On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 252 N.J. Super. 286 (1991).
Garibaldi, Wilentz, Clifford, Pollock, O'Hern, Stein, Handler
The opinion of the court was delivered by
Pursuant to a negotiated plea under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-12 ("section 12"), defendant pleaded guilty to the possession of cocaine with intent to distribute within 1,000 feet of school property in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7 ("section 7"). In exchange for the plea, the State agreed, pursuant to section 12, to waive the mandatory-minimum period of parole ineligibility and to recommend that defendant be given a split sentence, "probation with 364 days in the county jail." The narrow issue is whether the court has the discretion under section 12 to reduce the custodial part of the plea agreement.
The trial court determined that based on a review of the legislative history of section 12, "it does not have discretion to deviate from [the plea] agreement unless the agreement were to be, of course, rejected in its entirety." The court, "feeling bound by N.J.S.A. 2C:35-12," sentenced defendant to a two-year term of probation conditioned on 364 days in the Hunterdon County Jail.
The Appellate Division affirmed, concluding that under section 12 the sentencing court had no discretion, once it had accepted the plea agreement, to sentence below the "term of imprisonment" recommended by the State. 252 N.J. Super. 286, 295 (1991). The court reasoned that because imprisonment as a condition of probation is a "term of imprisonment," section 12 precludes the sentencing court from imposing a lesser term of imprisonment than that specified in the agreement. Id. at 294. We granted defendant's petition for certification. 130 N.J. 8 (1992). As did the lower courts, we conclude that "term of imprisonment" encompasses the custodial aspect of defendant's split sentence. We hold, therefore, that the trial court had no authority to sentence defendant below the agreed-upon 364 days.
As part of the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act of 1986, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-1 to -23, (the "Drug Reform Act"), section 7
directs that any person found guilty of third-degree distribution of cocaine within 1,000 feet of school property "shall, except as provided in N.J.S.A. 2C:35-12, be sentenced by the court to a term of imprisonment * * * [and] the term of imprisonment shall include the imposition of a minimum term which shall be fixed at * * * three years." Section 12 provides that on a defendant's conviction for an offense proscribed by Chapter 35, the sentencing court shall impose the mandatory sentence
unless the defendant has pleaded guilty pursuant to a negotiated agreement * * * which provides for a lesser sentence or period of parole ineligibility. The negotiated plea * * * may provide for a specified term of imprisonment within the range of ordinary or extended sentences authorized by law, a specified period of parole ineligibility, a specified fine, or other Disposition. In that event, the court at sentencing shall not impose a lesser term of imprisonment, period of parole ineligibility or fine than that expressly provided for under the terms of the plea or post-conviction agreement. (emphasis added).
Defendant contends that a sentence of probation is an "other Disposition." Because the phrase "other Disposition" is absent from the last sentence of section 12, defendant claims that under the plain language of the statute, the court is not bound to impose the prosecutor's recommended sentence.
We first consider the plain language of section 12, for if the statute "is clear and unambiguous on its face and admits of only one interpretation, we need delve no deeper than [its] literal terms to divine the Legislature's intent." State v. Butler, 89 N.J. 220, 226, 445 A.2d 399 (1982).
Section 12 states that the agreement may provide for (1) a specified term of imprisonment within the range of ordinary or extended sentences authorized by law; (2) a period of parole ineligibility; (3) a fine; or (4) other Disposition. Clearly, defendant's sentence of probation conditioned on 364 days in county jail provides for neither a fine nor for a period of parole ineligibility. In addition, because defendant's sentence calls only for 364 days in county jail, it does not fit squarely within the range of ordinary or extended sentences authorized by law for a school-zone offense. The range of an "ordinary" term of imprisonment "authorized by law"
for a school-zone offense, a third-degree crime, is three to five years. N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6a(3). The range set forth for an "extended" term is five to ten years. N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7a(4).
