Thomas P. Ridgway has been indicted under N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5, the death by auto statute. His application for admission to the pretrial intervention program (PTI) has been denied. That denial, having been appealed, is addressed by this opinion. It holds that the denial was arbitrary, amounting to a patent and gross abuse of discretion, requiring reversal.
Ridgway is 19-years old, the divorced father of one child. He is gainfully employed as an "on-demand" painter with no physical, psychological or drug addiction problems and no criminal record. The accident did not involve alcohol or other drugs.
This is defendant's second PTI appeal. His application was first rejected by the PTI director for the following reasons:
1. His conduct caused the death of a 16-year old boy.
2. He had been involved in "8 accidents in the past."
3. He pled "not guilty" to the charge, claiming that the brakes on the trash truck he was driving had failed. Examination of the truck after the accident, however, did not reveal any defective brakes.
4. The family of the decedent and the complainant were opposed to PTI admission.
5. The need to prosecute outweighs the benefit of diversion.
6. The destruction of innocent lives on the highway, due to careless or reckless operation of motor vehicles, must be deterred.
The prosecutor took the same position as the director for the following reasons:
1. This was not a "victimless" crime.
2. Contrary to the defendant's claim, the brakes on his truck, as disclosed by an inspection after the accident, were in working order. There was no claim by defendant that he used his horn to warn the victim although one horn on the truck was operable.
3. His driving abstract shows that the offense "constitutes part of a continuing pattern of anti-social behavior, especially in view of his prior convictions for failure to observe a traffic control device and disregarding a stop sign."
4. There is a public need to enforce the motor vehicle laws.
5. The need for prosecution far outweighs any benefit flowing from diversion.
6. Family and complainant are opposed to a PTI admission.
7. On balance, the nature of the offense outweighs any interest in rehabilitating the defendant.
The rejection was appealed. The appellate record revealed the failure of the director and the prosecutor (sometimes referred to collectively as "the State") to consider defendant as an individual; his background, character, and prospects, except for his motor vehicle record, were barely mentioned. Consideration of the individual is a central requirement of the PTI program. State v. Sutton, 80 N.J. 110, 119 (1979). While the prosecutor referred to rehabilitation, a PTI goal, he did so only in conclusory terms. Defendant's motor vehicle record, a central theme supporting the rejection, had not been analyzed by either the director or the prosecutor. In fact, it did not appear to be a record upon which the denial of a PTI application could be based. The State's decision was therefore reached after consideration of an apparently irrelevant factor and without consideration of required factors. It was a manifest abuse of discretion, State v. Bender, 80 N.J. 84 (1979), requiring a remand with direction for a reexamination of the application.
Three days after execution of the order remanding the matter, the director informed defense counsel that he would not
approve the PTI application. At that time, defendant requested the director to read a newspaper article dealing with safety problems at the intersection where the accident occurred. He declined because he believed that his reconsideration was confined to the record before him at the time of his original determination. He also declined an offer of defendant and counsel to appear before him to answer questions about the driving abstract, limiting them to written comments. In the course of doing so, the director said:
Judge Haines didn't understand one word of what I said. The denial stands. I am going to give you a letter expanding the reasons, if that's what he wants, but the denial stands.
The director explained this comment, acceptably, as intending no offense to the court.
The director then rejected the application again. He based the rejection upon a consideration of all PTI statutory criteria and R. 3:28 Guidelines (" GL "). His reasons (paraphrased) for denying the application were:
1. The nature of the offense, including the factual background, does not favor admission.
2. The family of the complainant is opposed.
3. Since the defendant denies having any personal problems, there are no PTI services to offer him.
4. If driver training is indicated, it is a matter for the Motor Vehicle Department which is not subject to a PTI order.
5. The interest of the victim and society in prosecution outweighs the interest of the defendant in admission. Deterrence is in the interest of society and is to be obtained through prosecution.
6. There is no social problem to be exacerbated by prosecution.
7. The need to prosecute outweighs the need for admission.
8. The harm to society, if prosecution is abandoned, outweighs any benefit to society which diversion could provide.
9. ". . . there is no need to rehabilitate, because you tell us this was an accident caused by ...