On appeal from the New Jersey Racing Commission.
Matthews, Pressler and Petrella. The opinion of the court was delivered by Pressler, J.A.D.
This appeal raises the question of whether the Rehabilitated Convicted Offender Act (RCOA), N.J.S.A. 2A:168A-1 et seq. , applies to the licensing function of the New Jersey Racing Commission and, if so, whether the Commission mistakenly exercised its discretion in denying a groom's license to appellant Steven A. Maietta despite the favorable recommendation of the administrative law judge.
The facts, as found by the administrative law judge, were essentially undisputed. In May 1976 Maietta, then 23 years old and the holder of a groom's license issued by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, was indicted in New York State. The offenses with which he was charged, alleged to have occurred in December 1975, were possession of methaqualone and possession thereof with intent to distribute, possession of amphetamine-methamphetamine, and possession of diazepam. Under New York law, according to the indictment, methaqualone is a controlled dangerous substance of the sixth degree and the other two drugs he was charged with possessing are controlled dangerous substances of the seventh degree. Following the indictment, Maietta gave his full cooperation to the authorities and, apparently pursuant to a plea agreement, all charges were dismissed against him except possession of a seventh degree controlled dangerous substance. He was sentenced on January 14, 1977 to a three-year probationary term.
In 1976 an 11-count indictment was returned by the Union County New Jersey grand jury, the first count of which charged Maietta and nine others with conspiracy to distribute controlled dangerous substances. Maietta, unlike other of the codefendants, was not charged with any substantive offense, and his participation in the conspiracy was alleged to consist of the making of telephone calls in aid thereof. There appears to be no question that the same conduct formed the basis of both the New York and the New Jersey indictments against Maietta. He pleaded guilty to the New Jersey conspiracy charge and was sentenced in May 1977 to a suspended jail term of 300 days and one year's probation to run concurrently with the New York probationary term. The judge's written statement of reasons for the imposition of this sentence was, in full, that "defendant's role in this was minor in nature, in view of the overall circumstances."
While the record does not reveal the specific circumstances surrounding Maietta's offenses, it is undisputed that they had nothing to do with horseracing and that the drugs involved have nothing to do with horses. Nor is there any suggestion that Maietta is himself a drug user.
Following the New York conviction Maietta left his groom's employment at the Roosevelt Raceway and obtained a job at a turn-out or rest farm for standard bred horses with the approval of his probation officer. It further appears that his conduct while on probation was exemplary and that he was accorded an early discharge therefrom. In December 1977, just short of a year from the date of his New York conviction, he was successful in obtaining a New York State Certificate of Relief From Disabilities, and in September 1978 the New York State Racing and Wagering Board restored his groom's license, leading to his reemployment in that position at Roosevelt Raceway and, since then, at the Monticello and Yonkers Harness Racetracks as well. In 1980, on his application supported by the endorsements of six active drivers and trainers, he was accorded membership in the
United States Trotting Association, which then granted him a trainer's license and a driver's license.
In view of the foregoing factual background and his New York record of successful rehabilitation and work experience following the conviction, Maietta, in December 1979, requested the New Jersey Racing Commission to review informally his qualifications for licensure as a groom. Informal discussions ensued during the course of which both the involved New York and New Jersey probation officials submitted letters to the Commission in support of Maietta's licensing request. Both letters recited the facts of his excellent probation record and concluded that he was fully rehabilitated. The New York probation officer, the Director of Probation of Nassau County, further stated that Maietta's "proposed employment will not be incompatible with the welfare of society," and the New Jersey probation officer, the Chief Probation Officer of Union County, concluded that in his opinion it did not seem that Maietta's "intended employment will be incompatible with the welfare of society." The Commission nevertheless advised Maietta in June 1980 that it was "reluctant" to grant him a New Jersey groom's license because of the drug-related convictions. Maietta then requested a formal proceeding and the matter was referred as a contested case to an administrative law judge for hearing.
At the hearing the Commission did not challenge the applicability of RCOA to its licensing function but argued rather that it had not abused the discretion accorded it by RCOA in denying Maietta a groom's license. The administrative law judge disagreed. After reviewing and evaluating the facts, he concluded as follows:
Based upon the evidence comprising the entire record, I am unable to conclude as did the Racing Commission that simply because Maietta would be in contact with horses on a daily basis that the crimes for which he was convicted inexorably involve an adverse relationship to his proposed employment as a groom. While convictions for drug offenses certainly are of special concern in the racing industry, as well as in many other fields which are closely supervised, it would appear that the Racing ...