New Jersey v. Lenihan

In 2007, then eighteen-year-old defendant Kirby Lenihan was driving her vehicle on a road whose speed limit was posted at forty-five miles per hour. K.G., who was then sixteen years old, was in the passenger seat. It was raining heavily and visibility was poor. At approximately 12:39 a.m., defendant veered to the right, drove through the shoulder, collided head-on with the guardrail, and hit a yellow roadway sign about five feet off the side of the road. Defendant and K.G. suffered serious head injuries as a result of the crash. K.G. also sustained serious bodily injuries. Neither defendant nor K.G. were wearing seat belts. Both airbags deployed. Defendant admitted that she was "driving too fast" given the road and weather conditions and her inexperience as a driver. Two aerosol cans of household cleaners, the contents of which contained difluoroethane, were discovered in defendant's car during the police investigation of the accident. Defendant and K.G. were transported to Morristown Memorial Hospital. As a result of the evidence of suspected inhalation ("huffing"), blood was drawn from defendant at the hospital about forty-five minutes after the accident, and difluoroethane was found in her blood. The following morning, K.G. died at 5:26 a.m., as a result of her injuries. Defendant asserted that due to the injuries suffered in the accident, she had no specific recollection of the accident or the events leading up to it. A Grand Jury returned an indictment charging defendant in count one with a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18a, a second-degree offense, based on the Seat Belt Law and recklessly causing the death of K.G. The indictment also charged defendant with second-degree vehicular homicide (count two); and first-degree vehicular homicide within 1000 feet of school property (count three). The latter charge was subsequently dismissed on defendant's motion. Defendant moved to dismiss the indictment in its entirety on the grounds of "bias and preconceived attitude by a grand juror," and "prejudicially improper instructions to the grand jury by the State." Defendant also moved to dismiss count one on the grounds that the Seat Belt Law was not intended to "protect the public health and safety" within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18. That motion was denied by the trial court. As a result of plea negotiations, count one was amended to charge a third-degree crime. The State agreed to recommend dismissal or merger of the vehicular homicide charge and to dismiss various summonses for: failure to wear a seat belt and to ensure that K.G. buckled her seat belt, N.J.S.A. 39:3-76.2f(b); driving under the influence, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(g); and reckless driving, N.J.S.A. 39:4-96. Defendant retained the right to appeal the denial of her motion to dismiss count one. The judge imposed a three-year term of supervised probation conditioned upon serving 180 days in the Sussex County jail. Defendant moved for a stay of the custodial term pending appeal. The Appellate Division granted the application. The Appellate Division held that the Seat Belt Law was a "law intended to protect the public health and safety" as stated in N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18. Moreover, the panel held that the statutory language of N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18 was not unconstitutionally vague as applied. Defendant appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. The issue presented for the Court's review was whether N.J.S.A. 39:3-76.2f could be deemed "a law intended to protect the public health and safety," or a predicate offense within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18b. Under the circumstances presented in this case, a Seat Belt Law violation is a predicate offense that can support a conviction under N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18b. View "New Jersey v. Lenihan" on Justia Law