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State v. Vincenzo

Decided: March 15, 1983.

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NEIL DE VINCENZO, DEFENDANT



Coburn, J.s.c.

Coburn

Defendant Neil DeVincenzo, now age 26, committed a crime for which he must be sentenced under the Code of Criminal Justice. The problem posed is whether, in the circumstances of this case, I may, despite his age, consider treating him as a young adult offender under N.J.S.A. 2C:43-5:

Any person who, at the time of sentencing, is less than 26 years of age and who has been convicted of a crime may be sentenced to an indeterminate term at the Youth Correctional Institution Complex. . . . [Emphasis supplied]

The relevant facts are undisputed. Defendant pled guilty at age 25. In return for the plea, the prosecutor agreed to limit defendant's possible incarceration to an indeterminate term at the Youth Correctional Institution Complex. At the first sentencing date defendant was still less than 26 and unquestionably eligible for youthful offender treatment. Inadvertently, joint adjournment requests resulted in the participants appearing for entry of the judgment of conviction nine days after defendant's 26th birthday. On that occasion they and the court realized the legal problem created by the delay. Nevertheless, the prosecutor, with defendant's concurrence, justly asks that the plea agreement be honored. I will do so for the following reasons.

The abstract language of N.J.S.A. 2C:43-5, read literally, would bar a young adult offender sentence in this case. But that recognition in this context properly can serve only as the beginning, not the end, of analysis. Although the words used are ordinarily a reliable indicator of a statute's meaning, "[i]t is," observed Judge Learned Hand, "one of the surest indexes of a mature and developed jurisprudence not to make a fortress out of the dictionary; but to remember that statutes always have some purpose or object to accomplish, whose sympathetic and imaginative discovery is the surest guide to their meaning." Cabell v. Markham, 148 F.2d 737, 739 (2 Cir.1945). With varying turns of expression, the courts of New Jersey have consistently expressed the same view. E.g., Leitner v. Citizens Cas. Co., 135 N.J.L. 608, 611-612 (E. & A.1947); State v. Spindel, 24 N.J. 395, 402-403 (1957); New Capitol Bar & Grill Corp. v. Employment Security Div., 25 N.J. 155, 160 (1957); Dvorkin v. Dover Tp., 29 N.J. 303, 313 (1959); State v. Gill, 47 N.J. 441, 444 (1966); J.C. Chap. Prop. Owner's Assoc. v. Jersey City Council, 55 N.J. 86, 100 (1969); Sandler v. Springfield Tp. Bd. of Adj., 113 N.J. Super. 333, 345 (App.Div.1971).

When confronted with words whose literal application would cause absurd, anomalous or otherwise inconceivable results, the courts must always be prepared to ask whether the "instant case involves a situation which apparently escaped the attention of

the draftsman . . . or at least was one where it was felt that the situation did not require an express statutory provision." Dvorkin v. Dover Tp., supra, 29 N.J. at 313. Former Chief Justice Weintraub similarly addressed the problem in New Capitol Bar & Grill Corp., supra:

It is frequently difficult for a draftsman of legislation to anticipate all situations and to measure his words against them. Hence cases inevitably arise in which a literal application of the language used would lead to results incompatible with the legislative design. It is the proper function, indeed the obligation, of the judiciary to give effect to the obvious purpose of the Legislature, and to that end 'words used may be expanded or limited according to the manifest reason and obvious purpose of the law. The spirit of the legislative direction prevails over the literal sense of the terms.' [25 N.J. at 160]

In Valerius v. City of Newark, 84 N.J. 591, 598 (1980), the court observed, without dissent: "[w]e recognize that this interpretation is not found in a literal reading [of this statute]. However, it has been said that in some instances there is no surer way to misread a document than to read it literally." In this regard, before proceeding, it is worth recurring to another expression on statutory construction by Judge Hand:

We can best reach the meaning here, as always, by recourse to the underlying purpose, and, with that as a guide, by trying to project upon the specific occasion how we think persons actuated by such a purpose, would have dealt with it, if it had been presented to them at the time. To say that that is a hazardous process is indeed a truism, but we cannot escape it, once we abandon literal interpretation -- a method far more unreliable. [ Borella v. Borden Co., 145 F.2d 63, 64-65 (2 Cir.1944), aff'd 325 U.S. 679, 65 S. Ct. 1223, 89 L. Ed. 1865 (1945)]

See Guiseppi v. Walling, 144 F.2d 608, 624 (2 Cir.1944), aff'd sub nom. Gemsco v. Walling, 324 U.S. 244, 65 S. Ct. 605, 89 L. Ed. 921 (1945), cited with approval in ...


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