On May 16, 2022, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Hudson County case of State v. Rashaun Bell. The principal issue before the Court under N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1 was whether “Leaving Accident Scene Resulting in the Death of Another Person” can be charged separately for each victim killed in one accident.
Judge Fuente (temporarily assigned) wrote for a unanimous Court in relevant part:
Ascribing the words in N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1 their ordinary meaning and significance, we conclude the Legislature incorporated the obligations imposed under Title 39 with the criminal sanctions available under Title 2C to deter motor vehicle operators from knowingly leaving the scene of an accident that results in the death of another person. The act of leaving the scene of the accident under these circumstances is the basis of criminal culpability under the statute, not the number of fatalities.
Any lingering ambiguities or uncertainties about the Legislature’s intent when adopting N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1 are quickly overcome by the doctrine of lenity. “When interpreting a criminal statute, ambiguities that cannot be resolved by either the statute’s text or extrinsic aids must be resolved in favor of the defendant.” State v. Gelman (2008). As Justice Marshall explained in United States v. Bass:
This principle is founded on two policies that have long been part of our tradition. First, “a fair warning should be given to the world in language that the common world will understand, of what the law intends to do if a certain line is passed. To make the warning fair, so far as possible the line should be clear.” Second, because of the seriousness of criminal penalties, and because criminal punishment usually represents the moral condemnation of the community, legislatures and not courts should define criminal activity.
This ruling does not mean that a defendant can not be charged for each separate death involved in a motor vehicle accident. It means that a different statute must be used for any such charges.