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This case can also be found at 181 N.J. 375, 858 A.2d 112.
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has
been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the
reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please
note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not
have been summarized).
Argued March 2, 2004 -- Decided September 27, 2004
ZAZZALI, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
The issue before the Court is whether the defendant, Richard Hodde, may be convicted of receiving stolen property under N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7a and N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2b(2)(b) when the property is not proven to be stolen.
On the morning of September 18, 1999, employees of Penske Truck leasing in
Pottsville, Pennsylvania noticed that a truck was missing from the Penske lot. Suspecting
that the vehicle had been stolen, they contacted police who prepared an all
police broadcast that was received by the New Jersey State Police on September
New Jersey State Troopers Beatrice and Warne traveled to a truck stop off
of Route 78 in Hunterdon County to search for the stolen vehicle. While
there, they observed a truck matching the description given on the police broadcast.
Through a computer check of the license, the troopers confirmed that it in
fact was the truck that had been stolen from the Penske lot in
Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Trooper Beatrice approached the truck and observed Hodde in a sleeping
bag in the rear compartment of the cab. The troopers unsuccessfully attempted to
awaken Hodde for five or ten minutes. Eventually, Trooper Beatrice observed the passenger-side
door open and Hodde exit the cab of the truck. After asking Hodde
to show his hands, the troopers handcuffed and arrested Hodde.
A Hunterdon County grand jury indicted Hodde on one count of third-degree theft
by receiving stolen property contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7a, and, because a motor vehicle
was involved, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2b(2)(b). Hodde pleaded not guilty and the matter proceeded to
In addition to the testimony of Troopers Beatrice and Warne, the State presented
the manager of the truck-leasing facility, Edwin Beadle, as a witness. Beadle testified
that the truck in question, along with five others, was leased to the
Phillip VanHeusen Company (VanHeusen). VanHeusen hires its own drivers, who access the trucks
directly from the Penske lot. Beadle explained that in order to prevent the
driver from locking himself out of a truck, each driver keeps a key
on his person while another key remains in the ignition of each truck,
even when parked in the Penske lot. Generally familiar with VanHeusens drivers, Beadle
testified not only that he did not recognize Hodde as one of the
VanHeusen drivers but that he had never seen Hodde before. Beadle further testified
that the truck had been driven 1200 miles since it was last logged
in, that a small vent-window on the passenger-side door had been damaged, and
that he believed Hodde gained access to the truck through that broken window.
At the conclusion of the trial, the judge instructed the jurors that they
only had to find that Hodde believed the vehicle was stolen or probably
had been stolen. After receiving the charge, the jury convicted Hodde. Thereafter, the
trial court granted the States motion for an extended sentence, sentencing Hodde to
a seven-year prison term.
Hodde appealed to the Appellate Division, arguing for the first time that the
trial court erred in instructing the jury that the State did not have
to prove that the truck actually had been stolen. The Appellate Division affirmed
the conviction, finding no plain error in the courts jury charge on receiving
stolen property and no merit to Hoddes remaining claims of error.
The Supreme Court granted certification.
HELD: Whenever the State seeks a conviction for the crime of receiving stolen
property, it must prove that the property in question was actually stolen.
1. When the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, and susceptible of only
one interpretation, courts should apply that statute as written without looking to extrinsic
evidence. However, statutory provisions cannot be read in isolation, they must be construed
in concert with other legislative pronouncements on the same subject matter. (Pp. 5-7)
2. Although language in N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7a suggests that belief alone will suffice and
that the property need not actually be stolen, those are not the Legislatures
only words on this subject. The Code of Criminal Justice (Code) organizes all
provisions concerning theft and theft-related offenses into a single chapter and a common
set of definitions applies to all those offenses, which are graded collectively in
N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2. N.J.S.A. 2C:20-(2)(b) expressly requires that the property be stolen. (Pp. 7-8)
3. Viewing the grading provisions more broadly and in conjunction with N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7,
the Court concludes that whenever the State seeks a conviction for the crime
of receiving stolen property, it must prove that the property in question was
actually stolen. To hold otherwise would lead to illogical results. By repeatedly using
the phrase, the property stolen, in N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2b(2), the Legislature evinced an intent
that a person only could be found guilty of receiving stolen property if
the property was actually stolen. (Pp. 8-11)
4. The title of the statute also provides guidance. The title Receiving stolen
property, makes plain that the law is concerned with property that has been
the product of theft. Moreover, an interpretation requiring that the property actually be
stolen comports with common sense. The language in N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7 that speaks to
the actors knowledge that the property is, or belief that it probably is,
stolen refers to the degree of knowledge necessary for the crime. It does
not address the requirement that the property itself possess the characteristic of being
5. In this case, the trial courts instruction to the jury amounted to
plain error. The trial court not only failed to instruct the jury of
the need to find that the truck had been stolen, it expressly informed
the jury that the State did not have the burden to prove that
fact, thereby misinforming the jury about the elements of the crime. Thus, Hoddes
conviction must be reversed and the matter remanded for a new trial. In
view of its decision, the Court need not address Hoddes other claims of
error. (Pp. 13-15)
Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED for
a new trial.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, and WALLACE join in JUSTICE
ZAZZALIS opinion. JUSTICE VERNIERO did not participate.
