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State v. Lawn King Inc.

Decided: August 15, 1977.


Imbriani, J.c.c.


[152 NJSuper Page 335] Today this court is called upon to sentence Lawn King, Inc., a corporation, and Joseph Sandler for having violated the anti-trust laws of the State of New Jersey, N.J.S.A. 56:9-1 et seq. Because this is the first case of its kind in this State, and because many have questioned with increasing frequency the sentences imposed in the past by courts for anti-trust violations, in stating the reasons for imposing this sentence, as required by Criminal

Rules of Practice, R. 3:21-4(e), my remarks will be more extensive than usual because I feel it important to understand not only the nature of the problem presented, but also the proper role of the judiciary in its solution. See State v. Lawn King, Inc. , 150 N.J. Super. 204 (Law Div. 1977).

A violation of the anti-trust laws has generally been described as a white collar crime. While the violator has committed a criminal offense, many in our society do not attach opprobrium to such conduct. Yet, the basis of the charge is that defendants have abused a trust, the result of which is destructive of the overall fabric of our society that is based upon the spirit of free enterprise.

While this is not the type of case in which there has been violence, I do take note of the fact that we are dealing with a case where this court has found that defendants compelled, coerced and threatened others to do certain acts. In this case the court, as trier of the facts, found that defendants compelled, coerced and threatened dealers at the retail level (1) to charge the public a certain fixed price, (2) to deal exclusively with those persons owning property within a defined area, (3) to purchase seed and chemicals only from Lawn King, Inc., and other demands. Thus, while the phrase "anti-trust violation" has a certain civil and legalistic connotation, the essence of the charge, at least in this case, is that there has been coercion, threats and force.

What has occurred is that defendants have taken monies from the public by an illegal scheme and pocketed that money for their own use. The amount of money taken from each individual is small, but the aggregate is substantial.

The taking of money from the public by such illegal activity is no different than the illegal taking of money by the butcher who puts his thumb on the scale or the vendor who dilutes his product with water or another product. In all of these cases the public is ultimately compelled to pay a greater price.

One may ask why this court should be troubled by this situation because the dealings between defendants and the

public would appear to be of a voluntary nature. The harms are several and real.

First, the simple fact is that the laws of this State were violated. The people of New Jersey, through their elected representatives, have determined by law a policy and procedure to govern commercial dealings. To permit continued violations would cause the law in general to be brought into general disrespect.

Second, the citizens of this State were harmed by being compelled to pay, for services rendered by Lawn King dealers, a price not set by the interplay of normal market forces, but rather by the dictates of these defendants. Whether that price was fair or even low at this time is irrelevant, because to permit defendants to fix prices today is to permit them to do so in the future. This cannot be tolerated.

Third, the franchise dealers, who have a right to conduct their business as they saw fit and in a free and unfettered manner, were compelled to conduct certain aspects of their business according to the dictates of defendants. The fact that many dealers did not complain, either because of fear of suffering financial harm or contentment with reaping a profit provided by the system, does not mitigate the harm.

Fourth, contrary to initial impressions, the dealings between defendants and others (especially the retail dealers) were not voluntary, but, in fact, were accompanied by threats and coercion of financial harm if defendants' orders were not obeyed.

It is generally assumed that violations of the anti-trust laws, both the federal and state, are being committed on a rather widespread basis. Indeed, these defendants have suggested that what they did was no different than what is being done by many other persons and corporations. This may be true, but regardless of how massive or complex the problem may be, I do not believe that a criminal court can abdicate its responsibility to enforce the law simply for that reason. ...

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