On appeal from and certification to the Superior Court, Law Division, Warren County.
The issue in this appeal is whether non-violent, drug-dependent defendants who do not meet the eligibility requirements for "special probation" under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14 may be admitted into a drug court program under the general sentencing provisions of the Code of Criminal Justice and the admission criteria specified in the Drug Court Manual of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC).
Defendant Jason G. Meyer was indicted for possession with intent to distribute a controlled dangerous substance (CDS) and shoplifting. Meyer applied for admission into the Warren County Drug Court Program. The Warren County Prosecutor's Office objected because Meyer did not qualify for "special probation" under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14 based on his four prior convictions of third-degree offenses. Relying on State v. Matthews, 378 N.J. Super. 396 (App. Div.), certif. denied,
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin
The New Jersey Judiciary created Drug Courts within the criminal part of the Superior Court, Law Division to address the unique problems and needs posed by non-violent, drug-dependent offenders who, through intensive supervision and treatment, have the high potential for recovery and building a productive life. Drug Courts have proven successful in maximizing the rehabilitative prospects of addicted offenders, reducing the cycle of recidivism, and yielding cost-savings to our overburdened criminal justice system.
In this appeal, the State challenges the admission of defendant Jason G. Meyer into Drug Court. The State contends that only those defendants eligible for "special probation" under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14 may be admitted into a drug court program. Given defendant's several prior convictions for third-degree crimes, defendant does not meet N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14's eligibility requirements for "special probation," and therefore, the State argues, Drug Court is not an available option. Defendant counters that the admission criteria for Drug Court is governed by the Administrative Office of the Courts' Drug Court Manual. Under the Manual's guidelines, defendant is permitted enrollment in Drug Court.
N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14 merely sets forth a disposition --"special probation" for certain non-violent drug offenders --and does not exclusively determine who is eligible for enrollment in Drug Court. Although that statute and Drug Courts serve complementary purposes, the New Jersey Supreme Court through the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) has the ultimate constitutional authority to administer our court system, including the drug court program. We therefore affirm the trial court's decision to admit defendant into Drug Court based on the criteria set forth in the AOC's Drug Court Manual.
In November 2004, in two separate indictments, a Warren County Grand Jury charged defendant Jason G. Meyer with third-degree possession with intent to distribute and/or distribution of an imitation controlled dangerous substance (CDS), N.J.S.A. 2C:35-11a, and fourth-degree shoplifting, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-11b(1). Defendant applied for admission into the Warren County Drug Court Program. The Warren County Prosecutor's Office objected because defendant was not eligible for "special probation" under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14 based on his four prior convictions for third-degree offenses.*fn1 Relying on State v. Matthews, 378 N.J. Super. 396, 402-03 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 185 N.J. 596 (2005), the prosecutor tied defendant's eligibility for Drug Court directly to meeting N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14's criteria for "special probation."
Defendant appealed the "Prosecutor's rejection of his Drug Court application" to the Law Division. Defendant submitted that the AOC's Drug Court Manual, not N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14, governed admission into Drug Court and that the Manual did not limit Drug Court to "special probation" cases. See generally Administrative Office of the Courts, Manual for Operation of Adult Drug Courts In New Jersey (July 2002) [hereinafter Drug Court Manual]. While acknowledging that his prior convictions precluded him from receiving "special probation" under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14, defendant observed that those convictions did not bar him from receiving a probationary term pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:45-1 or enrollment in Drug Court pursuant to the criteria in the Drug Court Manual.
Before ruling on defendant's eligibility for Drug Court, the Honorable John H. Pursel, J.S.C. ordered that defendant undergo a "clinical evaluation." That evaluation of the twenty-five-year old defendant detailed a dissipated life of drug dependency and crimes committed while under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. Defendant, who lives with his wife and two children, described an extensive history of daily drug abuse that included injecting heroin and cocaine, smoking marijuana, and taking large amounts of over-the-counter cold medications. He admitted to using marijuana at the age of eight, alcohol at the age of nine, hallucinogenic drugs at the age of twelve, amphetamines at the age of fifteen, and heroin and cocaine at the age of seventeen. He stated that he had overdosed on drugs three times, attempted suicide, and spent one-fifth of his life behind bars. He also had been previously treated in both in-patient and out-patient programs for his drug abuse without evident success. Substance Abuse Evaluator Dennis J. Kane recommended that defendant "enter and complete a Long Term Residential treatment program and enter a Halfway House as part of a comprehensive aftercare program."
After reviewing that report and the arguments of opposing counsel, Judge Pursel admitted defendant into the drug court program. In doing so, he relied on the Drug Court Manual, noting that the Manual did not classify the eligibility criteria set forth in N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14 as the exclusive means for admission into Drug Court. He observed that N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14 provides an alternative to prison -- "special probation" -- for offenders subject to the presumption of incarceration, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1d, and certain mandatory-minimum sentences, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7. However, the Drug Court Manual, as Judge Pursel recognized, also allows for sentencing of "substance abusing nonviolent offenders . . . under the general sentencing provisions of the Code of Criminal Justice." Thus, "both prison-bound and non-bound offenders" may qualify for Drug Court. Although defendant did not meet the eligibility criteria for "special probation" under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14 due to his prior third-degree convictions, he still met the Manual's criteria for admission into Drug Court and the Code's general sentencing criteria for imposition of a probationary term. Judge Pursel maintained that the benefits of Drug Court flowed to both the State and defendant, diverting the cost of imprisonment to treatment of an individual's addiction, thereby "lessening the likelihood that the individual would re-enter the criminal justice system by committing a new drug related offense."
The State filed a motion for leave to appeal the order placing defendant in Drug Court. In January 2006, the Appellate Division denied leave to appeal, but noted that "[t]he State may appeal an allegedly illegal sentence in the ordinary course." In March 2006, the State filed with this Court a motion for leave to appeal the Appellate Division's order denying its interlocutory appeal.
In the meantime, in February 2006, defendant pled guilty to third-degree possession with intent to distribute and/or distribution of an imitation CDS and fourth-degree shoplifting, as well as to an accusation charging him with fourth-degree resisting arrest. Apparently preserving its right to challenge Judge Pursel's earlier order, the State conditioned the plea on "defendant being accepted to Drug Court over the State's objection." (Emphasis added). In April 2006, Judge Pursel sentenced defendant to a five-year probationary term "in Drug Court," requiring him to follow the "specific treatment plan determined by the [in-patient] facility and Drug Court Team." Defendant was also ordered to pay certain prescribed fines, maintain employment consistent with his treatment plan, and remain arrest-free.
Two days after defendant was sentenced, we granted the State leave to appeal from the Appellate Division's interlocutory order, thus permitting review of the trial court's order admitting defendant into Drug Court. In May 2006, the State filed a notice of appeal with the Appellate Division, challenging defendant's sentence.*fn2 In September 2006, this Court granted defendant's motion to directly certify the State's appeal of his sentence and to consolidate it with the appeal of his admission into Drug Court. 188 N.J. 345 (2006).
We granted the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey and the New Jersey Institute For Social Justice ...