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State v. Cannarella

SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY


January 31, 2006

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
JUSTIN B. CANNARELLA, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 376 N.J. Super. 16 (2005).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(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).

On March 27, 2002, Justin Cannarella, a student attending the Lord Stirling School in Basking Ridge, engaged in a series of actions that led a Somerset County Grand Jury to charge him with third-degree aggravated assault on Calvin Gaines, a teacher at the private school. Cannarella moved to dismiss the indictment on the ground that the statute relied on by the State related to attacks on public school teachers only.

The trial court held that the statute (N.J.S.A. 2C:11-1(b)(5)(d)), which enhances criminal penalties for assaults on teachers, applied both to public and private schools. Cannarella pled guilty to the third-degree offense and reserved his right to appeal the legal question.

On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed. That court found the statutory language "somewhat ambiguous" and looked to the legislative history of the act for guidance. In the light of its review, the Appellate Division concluded that the Legislature's concerns were limited to public schools and reversed.

The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification.

HELD: The judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed, substantially for the reasons expressed by that court in its opinion. The court applied well-established canons of statutory interpretation and appropriately relied on context and the legislative history of the act.

1. The Court distinguished its holding in State v. Ivory on the ground that the statute in that matter referred to "any school or secondary school or school board." That language is very different than that found in the statute under review in this matter. (p. 2)

2. The State's public policy arguments regarding why the enhanced penalty statute should apply to all teachers, public and private, are compelling. Although the Court is constrained by the language of the statute from including private school teachers, it commends the issue to the Legislature for its consideration. (pp. 2-3)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, ALBIN, WALLACE, and RIVERA-SOTO join in the Court's opinion.

Per curiam.

Argued January 3, 2006

On this appeal, we have been asked to interpret N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(5)(d), the statute that elevates the disorderly persons offense of simple assault to third-degree aggravated assault when committed upon "[a]ny school board member, school administrator, teacher, school bus driver, or other employee of a school board . . . ." More particularly, the question is whether an assault on a private school teacher falls within that enhancing statute. The Appellate Division, applying well- established canons of statutory interpretation and relying on context and legislative history, answered that question in the negative. We agree with that conclusion, and affirm substantially for the reasons expressed in Judge Coburn's thorough and thoughtful opinion.

We add these comments. The State's reliance on State v. Ivory, 124 N.J. 582 (1991), which interpreted N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7 to include private schools, is misplaced. That statute criminalizes drug sales and possession on "any school property used for school purposes which is owned by or leased to any elementary or secondary school or school board." N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7. The reason that definition sweeps in private schools is that the statute uses the broadly inclusive phrase "school property . . . which is owned by or leased to any school or secondary school or school board." Ibid. (emphasis added). That is not the language before us.

The State's public policy arguments regarding why N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(5)(d) should apply to all teachers, private and public, are compelling. Indeed, many of the concerns expressed about the reining in of violence in public schools are equally applicable in the private school setting. Among our sister states that have adopted enhanced sentencing penalties for assaults on teachers, the majority protect private school teachers as well.*fn1 Although we are constrained by the language employed in N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(5)(d) from reaching that conclusion here, we commend this issue for consideration by the Legislature.

The judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, ALBIN, WALLACE, and RIVERA-SOTO join in the Court's opinion.

Chief Justice Poritz PRESIDING


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