The language of section 12, therefore, appears to provide unambiguously that the phrase "other Disposition" means all sentencing options other than a term of imprisonment within the range of ordinary and extended sentences authorized by law, a period of parole ineligibility, or a fine. The statute's plain language, therefore, supports an interpretation that defendant's sentence of probation conditioned on 364 days in the county jail is an "other Disposition." Resolution of this appeal, however, does not turn on the meaning of "other Disposition" within the meaning of section 12. Rather, the issue for resolution is whether the custodial aspect of that "other Disposition", a split sentence, constitutes a "term of imprisonment" as that phrase is used in the last sentence of section 12. That sentence states that in the event of a negotiated-plea agreement or post-conviction agreement, the sentencing court "shall not impose a lesser term of imprisonment, period of parole ineligibility or fine than that expressly provided for under the terms of the plea or post-conviction agreement." (emphasis added).
We construe section 12 strictly because it is a penal statute. State v. Vasquez, 129 N.J. 189, 200, 609 A.2d 29 (1992). The rule of strict construction, however, "'does not prevent a court . . . from giving effect to the terms of the statute in accordance with their fair and natural acceptance.'" State v. Ivory, 124 N.J. 582, 594, 592 A.2d 205 (1991) (quoting State v. Meinken, 10 N.J. 348, 352, 91 A.2d 721 (1952)). The "'words of [a penal statute] are to be accorded a rational meaning in harmony with the obvious intent and purpose of the law.'" State v. Tischio, 107 N.J. 504, 511, 527 A.2d 388 (1987) (quoting State v. Brown, 22 N.J. 405, 415, 126 A.2d 161 (1956)),
The State argues that the phrase "term of imprisonment" means any imprisonment prescribed by the Code of Criminal Justice ("Code"), including the custodial aspect of defendant's "split sentence," as provided for in N.J.S.A. 2C:43-2b(2). Defendant, on the other hand, asserts that "term of imprisonment" within the meaning of section 12 refers only to imprisonment "within the range of ordinary or extended sentences authorized by law." Defendant maintains that because his sentence does not fit squarely within that range, the sentencing court should not be bound by section 12's restrictive language.
When a statutory term is subject to more than one interpretation, we look beyond its plain language to determine the Legislature's intent. Our inquiry into the legislative history and special purpose of section 12 supports a construction of the phrase "term of imprisonment" to include the custodial part of defendant's split-sentence.
In enacting the Drug Reform Act, the Legislature declared the public policy of the State to be "to provide for the strict punishment, deterrence and incapacitation of the most culpable and dangerous drug offenders." N.J.S.A. 2C:35-1.1c. Toward that end, the Legislature recognized the need for adequate sentencing guidelines to identify consistently the most serious offenders and to guard against sentencing disparity, which diminishes the deterrent thrust of the criminal law. N.J.S.A. 2C:35-1.1d. The Legislature made sweeping revisions to the predecessor law contained in the Controlled Dangerous Substances Act, N.J.S.A. 24:21-1 to -53 in an attempt to effectuate that policy. To promote uniform sentences, the Legislature ordered the transfer of drug offenses from the Controlled Dangerous Substances Act to the Code:
The consolidation of these offenses and provisions into the penal code will limit courts' sentencing discretion, and will ensure more uniform, consistent and predictable sentencing practices. In contrast to New Jersey's current drug laws, the penal code establishes degrees of offenses and provides definitive sentencing ranges and presumptive terms for each degree. This bill clearly establishes the degree and severity of every drug offense, taking into account the nature and dangerousness of the specific controlled substance involved, the count and purity of that substance, and the defendant's role in the drug distribution hierarchy.
[Assembly Judiciary Committee Statement, No. A. 3270 1 (Dec. 18, 1986) (Committee Statement).]
To provide for strict penalties, the Drug Reform Act mandates a mandatory-minimum sentence for certain drug offenses occurring in a designated school zone. Section 7 provides that any person who violates N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5 while within 1,000 feet of a school or school bus shall be sentenced to a minimum term of three years imprisonment, during which the defendant shall be ineligible for parole.
The Legislature, however, tempered its professed goal of strict punishment and sentence uniformity by authorizing the prosecutor to waive the mandatory minimum prison term in section 12. See State v. Vasquez, supra, 129 N.J. at 204. In so doing, the Legislature recognized the need to secure the cooperation of lower- and middle-level drug offenders with law enforcement in order to penetrate the drug-trafficking hierarchy:
One of the key objectives of [section 12] and of the act is to provide persons engaged in illicit drug activities with strong incentives to cooperate with law enforcement to overcome the perceived and substantial risks associated with turning State's ...