August 16, 2012
IN THE MATTER OF EXPUNGEMENT OF RECORDS OF R.N. PETITIONER-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 31, 2012
Before Judges Payne and Hayden.
The State of New Jersey appeals the February 16, 2011 order granting the expungement petition of R.N. The State contends that petitioner did not qualify for expungement of his juvenile adjudications of delinquency and his adult third-degree criminal conviction under N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1 and N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2. We disagree and affirm.
The record reveals that petitioner R.N., who was born in 1981, sought to have his entire juvenile record and adult criminal conviction and arrest record expunged. Between January 10, and November 1, 1998, petitioner was arrested on five separate occasions and charged with several offenses for which he was later adjudged delinquent. Specifically, he was charged with conduct which, if committed by an adult, would constitute second-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(1); a disorderly persons offense of hazing, N.J.S.A. 2C:40-3a; a petty disorderly persons offense of disorderly conduct, N.J.S.A. 2C:33-2a; a petty disorderly persons offense of harassment, N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4a; and a municipal ordinance curfew violation.
On July 20, 2000, petitioner, then eighteen years old, was arrested and charged with second-degree employing a juvenile in a drug distribution scheme, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-6; second-degree distribution of a controlled dangerous substance (CDS) within 500 feet of public property, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7.1; third-degree distribution of CDS within 1000 feet of school property, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7; and third-degree distribution of CDS, specifically Ketamin, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5b(13). On November 16, 2001, petitioner pled guilty to third-degree distribution of CDS, and the three other charges were dismissed. Petitioner was sentenced to two years probation and successfully completed his sentence on November 19, 2003. In 2004 and 2009, petitioner was arrested and charged with simple assault, and both charges were later dismissed.
Meanwhile, petitioner attended and graduated from college and then law school. He found employment and had an outstanding work record. In 2009, he passed the New York State bar examination.
In September 2010, petitioner filed a petition seeking expungement of his entire juvenile and adult record. The State opposed the petition. At the expungement hearing, Judge Lois Lipton, relying on N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2c(3) and N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1b, found that petitioner met all the requirements of the respective parts of the law and granted the expungement request. By order dated February 16, 2011, petitioner's entire record, including five juvenile adjudications of delinquency, one adult third-degree criminal conviction and all juvenile and adult arrests resulting in dismissals, was ordered expunged.
The State appealed, arguing that, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1a, petitioner's record of five juvenile adjudications of delinquency and one adult criminal conviction should not have been expunged.*fn1 The State relies on its interpretation of N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1a, which states in pertinent part, "[f]or purposes of expungement, any act which resulted in a juvenile being adjudged a delinquent shall be classified as if that act had been committed by an adult." Thus, the State argues, petitioner's adjudications of delinquency must be classified as their adult equivalent - a criminal conviction, a disorderly persons offense, two petty disorderly persons offenses, and an ordinance violation.
N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2 prohibits expungement of a criminal conviction if a petitioner has been convicted of any prior or subsequent crimes. Similarly, N.J.S.A. 2C:52-3 prohibits expungement of disorderly persons offenses if a person has been convicted of a prior or subsequent crime or of three additional disorderly persons or petty disorderly persons offenses. Consequently, the State contends, neither petitioner's adult criminal conviction nor his juvenile adjudications could be expunged because he has five adjudications of delinquency that under N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1a constitute prior or subsequent crimes or offenses. Finding that the State misinterprets the expungement statute, we disagree.
In 1979, the Legislature adopted a comprehensive expungement statute, L. 1979, c. 178, codified at N.J.S.A. 2C:52-1 to -32. Juvenile adjudications were not covered by the 1979 Act. See In re State of N.J. v. W.J.A., 173 N.J. Super.
(Law Div. 1980) (expunging an adult conviction but denying expungement of juvenile adjudications as they are not considered "crimes"). The Legislature swiftly enacted L. 1980, c. 163, which provided two alternative methods to expunge delinquency adjudications. In the Matter of the Expungement of J.B., 426 N.J. Super. 496, 502 (App. Div. 2012). As we recently explained, First, expungement could be obtained by treating the delinquency adjudications as if they were adult convictions and subjecting the petition to the same provisions that governed the expungement of adult convictions.
