·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary


A Line by Any Other Name: State v. Williams

— January 28, 2022

No one is perfect. That includes the police, who make plenty of mistakes. In State v. Williams, decided on March 18, 2021 by the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, the police charged Ms. Williams with violating the wrong ordinance so the court concluded she could not be convicted even though everyone involved agreed she did something wrong. 

The facts were undisputed. Ms. Williams used black paint to cover while lines painted on a paved surface by the municipality and painted a new white line. She did so calling the newly painted section a “parking bay” she claimed was part of her property. The State claimed the area was part of the street. The police charged her with violating a municipal ordinance prohibiting the unnecessary obstruction of any street. She was convicted at trial in the municipal court and on de novo appeal to the Superior Court before appealing to the Appellate Division. 

The Superior Court judge concluded the painting of the lines constituted “obstruction” as considered by the ordinance. The Appellate Division disagreed. Using the plain meaning, or dictionary definition, of the word obstruct the court reasoned a physical impediment is required to violate the ordinance. 

Ms. Williams did not obstruct the roadway by painting the lines or by parking her car in the spot she painted. There was no evidence that her actions made the road impassable in any manner. The court explained it is possible Ms. Williams violated some law by her actions. It seems likely she did. But she did not violate the statute she was charged for violating. 

Interestingly, by reaching this conclusion, the court did not need to address whether the fine imposed was excessive. The municipal court imposed a $1,250 fine and $4,299 restitution. The Superior Court reduced the restitution to $900, but the question of what justified a maximum fine under the ordinance would have been an interested one to see the court’s analysis. It also would have been interesting to see how the town reached a restitution figure of $4,299 to repaint a parking spot. These questions will have to wait until the next case in which a municipality imposes some ridiculously high financial penalty.

Close-up of $100 bills; image by Jeshoots, via
Close-up of $100 bills; image by Jeshoots, via

We can be sure there is a lot more to this story than what’s contained in the decision. Undoubtedly, there was history between Ms. Williams and the township. There’s no way repainting the lines on the street was her first action to remedy whatever the problem was that she was dealing with. It is also unlikely she would have invested the time and money fighting the case as she did if both sides were open-minded to a resolution before trial. But this case demonstrates that just because the State is committed to prosecuting something does not mean a conviction is certain. Where the defendant has the will and motivation to fight, and hires a good lawyer, the desired result can be achieved. 

If you are facing a criminal charge, no matter how the degree, or a municipal ordinance violation, the lawyers at the Law Office of Eric M. Mark can help you at any stage of the process. The sooner you have a lawyer on your side, the better chance of success you have. So do not wait to see what happens in the first court and then hope to fix it later. Hire a lawyer as early in the process as you can.

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