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State v. Wallace

November 13, 1996


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J. Justices Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi, Stein and Coleman join in Justice HANDLER's opinion. Chief Justice Poritz did not participate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Handler


(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

State of New Jersey v. Bruce Wallace (A-4-96)

Argued September l0, l996 -- Decided November 13, 1996

Handler, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

In this opinion, the Court addresses the issue of the quantum of deference to be afforded the discretionary prosecutorial decision concerning the refusal to dismiss criminal charges and the refusal to admit a criminal defendant into a pre-trial intervention program.

The facts leading to the denial of respondent's application to the Pre-trial Intervention Program (PTI) are simple. On June 5, l993, defendant Bruce Wallace, an attorney and Cherry Hill councilman, arrived at the home of his former girlfriend, Paula Stewart, with a loaded .357 Smith & Wesson handgun. During their encounter, Wallace produced the gun and informed Stewart that he had come to kill first her and then himself. However, Wallace became teary-eyed, put down the gun and told Stewart that he could never do anything to harm her. He then unloaded the weapon.

When Stewart reported the June 5th incident to the Voorhees Township Police Department, Wallace was arrested and charged with second degree possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a), and making terroristic threats, a crime of the third degree, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:12-3. Shortly after bail was set, Wallace entered Hampton Hospital for inpatient treatment, where he was diagnosed as suffering from major depression with certain biochemical deficiencies

On September 2, 1993, Wallace filed an application for admission to the Camden County pre-trial intervention program, maintaining that his criminal behavior was related to his depression. That application was denied. In her letter denying Wallace's application, the assistant prosecutor relied on a prosecutorial guideline that discourages PTI for defendants charged with either first or second degree offenses. The assistant prosecutor further noted that Wallace was charged with acts committed with violence or the threat of violence.

By motion, Wallace appealed the prosecutor's decision in the Superior Court, Law Division. The trial court ruled that Wallace had not met his burden of demonstrating that the prosecutor had committed a "patent and gross abuse of discretion" and denied the motion.

On January 20, l994, Wallace pled guilty to third-degree unlawful possession of a handgun without a permit, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5b. Wallace reserved his right to appeal the prosecutor's rejection of his PTI application. He was sentenced to three years probation with several conditions.

Following his sentencing, Wallace appealed the trial court's decision. The Appellate Division reversed the decision of the trial court and remanded the case to the prosecutor. The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification.

HELD: The assistant prosecutor's evaluation and denial of defendant's application for admission to the Pre-trial Intervention Program did not amount to a clear error of judgment.

1. PTI was established as an alternative procedure to the traditional process of prosecuting criminal defendants and is intended to augment the criminal Justice system when prosecution would be ineffective, counterproductive, or unnecessary. Throughout the program's history, the courts have remained sensitive to the fact that diversion is a quintessentially prosecutorial function and the prosecutor has great discretion in selecting whom to prosecute and whom to divert. (pp. 5-6)

2. Although the prosecutor's discretion is not unbridled, in order for a court to overrule the prosecutor's refusal to sanction admission into the program and to order a defendant admitted to PTI, a defendant must clearly and convincingly establish to a reviewing court that the prosecutor's decision was based on a patent and gross abuse of discretion. A "patent and gross abuse of discretion" is one that "has gone so wide of the mark sought to be accomplished by PTI that fundamental fairness and Justice require judicial intervention." (pp. 6-7)

3. A defendant may persuade a court to vacate a PTI rejection and remand to the prosecutor for reconsideration on a lesser showing. Specifically, the defendant need only show that the prosecutor's decision was arbitrary, irrational, or otherwise an abuse of discretion and that a remand will serve a useful purpose. (pp. 7-8)

4. Absent a demonstration by the defendant to the contrary, a prosecutor must be presumed to have considered all relevant factors. A reviewing court's scrutiny of the prosecutor's PTI decision is generally limited to the justification contained in the statement of reasons. (p. 9)

5. Although the Legislature has highlighted several factors for the prosecutor or program director to consider, it clearly intended to leave the weighing process to the prosecutor or program director. Moreover, while the PTI guidelines set forth in R. 3:28 represent a somewhat greater attempt to channel prosecutorial discretion than the statute, in the end, it is the prosecutor's responsibility to weigh the various factors and to reach a determination. It remains the obligation of the judiciary to check those instances where the prosecutor has so inappropriately weighted the various considerations so as to constitute a "clear error in judgment." (pp. 10-12)

6. A subsequently negotiated non-custodial sentence does not retrospectively impugn the soundness of a previous prosecutorial decision that criminal prosecution, rather than pretrial diversion, is appropriate. To permit such a line of attack would unfairly undermine an otherwise well-founded decision to deny PTI, would seriously inhibit the prosecutor's discretion and would discourage efforts by the State to enter into a negotiated plea agreement that attempts to accommodate a defendant's condition. To the extent that State v. ...

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