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State v. Watkins

February 21, 2008

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
CHARLES A. WATKINS III, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 390 N.J. Super. 302 (2007).

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).

At issue in this appeal is the meaning of Guideline 3(i)(2) of Rule 3:28, which applies a presumption against admission into Pretrial Intervention (PTI) where the criminal conduct is "part of a continuing criminal business or enterprise."

In May 1998, defendant Charles Watkins III was temporarily laid off from his position at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital and began receiving unemployment benefits. Subsequently, he obtained an extension of those benefits in order to enroll in the Culinary Arts Program at Mercer County Community College under the "Additional Benefits During Training Program." (ABT). The ABT allows an unemployed individual to extend benefits while pursuing education or job-training skills designed to further that individual's employment prospects.

At some point prior to January 23, 1999, Watkins returned to work but did not report his employment as required. Had he done so, the ABT benefits would have ended. Instead, between January 23, 1999 and May 22, 1999, Watkins was enrolled in school, attending courses, working, and continuing to collect benefits under the ABT.

During that time period, Watkins cashed nine unemployment checks totaling $5,670. Each check required him to certify that he was unemployed, which was not the case. Watkins cashed his last check on June 2, 1999. He received a culinary technician certificate of completion on June 4, 1999. Ultimately, Watkins completed a program through Rutgers University, from which he graduated with honors.

The Department of Labor discovered Watkins's unlawful receipt of benefits and gave him an opportunity to be heard and to pay what he owed. Inexplicably, Watkins did not appear, nor did he respond to further demands for repayment. Thereafter, Watkins was warned by the Attorney General of a potential criminal prosecution. Again, Watkins did not respond and at no time did he offer to repay his debt.

In January 2004, Watkins was indicted on one count of third-degree theft by deception and one count of fourth-degree unsworn falsification. He applied for admission into the Mercer County PTI program. In April 2004, the prosecutor rejected the application, citing three factors: (1) that Watkins's crime, which occurred over a four month period and involved nine separate checks, constituted a continuing criminal enterprise under Guideline 3(i)(2); (2) that previously Watkins had been convicted in municipal court for receiving stolen property; and (3) that Watkins's status as a public employee warranted denial.

Watkins appealed and two hearings followed. The State subsequently withdrew its reliance on Watkins's public employment as a basis for rejection, and relied exclusively on the other two grounds for rejection. The trial judge denied Watkins relief, determining that the State's decision was not arbitrary or capricious.

Watkins entered a conditional guilty plea to third-degree theft by deception and was sentenced to three years' probation conditioned on payment of the money he owed to the State. Watkins appealed.

In a published opinion, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded the case for the prosecutor's reconsideration. The panel rejected the conclusion that Watkins's crime constituted a "continuing criminal enterprise," holding that four months was an insufficiently long period of time to transform a series of unlawful acts into a continuing criminal enterprise. The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification.

HELD: Individuals acting alone in furtherance of their own criminal interests who commit a series of offenses such as thefts or forgeries are not "part of a continuing criminal business or enterprise" because they are not part of a larger whole and are not acting in concert with others.

1. PTI is a procedural alternative to the traditional process of prosecution and punishment of defendants. In 1976, the Court promulgated uniform Guidelines to regularize PTI practices in all venues. In 1979, the Legislature enacted a statewide PTI program as part of the revised Code of Criminal Justice. PTI, like all diversionary projects, has both rehabilitative and administrative aims. The admission criteria are broad, but defendants who have committed certain crimes are viewed as problematic from a rehabilitation perspective and are subject to special treatment. Guideline 3 creates a presumption against acceptance into PTI for defendants whose crimes fall within certain enumerated categories. In addition to the "part of a continuing criminal business or enterprise" category, Guideline 3 also applies to defendants whose crimes are part of organized criminal activity; deliberately committed with violence or the threat of violence; a breach of the public trust; a first- or second-degree offense; or involve the sale of certain narcotics by those not drug dependent. To overcome the presumption against PTI, the defendant must establish compelling reasons for admission. (pp. 7-12)

