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State v. Costagliola

September 28, 1976


Martin, J.s.c., Temporarily Assigned.


Defendant pleaded guilty to a complaint charging him with violating N.J.S.A. 24:21-20a(4), possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana.*fn1 A sentence to six months probation, a fine of $100 and $10 costs was imposed. During the course of his probationary supervision he was advised by a probation officer to inquire concerning his eligibility for supervisory treatment pursuant to N.J.S.A. 24:21-27. Defendant secured an attorney who filed a motion in the Totowa Municipal Court seeking to vacate the sentence imposed and to place him under a supervisory treatment program. The municipal judge held that he had neither statutory nor rule authority to do so, and an appeal to the Passaic County Court followed.

The record on appeal reveals two arguments which were advanced in opposition to the motion for vacating the judgment and seeking supervisory treatment. It should be noted that the arguments raised and discussed are not definitively disposed of at the municipal court level, but are present in the record and must be considered by this court for a proper disposition of the appeal.

The conflicting positions between defendant and the State (municipal court) center first on the effect of N.J.S.A.

24:21-27, specifically, the language: "charged with or convicted of any offense," insofar as defendant's eligibility is concerned, since he is already serving a sentence for violating N.J.S.A. 24:21-20a(4). Secondly, the court must dispose of the issue raised by the court below, that N.J.S.A. 24:21-27 may not apply to violations of N.J.S.A. 24:21-20a(4) as this latter statute has recently been amended by the Legislature without amendment of N.J.S.A. 24:21-27 to include a violation of N.J.S.A. 24:21-20a(4).

In construing the suspension statute the primary function of the court is to implement the essential objective and purpose for which this particular legislation was enacted. State v. Madden , 61 N.J. 377 (1972); West Milford Tp. Planning Bd. v. West Milford Tp. Council , 123 N.J. Super. 135 (Law Div. 1973).

Where the application of a statute is involved, intention is to be gleaned from the words used, and they are to be given their plain, ordinary and well understood meaning in the absence of an explicit indication to the contrary. Rubamer v. Thompson , 130 N.J. Super. 181 (Law Div. 1974); Albert F. Ruehl Co. v. Bd. of Trustees of Schools for Indus. Ed. , 85 N.J. Super. 4 (Law Div. 1964). "[The court has] no legislative authority and should not construe statutes any more broadly nor give them any greater effect than their language requires." Belfer v. Borrella , 9 N.J. Super. 287, 293 (App. Div. 1950). See also, Mountain Lakes Bd. of Ed. v. Maas , 56 N.J. Super. 245 (App. Div. 1959), aff'd 31 N.J. 537 (1960). Although a fundamental principle, it might well be noted that penal statutes are to be strictly construed. State v. Edwards , 28 N.J. 292 (1958); Sate v. Genser Trucking Co., Inc. , 87 N.J. Super. 43 (Cty. Ct. 1965). In the exposition of statutes the judiciary is to accord to a legislative expression its usual connotation and intendment, relating particular words and phrases in context so that each individual part or section is made consistent with the general objective of the statutory system as a whole. Cedar Park Cemetery v. Hayes , 132 N.J. Super. 572 (Law Div. 1975);

Presberg v. Chelton Realty Inc. , 136 N.J. Super. 78 (Cty. D. Ct. 1975).

Initially, the State contends that defendant cannot avail himself of the benefits of the suspension statute since a judgment on conviction (a sentence) has already been entered against him which he is now serving. It is argued that as a result of this judgment defendant cannot be considered as being "charged with or convicted of any offense" within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 24:21-27.

The court would have to construe the word "conviction" to mean "conviction and sentence" or "conviction and judgment" in order for defendant to come within the ambit of the statute. Therefore, we must examine the meaning accorded the word "conviction" as used in this statute.

The decisions in this State have concluded that the ordinary legal meaning of conviction, when used to designate a particular stage of a prosecution, is the confession of the accused in open court, or the verdict returned against him, which determines the fact of his guilt. "Judgment" or "sentence" is the appropriate word to denote the action of the court before which the trial is held, declaring to the convicted defendant the consequences of the guilty verdict. This distinction between "conviction" and "judgment" has generally been observed in New Jersey. State v. Henson , 66 N.J.L. 601 (E. & A. 1901); Stewart v. Stewart , 93 N.J. Eq. 1 (Ch. 1921). In State v. Mc Call , 27 N.J. Super. 157 (App. Div. 1953), where the court interpreted the word "conviction" in the context ...

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