Leaving the Scene of a Fatal Accident with Multiple Victims (Part 2)

by | Aug 24, 2022 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

Guided by these fundamental principles, and predicated on the role the Legislature has in our tripartite system of government, if the Legislature intended to hold a defendant responsible based upon the number of victims of the accident, and not for the singular act of fleeing the scene, then it is incumbent upon the Legislature to clarify “the contours of criminal activity.” State in Interest of K.O. (2014). The State and amicus Attorney General argue the Appellate Division misapplied the doctrine of multiplicity when it concluded defendant cannot be charged with separate violations under N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1 based on the number of fatalities involved in the accident. We disagree.

The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment provides that no person shall “be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” U.S. Const. amend. V. Our State Constitution provides similar protection against multiple convictions for the same offense: “No person shall, after acquittal, be tried for the same offense.” N.J. Const. art. I, ¶ 11. This Court “has consistently interpreted the State Constitution’s double-jeopardy protection as coextensive with the guarantee of the federal Constitution.” State v. Miles (2017). The Double Jeopardy Clause provides criminal defendants three fundamental safeguards: “It protects against a second prosecution for the same offense after acquittal. It protects against a second prosecution for the same offense after conviction. And it protects against multiple punishments for the same offense.” State v. Kelly, (2010) (emphasis added) (quoting United States v. DiFrancesco, 449 U.S. 117, 129 (1980)).

The constitutional protection we emphasize applies here because the offense committed by defendant is the act of knowingly leaving the scene of the accident without fulfilling the obligations imposed under N.J.S.A. 39:4-129. As this Court succinctly stated in Davis, “if an accused has committed only one offense, he cannot be punished as if for two. While multiplicity begins as a charging error, it can obviously result in a defendant being improperly convicted of multiple crimes, when he or she only committed one crime.” See also Kennedy, 682 F.3d at 255 (“A multiplicitous indictment risks subjecting a defendant to multiple sentences for the same offense, an obvious violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause’s protection against cumulative punishment.”).

Our state constitution often provides the accused with greater rights than the federal constitution. With regard to Double Jeopardy rights, the New Jersey Constitution is coextensive and provides the minimum required.