Second, mirroring the statute governing sealing, but extending the relevant waiting periods, the statute permitted a petitioner to expunge his or her entire juvenile record, if the petitioner met a five-part test, including that five years had elapsed since discharge from custody or supervision and the petitioner had not committed a crime or offense or been adjudged a delinquent or in need of supervision for five years. [Id. at 504-05.]
In construing statutory language, "our 'overriding goal must be to determine the Legislature's intent.'" Hubbard v. Reed, 168 N.J. 387, 392 (2001) (quoting State, Dep't of Law & Pub. Safety v. Gonzalez, 142 N.J. 618, 627 (1995)). The purpose of the 1980 amendments was to expand the expungement law so that it covered juvenile adjudications. J.B., supra, 429 N.J. Super. at 509 (citing Senate Judiciary Committee, Statement to S.1266 (June 9, 1980)). However, there is no indication whatsoever that in making expungement of juvenile records possible, the Legislature intended to make expungement of adult convictions more difficult. Id. at 508. Accordingly, as we have recently concluded, the relevant language of N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1(a) "should be construed to apply only to expungements of juvenile adjudications authorized by N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1(a)." Ibid.
As a result, the State's interpretation of N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1a is incorrect in deeming juvenile adjudications of delinquency the equivalent of disqualifying adult convictions for purposes of determining, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2, whether a petitioner had prior or subsequent convictions. The State's proposed outcome would severely limit the ability of a person, who otherwise is eligible for expungement, to have his or her record expunged, based on his or her youthful behavior that was not a crime at the time. N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-23. See also State v. Cummings, 321 N.J. Super. 154, 170 (App. Div.) ("juvenile adjudication does not constitute a crime."), certif. denied, 162 N.J. 199 (1999); State in Interest of K.P., 167 N.J. Super. 290, 294 (App. Div. 1979) ("juvenile adjudications are not crimes"). This result would hamper the beneficial purpose of the legislation to provide relief to one-time adult offenders who changed their ways and now positively contribute to society. See In re Kollman, ___ N.J. ___, ___ (2012) (slip op. at 40).
Here, the State acknowledges that petitioner, unless restricted by N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1a, meets all of the requirements to have his juvenile adjudications expunged pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1b. We concur. Specifically, petitioner was discharged from custody more than five years ago, N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1b(1). He had not been convicted of a crime or offense, or adjudicated delinquent or in need of supervision in the five years preceding his petition, N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1b(2). He was not adjudicated delinquent for acts that would constitute one of the crimes excluded from expungement. N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1b(3). He has not had an adult conviction expunged in the past, even though the petition requests such an expungement. N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1b(4). Finally, he has not had adult criminal charges dismissed following diversion or supervision. N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1b(5).
Similarly, except for its mistaken interpretation of N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1a, the State acknowledges petitioner's eligibility under N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1b for expungement of his adult criminal conviction. Under the expungement law, an adult conviction may be expunged after ten years, provided a petitioner has not been convicted of a prior or subsequent crime, and has not been convicted of two or more disorderly persons or petty disorderly persons offenses. N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2. In addition, a person may qualify for the early "pathway" in as little as five years if he can demonstrate that expunging his adult record would be "consistent with the public interest, giving due consideration to the nature of the offense and the petitioner's character and conduct since conviction." N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2c(3). See In re Lobasso, 423 N.J. Super. 475, 481 (App. Div. 2012). Judge Lipton determined that, while ten years had not elapsed, after considering petitioner's educational and work accomplishments as well as his clear record, the nature of the crime and his extreme youth, it was in the public interest to allow expungement of petitioner's adult criminal conviction. The State has specified that it is not challenging the judge's findings or her discretionary decision under N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2a(2).
Accordingly, we conclude that petitioner met the requirements to have his juvenile adjudications of delinquency as well as his adult criminal conviction expunged.