Defendant was found guilty in the municipal court of unlawful possession of marijuana under 25 grams and unlawful use of marijuana. N.J.S.A. 24:21-20(a)(4); N.J.S.A. 24:21-20(b). She thereupon moved to be placed under supervisory treatment pursuant to § 27 of the Controlled Dangerous Substances Act, N.J.S.A. 24:21-1 et seq. The motion was granted.
Contending, however, that the municipal court erred in finding her guilty of the substantive offenses, defendant filed this appeal assertedly pursuant to R. 3:23. In response, the State argues that because the proceedings are suspended during the term of supervision, this court is without jurisdiction to hear the appeal.
The applicable provisions of N.J.S.A. 24:21-27 provide:
a. Whenever any person who has not previously been convicted of any offense under the provision of this act or, subsequent to the effective date of this act, under any law of the United States, this State or of any other state, relating to narcotic drugs, marihuana, or stimulant, depressant, or hallucinogenic drugs, is charged with or convicted of any offense under subsections 20a. (1) (2) and (3), and b., the court upon notice to the prosecutor and subject to subsection c., may on motion of the defendant or the court:
(1) Suspend further proceedings and with the consent of such person after reference to the Controlled Dangerous Substance Registry, as established and defined in the Controlled Dangerous Substances Registry Act of 1970, place him under supervisory treatment upon such reasonable terms and conditions as it may require; or
(2) After plea of guilt or finding of guilt, and without entering a judgment of conviction, and with the consent of such person after proper reference to the Controlled Dangerous Substances Registry as established and defined in the Controlled Dangerous Substances Registry Act of 1970, place him on supervisory treatment upon such reasonable terms and conditions as it may require, or as otherwise provided by law.
b. * * * Upon violation of a term or condition of supervisory treatment the court may enter a judgment of conviction and proceed as otherwise provided, or where there has been no plea of guilt or finding of guilt, resume proceedings. Upon fulfillment of the terms and conditions of supervisory treatment the court shall terminate the supervisory treatment and dismiss the proceedings against him. Termination of supervisory treatment and dismissal under this section shall be without court adjudication of guilt and shall not be deemed a conviction for purposes of disqualifications or disabilities, if any, imposed by law upon conviction of a crime or disorderly persons offense but shall be reported by the clerk of the court pursuant to the Controlled Dangerous Substances Registry Act.
The statute clearly treats with two categories: defendants who are placed under supervisory treatment before a plea or finding of guilt, and defendants who are placed under supervisory treatment after a plea or finding of guilt. As to the first category, further proceedings are suspended. As to the second category, the judgment of conviction is withheld. This distinction has little, if any, legal significance and is not always observed. See, e.g., State v. Alston , 71 N.J. 1 (1976); State v. Sayko , 71 N.J. 8 (1976). But for the sake of clarity and accuracy it should be borne in mind that defendant here was placed under supervisory treatment "without entering a judgment of conviction." N.J.S.A. 24:21-27(a)(2).
The issue, then, is whether an appeal may be taken from a court of limited jurisdiction before the entry of a judgment of conviction. It cannot. Appeals of right may not be taken from a "conviction." A "conviction" is merely an intermediate step. It is that stage in a criminal proceeding at which a finding of guilt is made by the court or jury as a result of a trial on the merits or the defendant's entry