2. In making a PTI determination, the prosecutor must assess a defendant's "amenability to correction" and potential "responsiveness to rehabilitation." Such assessments are individualized and are dependent on a host of factors including the details of the case, defendant's motives, age, past criminal record, standing in the community and employment performance, to name a few. To overturn a prosecutor's rejection, a defendant must "clearly and convincingly establish that the prosecutor's decision constitutes a patent and gross abuse of discretion." A patent and gross abuse of discretion is defined as a decision that "has gone so wide of the mark sought to be accomplished by PTI that fundamental fairness and justice require judicial intervention." This is a heavy burden. However, where the prosecutor has made a legal error, there is a relatively low threshold for judicial intervention, because these instances raise issues akin to questions of law. (pp. 12-13)

3. The fundamental question before the Court is whether the prosecutor properly characterized Watkins's unlawful receipt of unemployment checks as part of a continuing criminal business or enterprise. The State seeks to define a continuing criminal business or enterprise as a course of conduct "involving a series of transactions continuing over a period of time." This Court's opinions cannot be reconciled with the State's definition. Nor does the language of Guideline 3(i)(2) support it. Guideline 3(i)(2) does not interdict repetitive criminal activity by a defendant. Rather, what it requires is that defendant's crime or crimes be a "part of" an ongoing criminal business or enterprise. This means that defendant's crime must be an element, fragment, section, or segment of a greater whole that exists beyond the defendant's individual infractions. What needs to be "continuing" is not defendant's activity but the criminal business or enterprise of which his crimes are a segment. (pp. 13-18)

4. What is a continuing criminal business or enterprise? In common parlance, business describes a number of models related to commerce, which in turn, denotes the exchange of goods or services for profit. A criminal enterprise normally involves the activities of more than one person. The federal Continuing Criminal Enterprise statute, 21 U.S.C. § 848, defines a "continuing criminal enterprise" to require a continuing series of violations which are undertaken by a "person in concert with five or more other persons," and from which the person "obtains substantial income or resources." The Court assumes that the drafters were aware of those meanings ascribed to the word "enterprise" in 1976 when the Guidelines were drafted. The Court concludes, therefore, by way of example, that employees acting in concert over a long period of time to embezzle money from an employer, although not part of a traditional organized crime organization, satisfy Guideline 3(i)(2) and are subject to the presumption against admission. On the contrary, with the exception of a case involving long-standing criminality, individuals acting alone in furtherance of their own criminal interests, who commit a series of offenses such as thefts or forgeries, are not within the contemplation of Guideline 3(i)(2). That is not to suggest that such an individual offender must be admitted to PTI, only that he is not within the presumptively excluded class. In the absence of a presumption, all other factors bearing on a defendant's potential for rehabilitation will still require analysis and a denial may be based on legitimate negatives in the applicant's past. Because Watkins's offenses were not part of a continuing criminal business or enterprise, he is not subject to the presumption against admission to PTI. His amenability to correction and responsiveness to rehabilitation therefore should be assessed de novo without the presumption. (pp. 18-23)

The judgment of the Appellate division is AFFIRMED, and the matter is REMANDED to the prosecutor for disposition in light of the principles to which the Court has adverted.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO and HOENS join in JUSTICE LONG's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Long

Argued November 13, 2007

The primary purpose of Pretrial Intervention (PTI) is to assist in the rehabilitation of worthy defendants, and, in the process, to spare them the rigors of the criminal justice system. Eligibility is broad and includes all defendants who demonstrate the will to effect necessary behavioral change such that society can have confidence that they will not engage in future criminality. N.J.S.A. 2C:43-12e. However, all defendants are not worthy candidates. Indeed, those who have committed serious and heinous crimes are generally recognized as problematic from a rehabilitation standpoint. Thus, the PTI Guidelines embodied in Rule 3:28 incorporate a presumption against admission for certain classes of offenses. At issue on this appeal is the scope of Guideline 3(i)(2), which applies the presumption to an offender whose crime was "part of a continuing criminal business or enterprise."

