On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Accusation No. 10-04-0334.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Cuff and St. John.
The State of New Jersey appeals from the April 14, 2011 order of the Law Division granting defendant Darwin Martinez's appeal of his rejection from the Pretrial Intervention Program (PTI) by the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office. On April 21, 2010, defendant pled guilty to fourth-degree violation of the regulatory provision relating to firearms, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-10, stemming from an incident where police officers recovered a loaded handgun, licensed out-of-state, in the rear passenger area of defendant's vehicle. Subsequent to his plea, defendant petitioned the Hudson County Criminal Division for admission to PTI.
Defendant is a decorated veteran who served in the war in Afghanistan with the United States Army, and who currently serves with the New Jersey National Guard with the intention of returning to active-duty. He is married with a daughter, employed full-time in a managerial capacity, and has earned sixty academic credits in Criminal Justice at Seton Hall University. He is also a licensed handgun owner in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
This appeal was filed by the State, requesting that we reverse the Law Division's order admitting defendant to PTI, over the prosecutor's objection. The most apparent implication of our reversal would prevent defendant from re-enlisting with the Army to continue his service to our country. Based on the relevant facts of the incident leading to defendant's arrest and subsequent guilty plea, and in light of the applicable law, we decline to disturb the order of the Law Division, and affirm.
On February 19, 2010, defendant drove from Pennsylvania to West New York, to the home of his ex-girlfriend, Lena Arbalaez. Defendant and Arbalaez have a daughter together from their prior relationship. At the time, defendant was in the process of moving to New Jersey, and had arranged to pick up his daughter so she could attend defendant's wedding ceremony with another woman the following day. When defendant arrived at Arbalaez's house, a verbal altercation ensued because Arbalaez refused to produce their daughter contrary to their pre-existing agreement. Following the argument, defendant returned to his vehicle parked outside the house.
While defendant sat in the driver's seat, Arbalaez called the police and reported that defendant might have a gun in his possession even though she admittedly had neither seen one nor claimed defendant had threatened her with one. When police arrived, officers inquired as to whether defendant owned a gun and if it was present in his vehicle, which contained many of defendant's personal possessions as a result of his pending relocation to New Jersey. Defendant freely acknowledged that he did own a handgun, that it was licensed in Pennsylvania, but that it was not inside his vehicle. Defendant then consented to a search. The officers' search of the passenger compartment uncovered a loaded magazine containing thirteen rounds located in the center console as well as a loaded handgun containing twelve rounds located in the rear of the vehicle.
Defendant was placed under arrest and continued to maintain he was unaware that his handgun was in the vehicle. He was originally charged (although not indicted) with second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b). In April 2010, defendant was charged by accusation with knowingly violating the regulatory provisions relating to firearms, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-10, a fourth-degree offense. Defendant entered a guilty plea, and thereafter applied to PTI. His admission was approved by the Hudson County Criminal Division, but was denied by the Prosecutor's Office. Defendant appealed his denial to the Law Division.
After hearing arguments, on April 14, 2011, Judge Lourdes
I. Santiago entered an order accompanied by a comprehensive written opinion in which she granted defendant's appeal and approved his entry to ...