A- 14 September Term 2003
STATE OF NEW JERSEY,
Argued March 2, 2004 Decided September 27, 2004
On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
Kevin G. Byrnes, Designated Counsel, argued the cause for appellant (Yvonne Smith Segars,
Public Defender, attorney).
Russell J. Curley, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent (Peter C.
Harvey, Attorney General of New Jersey, attorney).
Our analysis of whether N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7a requires that the property actually be stolen begins with the fundamental premise that criminal laws are to be strictly construed. State v. Valentin, 105 N.J. 14, 17 (1987). With that as our cynosure, we apply the familiar canons of statutory construction. We first inquire whether the statute admits of a plain-meaning interpretation. Burns v. Belafsky, 166 N.J. 466, 473 (2001). When the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, and susceptible to only one interpretation, courts should apply the statute as written without resort to extrinsic interpretative aids. In re Passaic County Utils. Auth., 164 N.J. 270, 299 (2000). Statutory provisions, however, cannot be read in isolation. Matturri v. Bd. of Trs. of Jud. Ret. Sys., 173 N.J. 368, 383-84 (2002). They must be construed in concert with other legislative pronouncements on the same subject matter so as to give full effect to each constituent part of an overall legislative scheme. Ibid. If two interpretations of the language are plausible, we must effectuate the legislative intent by resorting to extrinsic evidence. Burns, supra, 166 N.J. at 473.
With those principles to guide us, we turn to N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7a, which provides:
Receiving stolen property.
a. Receiving. A person is guilty of theft if he knowingly receives or brings into this State movable property of another knowing that it has been stolen, or believing that it is probably stolen. It is an affirmative defense that the property was received with purpose to restore it to the owner. "Receiving" means acquiring possession, control or title, or lending on the security of the property.
Although the highlighted language suggests that belief alone will suffice and that the property need not actually be stolen, those are not the Legislatures only words on the subject. The Code of Criminal Justice (Code) organizes all provisions concerning Theft and Related Offenses into a single Chapter, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-1 to 37. A common set of definitions applies to those offenses, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-1, and they are graded collectively in N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2. Revealingly, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2b(2)(b) states that [t]heft constitutes a crime of the third degree if . . . [t]he property stolen is a firearm, motor vehicle, vessel, boat, horse, domestic companion animal or airplane[.] (Emphasis added). Therefore, putting aside whether N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7a read in isolation would require the property involved be stolen in fact when a defendant acquires possession of it, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2b(2)(b) expressly requires that the property be stolen.
We realize that N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2 comprises the applicable grading provisions, but we have expressly recognized that such provisions can contain facts that the State must prove to warrant a conviction. For instance, in State v. Federico, 103 N.J. 169, 173-77 (1986), we held that in a prosecution for kidnapping under N.J.S.A. 2C:13-1, the fact that the actor releases the victim unharmed, N.J.S.A. 2C:13-1c, which down-grades a kidnapping offense from first- to second-degree, is an element of that offense despite its inclusion in the grading subsection of N.J.S.A. 2C:13-1. See also State v. Damiano, 322 N.J. Super. 22, 51-52 (App. Div. 1999) (holding that in aggregating amounts of thefts for grading under N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2b(4), element of offense is whether thefts were part of a single scheme or course of conduct that could be aggregated), certif. denied, 163 N.J. 396 (2000); State v. Smith, 279 N.J. Super. 131, 139-42 (App. Div. 1995) (applying Federico to hold that, under revised version of kidnapping statute, factors included in grading provision constitute elements of offense). We find it similarly appropriate in these circumstances to take into account information the Legislature has provided in the applicable grading provision.