The case centers on a defendant who continued to receive and negotiate unemployment checks for four months after he resumed work and became ineligible for such benefits. The prosecutor rejected defendant's application primarily because his offense constituted a "continuing criminal enterprise." The trial judge agreed. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded for further proceedings on the ground that defendant's four-month odyssey into criminality was not long enough to satisfy the continuing criminal enterprise standard.

We now affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division although on slightly different grounds. Our review of the text, history and purposes of the statute and Guidelines has led us to conclude that the "part of a continuing criminal business or enterprise" category, like the other prongs of Guideline 3(i), generally was intended by the drafters to encompass serious or heinous crimes that are elements of a larger commercial scheme perpetrated by persons acting in concert for material financial gain. So defined, an individual who, on his own, has simply committed a series of similar crimes is not "part of a continuing criminal business or enterprise" warranting presumptive exclusion from PTI.

That is not to suggest that an offender who has acted alone or whose crimes were not perpetrated over a long period of time must be admitted into PTI, only that the presumption against admission in Guideline (3)(i)(2) is not the starting point. Rather, the defendant's potential for rehabilitation should be evaluated under the statutory criteria (N.J.S.A. 2C:43-12e) and the Guidelines without a presumption either way.

I.

In May 1998, defendant Charles Watkins III was temporarily laid off from his position at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital and began receiving unemployment benefits. Subsequently, he obtained an extension of those benefits in order to enroll in the Culinary Arts Program at Mercer County Community College under the "Additional Benefits During Training Program" (ABT). The ABT allows an eligible unemployed individual already receiving benefits to have those benefits extended while pursuing education or job-training skills designed to further that individual's employment prospects.

At some point prior to January 23, 1999, Watkins returned to work, but did not report his employment to the Department of Labor, as required by the program. Had he done so, the ABT benefits would have ended. Instead, between January 23, 1999, and May 22, 1999, Watkins was enrolled in school, attending courses, working, and continuing to collect benefits under the ABT.

During that time period, Watkins cashed nine unemployment checks totaling $5,670. Each check required him to certify that he was unemployed, which was not the case. Watkins continued his training in culinary arts at Mercer County Community College. He opened the first culinary cafeteria at the college, as well as an off-site catering business operated through the hospital. Watkins submitted his last certification to the Department of Labor on May 24, 1999, and cashed his last check on June 2, 1999. On June 4, 1999, he received a culinary technician certificate of completion from the Career Training Institute of Mercer County Community College. Ultimately, Watkins completed a program through Rutgers University, from which he graduated with honors.

The Department of Labor discovered Watkins's unlawful receipt of benefits and gave him an opportunity to be heard and to pay what he owed. Inexplicably, Watkins did not appear, nor did he respond to further demands for repayment. Thereafter, he was warned by the Attorney General of a potential criminal prosecution. Again, Watkins did not respond and at no time did he offer to, nor did he, in fact, make any meaningful effort to repay his debt.

In January 2004, Watkins was indicted on one count of third-degree theft by deception, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-4, and one count of fourth-degree unsworn falsification to authorities, N.J.S.A. 2C:28-3a. He applied for admission into the Mercer County PTI program. In April 2004, the prosecutor rejected the application, citing three factors: (1) that Watkins's crime, which occurred over a four-month period and involved nine separate checks, constituted a continuing criminal enterprise under Guideline 3(i)(2); (2) that previously Watkins had been convicted in municipal court for receiving stolen property; and (3) that Watkins's status as a public employee warranted denial. Watkins appealed and two hearings followed. After some procedural maneuvering that need not be recounted here, the State properly withdrew its reliance on Watkins's public employment as a basis for rejection.*fn1 Instead, the State relied exclusively on Watkins's fourteen-year-old municipal court conviction and its characterization of his offense as a "continuing criminal enterprise." The trial judge denied Watkins relief, determining that the State's decision was not arbitrary or capricious in light of the existence of those two grounds.

On February 7, 2005, Watkins entered a conditional guilty plea to third-degree theft by deception, and on April 15, 2005, he was sentenced to three years' probation conditioned on payment of the money he owed the State. The remaining count of the indictment was ...


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