving. We agree that the proofs established essentially that defendant was involved in an accident which happened in the opposite lane of travel. In finding defendant guilty of careless driving, the Law Division judge stated:
"The defendant quite clearly operated his vehicle carelessly, failed to exercise appropiate caution in the prevailing circumstances, and endangered both the persons in the other vehicle. These conclusory remarks, however, were insufficient to establish a careless driving violation. (It appears that both the Municipal Court judge and the Law Division judge applied a res ipsa loquitur analysis in finding defendant guilty of careless driving. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, however, has no application in the determination of careless driving due to the quasi-criminal nature of the proceeding in which the State has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt all elements of the offense. See State v. Wenzel, 113 N.J. Super., 215, 216-18 (App. Div. 1971)(the mere fact of an "otherwise unexplained jackknifing" where a tractor-trailer entering a construction area had jackknifed on the wet roadway, crossed into the opposite lane and broadsided another truck fatally injuring the truck's driver, did not establish that the defendant had been driving carelessly. The careless driving statute provides: [a] person who drives a vehicle on a highway carelessly, or without due caution and circumspection, in a manner so as to endanger, or be likely to endanger, a person or property, shall be guilty of careless driving.
[N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.]
Here, other than the accident itself, the State only presented defendant's statement that his vehicle began to slide on the wet highway and continued to do so when he tapped his brakes. Moreover, his apology was not an admission to driving carelessly, but merely a statement that his car had slid on the wet pavement. The State presented no evidence indicating that defendant had been speeding, driving too fast for the wet road conditions, distracted or otherwise driving without due caution and circumspection. Consequently, there was insufficient evidence to support defendant's conviction for careless driving, and we reverse that conviction." State v Lutz , supra

In State v. Wenzel, 113 N.J. Super. 215 (App. Div. 1971) defendant was charged with careless driving when his tractor trailer jackknifed and struck another trailer. The State's only witness did not see the accident. There was no evidence defendant was speeding or that he drove without due caution or circumspection. However, both the municipal and county courts determined that an otherwise unexplained jackknifing was indicative of careless driving. The Appellate Division reversed, holding the res ipsa doctrine employed by the lower courts had no place in a quasi-criminal action for careless driving. The rationale of the Wenzel decision applies to this case.

See also State v Roenicke 174 N.J. Super. 513 (Law Div 1980)
Defendant was involved in a one-car accident which was not observed by the trooper or any other witness. The State failed to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that he drove in a reckless manner. Defendant cannot be found guilty of reckless driving, and his conviction is set aside.

Kenneth Vercammen was the Middlesex County Bar Municipal Court Attorney of the Year

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Kenneth Vercammen was the NJ State Bar Municipal Court Attorney of the Year and past president of the Middlesex County Municipal Prosecutors Association.

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