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State v. Sgrignuoli

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


June 18, 2007

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
BRYAN F. SGRIGNUOLI, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, 06-01-0409.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued June 4, 2007

Before Judges Lintner and Seltzer.

On January 30, 2006, a Camden County grand jury returned a one-count indictment charging defendant, Bryan Sgrignuoli, with assault by auto, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1c(3). Defendant's application for Pretrial Intervention (PTI) was denied by Mary Morina, the Camden County PTI Coordinator. Defendant's subsequent motion, challenging the PTI Coordinator's decision, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-12f, was denied by the Law Division judge following oral argument on June 9, 2006. An order memorializing the judge's decision was entered on June 12, 2006.

On June 30, 2006, pursuant to a negotiated plea agreement, defendant pled guilty to the indictment, reserving his right to appeal the denial of his application for PTI. Defendant was sentenced, in accordance with the plea agreement, to two years of probation, one-hundred hours of community service, and six-months suspended driver's license. Appropriate fines and penalties were also imposed. Defendant appeals, challenging the denial of his application for entry into PTI. We affirm.

The undisputed facts are as follows. On October 7, 2005, at approximately 1:50 a.m., Gloucester police officer John McHugh pulled over a van for a traffic infraction. While McHugh sat in his patrol car behind the van, occupied by its driver, defendant crashed his vehicle into the rear of the patrol unit causing it, in turn, to collide with the rear of the van. As a result of the accident, the driver of the van was transported to a local hospital and was treated for a fractured ankle and a hip pointer. Officer McHugh suffered abrasions and was hit in the head with a rifle that had been housed in the police unit.

Following the accident, defendant was found sitting on a nearby curb, crying. Defendant registered .17 on the breathalyzer and was arrested for driving under the influence. Defendant was also given summonses for operating an unregistered motor vehicle and for reckless driving. Defendant was subsequently indicted with third-degree assault by auto.

At the time of the accident, defendant was twenty-six years old, single, and had no prior contact with the criminal justice system. Defendant was a graduate of Rutgers University and was in the process of completing a program to receive his teaching certificate. Defendant worked full-time for Data Transformation Corporation and part-time as a substitute teacher and as a laborer for his brother's landscaping company. Defendant also worked as a laborer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In response to defendant's application for entry into PTI, the PTI coordinator wrote:

N.J.S.A. 2C:43-12(e)1, 2, 7 and 14 requires consideration of the nature of the offense, the facts of the case, needs and interests of the victim and society and whether or not the crime is of such a nature that the value of supervisory treatment would be outweighed by the public need for prosecution.

N.J.S.A. 2C:43-12(e)(10) further demands consideration of whether or not the crime is of an assaultive or violent nature whether in the criminal act itself or in the possible injurious consequences of such behavior.

After describing the manner in which the incident occurred, the PTI Coordinator noted the following regarding the injuries suffered by the van driver and officer and the reasons for her denial of defendant's application:

[The driver of the van] was treated for injuries including a fracture to his ankle and hip pointer. Officer McHugh suffered abrasions and was hit in the head with a rifle as a result of the crash. The defendant's actions and behavior were assaultive and violent in that they resulted in serious consequences (injuries) to two victims. It should also be noted that the indictment charge[d] the defendant with Assault by Auto as the defendant drove a vehicle while intoxicated and resulted in injury on or near a school or school crossing. This factor further exacerbates the seriousness of the offense and risk to other persons.

I have considered the materials submitted by the defendant including his age (26) employment history, degree from Rutgers University, desire to be a teacher and lack of prior convictions. I have also reviewed your letter dated March 3, 2006 and the numerous letters of recommendation submitted from family, friends, teachers and co-workers. Despite these factors and in view of the nature of the offense and consequences of the defendant's behavior, it is my opinion that the public need for prosecution and deterrence outweighs any benefit to be derived by the defendant through PTI. The application is denied.

Following oral argument, the Law Division judge recognized that the statutory factor regarding injury is not limited to deliberate injury and found it significant that defendant's assaultive behavior resulted in injury to two individuals. The judge did not rely on the fact that the incident occurred within 1000 feet of a school, noting that it occurred at 1:48 a.m. She found that the PTI Coordinator appropriately applied the statutory factor that the public need for prosecution predominated over the values of supervisory treatment. She related that in cases such as this, where a driver's blood alcohol content was significantly higher than the maximum permitted limit, the public's need for prosecution outweighs the value of supervisory treatment.

The judge acknowledged that defendant's background revealed that he was an upstanding member of his community but noted the question for her to decide was not whether defendant "is a good person," rather it is whether "denial of P.T.I. is a patent and gross abuse of discretion." The judge concluded that she was unable to find, despite defendant's upstanding character, that the denial represented an abuse of discretion.