Furthermore, viewing the grading provisions more broadly, and in conjunction with N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7, leads us to conclude that whenever the State seeks a conviction for the crime of receiving stolen property, it must prove that the property in question was actually stolen. To hold otherwise, as will be seen, would lead to illogical results.
N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2b(2) provides:
(2) Theft constitutes a crime of the third degree if:
(a) The amount involved exceeds $500.00 but is less than $75,000.00;
(b) The property stolen is a firearm, motor vehicle, vessel, boat, horse, domestic
companion animal or airplane;
(c) The property stolen is a controlled dangerous substance or controlled substance analog
as defined in N.J.S. 2C:35-2 and the amount involved is less than $75,000.00
or is undetermined and the quantity is one kilogram or less;
(d) It is from the person of the victim;
(e) It is in breach of an obligation by a person in his
capacity as a fiduciary;
(f) It is by threat not amounting to extortion;
(g) It is of a public record, writing or instrument kept, filed or
deposited according to law with or in the keeping of any public office
or public servant;
(h) The property stolen is a persons benefits under federal or State law,
or from any other source, which the Department of Human Services or an
agency acting on its behalf has budgeted for the persons health care and
the amount involved is less than $75,000;
(i) The property stolen is any real or personal property related to, necessary
for, or derived from research, regardless of value, including, but not limited to,
any sample, specimens and components thereof, research subject, including any warm-blooded or cold-blooded
animals being used for research or intended for use in research, supplies, records,
data or test results, prototypes or equipment, as well as any proprietary information
or other type of information related to research;
(j) The property stolen is a New Jersey Prescription Blank as referred to
in R.S.45:14-14; or
(k) The property stolen consists of an access device or a defaced access
The statute establishes those thefts that constitute third-degree crimes. It begins with a
catchall category providing that all thefts exceeding $500.00 but less that $75,000.00 are
third-degree crimes. The Legislature specified in subparagraphs (b) through (k) a litany of
those objects for which the State does not have to establish a value
to prove the crime of third-degree theft. When identifying those objects, however, the
statute repeatedly refers to the property stolen. Nothing in the text or legislative
history indicates that the Legislature intended to allow the state to convict on
mere belief that the enumerated items had been stolen. Instead, we determine that
by repeatedly employing the phrase, the property stolen, the Legislature evinced an intent
that a person only could be found guilty of receiving stolen property if
the property was actually stolen.
Having determined that the applicable statutes require the jury to be instructed that it must find that the property has been stolen, we have no choice but to conclude that the trial courts instruction amounted to plain error. We have stated repeatedly that accurate jury instructions are essential in a criminal trial. E.g., State v. Vick, 117 N.J. 288, 289 (1989). Accordingly, the failure to charge the jury on an element of an offense is presumed to be prejudicial error, even in the absence of a request by defense counsel, Federico, supra, 103 N.J. at 176, and erroneous instructions are almost invariably regarded as prejudicial, Vick, supra, 117 N.J. at 289.
Here, the trial court not only failed to instruct the jury of the need to find that the truck had been stolen, it expressly informed the members that they need not do so. In pertinent part, the charge provided as follows:
Under [N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7] . . ., the State must prove three elements to
establish that the defendant is guilty of receiving stolen property.
One, that the defendant received or brought into this State movable property of
Two, that the defendant acted knowingly when he received or brought into the
State the movable property of another.
And, three, that the defendant either kn[e]w that the property had been stolen
or believed that it probably had been stolen at the time he received
the property or brought the property into this State.
. . . .
Ive already defined the term knowing to you in discussing the second element of the crime. I will no[t] repeat that here. The State is not required to prove that the property, in fact, had been stolen.
. . . .
Rather, [what] the State must prove is that the defendant either knew that
the property was stolen or believed that it had probably been stolen.
In view of our decision to reverse the conviction on the grounds stated above, we do not reach defendants other claims of error. The judgment of the Appellate Division is reversed and the matter is remanded for a new trial.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, and WALLACE join in JUSTICE ZAZZALIs opinion. JUSTICE VERNIERO did not participate.
SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY
NO. A-14 SEPTEMBER TERM 2003
ON CERTIFICATION TO Appellate Division, Superior Court
STATE OF NEW JERSEY,
DECIDED September 27, 2004
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