Amended New Jersey Law Erodes Basic Premise of Presuming Innocence

In the United States of America, a person accused of a crime, including a motor vehicle violation is presumed innocent, until proven guilty. This is a basic premise in our Country.

Our government, specifically the legislature sometimes attempts to erode this basic premise by passing laws which infringe upon it. New Jersey did it again this week when it amended the NJ leaving the scene of an accident statute (N.J.S.A. 39:4-129) and the NJ failure to report an accident statute (N.J.S.A. 39:4-129). The legislature calls this amendment a “permissive inference.” Basically, the court is allowed to infer a fact from other facts in a case even if this inference is against the person accused of the crime or traffic violation.

The amendments (listed below) infer that the registered owner of the motor vehicle was involved in an accident when the driver left the scene of the accident. People leave the scene of accidents for many reasons. They may have an outstanding warrant, no car insurance, or they were drunk. All this amendment does is let the court infer that if the driver is not found at the accident scene, then the registered owned was involved. This doesn’t mean the driver was at fault. This amendment takes away the State’s burden of proving who was involved in the accident.

You can find the new law below. The underlined portion is the newly added language to the existing NJ leaving the scene of an accident offense and the NJ failure to report an accident offense:

N.J.S.A. 39:4-129:

” (e) There shall be a permissive inference that the driver of any motor vehicle involved in an accident resulting in injury or death to any person or damage in the amount of $250.00 or more to any vehicle or property has knowledge that he was involved in such accident. For purposes of this section, it shall not be a defense that the operator of the motor vehicle was unaware of the existence or extent of personal injury or property damage caused by the accident as long as the operator was aware that he was involved in an accident. There shall be a permissive inference that the registered owner of the vehicle which was involved in an accident subject to the provisions of this section was the person involved in the accident; provided, however, if that vehicle is owned by a rental car company or is a leased vehicle, there shall be a permissive inference that the renter or authorized driver pursuant to a rental car contract or the lessee, and not the owner of the vehicle, was involved in the accident, and the requirements and penalties imposed pursuant to this section shall be applicable to that renter or authorized driver or lessee and not the owner of the vehicle.
Any person who suppresses, by way of concealment or destruction, any evidence of a violation of this section or who suppresses the identity of the violator shall be subject to a fine of not less than $250 or more than $1,000.”

N.J.S.A. 39:4-129:

“In those cases where a driver knowingly violates the provisions of this section by failing to make a written report of an accident, there shall be a permissive inference that the registered owner of the vehicle which was involved in that accident was the person involved in the accident; provided, however, if that vehicle is owned by a rental car company or is a leased vehicle, there shall be a permissive inference that the renter or authorized driver pursuant to a rental car contract or the lessee, and not the owner of the vehicle, was the person involved in the accident, and the requirements and penalties imposed pursuant to this section shall be applicable to that renter or authorized driver or lessee and not the owner of the vehicle.
Any person who suppresses, by way of concealment or destruction, any evidence of a violation of this section or who suppresses the identity of the violator shall be subject to a fine of not less than $250 or more than $1,000.”