On appeal, defendant raises the following contentions:

POINT I

THE DENIAL OF THE DEFENDANT'S APPLICATION FOR ADMISSION TO THE CAMDEN COUNTY PRE- INTERVENTION PROGRAM CONSTITUTED A PATENT AND GROSS ABUSE OF DISCRETION.

POINT II

THE TRIAL COURT'S DENIAL OF THE APPEAL OF THE DEFENDANT'S PTI REJECTION WAS CONTRARY TO NEW JERSEY CASE LAW, REQUIRING REVERSAL OF THE TRIAL COURT'S DECISION BELOW AND DEFENDANT'S ADMISSION INTO THE CAMDEN COUNTY PRE-TRIAL INTERVENTION PROGRAM.

The underlining principles are well settled. PTI is a discretionary means of diverting criminal defendants from formal prosecution. State v. Caliguiri, 158 N.J. 28, 35 (1999) (citing N.J.S.A. 2C:43-12a(1); R. 3:28, Guidelines for the Operation of Pretrial Intervention in New Jersey, Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, comment on R. 3:28, Guidelines 1(a) (1999)). Both the Guidelines and the statute prescribe five goals respecting the PTI program:

(1) providing offenders with early rehabilitation, if that service will deter future criminal conduct; (2) offering an alternative to offenders who would be harmed by traditional prosecution; (3) providing a less burdensome prosecution for offenders charged with "victimless" offenses; (4) assisting prosecutors in pursuing serious criminal matters by removing less serious cases from the criminal calendar; and (5) deterring future criminal conduct by PTI participants. [Caliguiri, supra, 158 N.J. at 35 (citing N.J.S.A. 2C:43-12a(1)-(5); Pressler, supra, Guidelines 1(a)-(e)).]

Although any defendant charged with a crime is eligible for PTI, the Guidelines and the statute provide specific criteria for the prosecutor and criminal manager to consider when reviewing a PTI application. Id. at 36 (citing N.J.S.A. 2C:43-12e(1)-(17); Pressler, supra, Guidelines 2 and 3). Those criteria include the nature of the offense, the circumstances of the crime, the motivation and age of the defendant, and the needs and interests of the victim and society. Ibid. (citing N.J.S.A. 2C:43-12e(1)-(3), (7); Pressler, supra, Guidelines 3).

Guidelines 2 provides that "[e]ligibility for PTI is broad enough to include all defendants who demonstrate sufficient effort to effect necessary behavioral change and show that future criminal behavior will not occur." Guidelines 3(e) specifies that although the program "is not limited to 'first offenders,' defendants who have been previously convicted of a criminal offense should ordinarily be excluded."

Judicial review and intervention is permitted because the decision to divert is "analogous to the prosecutor's charging function," thus involving "the implicit exercise of judicial power." Caliguiri, supra, 158 N.J. at 37 (citing State v. Nwobu, 139 N.J. 236, 245 (1995)). However, the power to judicially review a prosecutor's decision respecting diversion is tightly circumscribed. Ibid. (citing State v. DeMarco, 107 N.J. 562, 566 (1987)). In order to overturn a prosecutor's decision, there must be a judicial finding that "the prosecutor based a decision on an inappropriate factor, failed to mention a relevant factor, or so inappropriately weighed the relevant factors that the decision amounts to a 'patent and gross abuse of discretion.'" Ibid. (quoting State v. Wallace, 146 N.J. 576, 584 (1996)). To meet the "patent and gross abuse of discretion" standard, defendant "must show that the prosecutor's decision failed to consider all relevant factors, was based upon irrelevant or inappropriate factors, or constituted a 'clear error in judgment.'" Nwobu, supra, 139 N.J. at 247 (quoting State v. Bender, 80 N.J. 84, 93 (1979)). An appellate court may "'supplant'" a prosecutor's decision where the prosecutor used an inappropriate factor because the issue is "'akin to a question of law.'" Ibid. (quoting State v. Maddocks, 80 N.J. 98, 104-05 (1979)).

Applying these principles, we are satisfied that the PTI Coordinator considered the appropriate and relevant criteria set forth in N.J.S.A. 2C:43-12e(1), (2), (7), and (14), specifically, the nature of the case, the facts, the needs and interest of the victim and society, and whether the value of supervised treatment outweighed the public need for prosecution. She also considered N.J.S.A. 2C:43-12e(10), the assaultive nature of the crime, and its injurious consequences. Contrary to defendant's argument, the PTI Coordinator applied the factors listed in Guidelines 3 regarding defendant's age, residential and first-time offender status but, nevertheless, reasoned that the criteria militating against admission to PTI predominated over those factors that would otherwise support acceptance into the program. In our view, there was no mistaken use of discretion, much less a patent or gross abuse of discretion. For these same reasons, we conclude that defendant's Point II contention, that the judge erred in failing to consider all relevant factors, is devoid of merit and does not warrant further discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(2). Accordingly, we affirm essentially for the reasons expressed by the Law Division judge in her oral decision of June 9, 2006.

Affirmed.

20070618

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