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In re Expungement Application of D.J.B.

Supreme Court of New Jersey

January 16, 2014

IN THE MATTER OF THE EXPUNGEMENT APPLICATION OF D.J.B.

Argued October 7, 2013

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

Randolph H. Wolf argued the cause for appellant D.J.B. (Mr. Wolf, attorney; Mr. Wolf and Katherine A. North, on the brief).

Anthony J. Parenti, Jr., Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for respondent State of New Jersey (Geoffrey D. Soriano, Somerset County Prosecutor, attorney; Mr. Parenti and Cameron W. MacLeod, Legal Assistant, on the letter briefs).

Analisa Sama Holmes, Deputy Attorney General, argued the matter on behalf of amicus curiae Attorney General of New Jersey (John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General, attorney).

D.J.B. submitted briefs pro se.

RABNER, C.J., writing for a unanimous Court.

In this appeal, the Court considers whether someone who has been adjudged delinquent as a juvenile can have an adult criminal conviction expunged.

The question turns on the specific language of the expungement statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:52-1 to -32, and the Legislature's intent. Two sections of the expungement law are central to the case: (1) N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2, which allows an adult conviction to be expunged under certain circumstances if a defendant has not been convicted of a prior or subsequent crime; and (2) N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1(a), which allows a juvenile adjudication to be expunged.

As a juvenile, D.J.B. was adjudged delinquent for acts that would be considered crimes had they been committed by an adult. As an adult, D.J.B. pleaded guilty to fourth-degree receiving stolen property in 1996. On April 26, 2011, D.J.B. filed a petition seeking to expunge his 1996 criminal conviction. The trial court denied the petition, finding that "[t]he combination of N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1(a) and N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2 serve to prevent a petitioner with an indictable crime from obtaining expungement if that petitioner has a prior juvenile record." In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division affirmed substantially for the same reasons. The following month, another appellate panel analyzed a similar question and reached the opposite conclusion about the effect a juvenile adjudication has on an attempt to expunge an adult conviction. See In re J.B., 426 N.J.Super. 496 (App. Div. 2012). The Court granted D.J.B.'s petition for certification. 213 N.J. 244 (2013).

HELD: Based on its language and legislative history, N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1(a) applies only to the expungement of juvenile adjudications and does not transform a juvenile adjudication into a "crime" that would bar a later attempt to expunge an adult conviction under N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2.

1. This case requires the Court to interpret parts of the statutory scheme that allow for the expungement of juvenile and adult records. See N.J.S.A. 2C:52-1 to -32. The chief aim when interpreting a law is to determine and give effect to the Legislature's intent. To do so, courts look first to the plain language of the statute. If the wording of a law is ambiguous, a court may examine extrinsic evidence for guidance, including legislative history. Statutes must also be read in their entirety; each part or section should be construed in connection with every other part or section to provide a harmonious whole. (p. 8)

2. The "primary objective" of the statutory expungement scheme is to "provid[e] relief to the one-time offender who has led a life of rectitude and disassociated himself with unlawful activity . . . ." N.J.S.A. 2C:52-32. Although records of an arrest, conviction, and related proceedings remain available for certain purposes, the events are otherwise "deemed not to have occurred" if expungement is ordered, N.J.S.A. 2C:52-27. As a result, a successful applicant does not have to reveal information about expunged criminal records when asked. The expungement law also permits defendants to regain various civil privileges like serving on a jury and voting. Expungement, however, is only available to applicants who meet the statutory prerequisites. (pp. 9-10)

3. D.J.B. seeks to expunge his 1996 fourth-degree conviction for receiving stolen property pursuant N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2, which allows an adult conviction to be expunged under certain circumstances if a defendant has not "been convicted of any prior or subsequent crime." The State claims that D.J.B. is ineligible for expungement because his prior juvenile adjudications are considered "prior crimes" pursuant to the last sentence of N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1(a), which governs the expungement of juvenile adjudications. The last sentence of N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1(a) provides: "For 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." If that sentence applies broadly to other parts of the expungement law, then D.J.B.'s juvenile adjudications would be considered prior crimes, making his 1996 adult conviction ineligible for expungement under section 52-2. If the pivotal sentence applies only to section 52-4.1(a), however, D.J.B.'s adult conviction could still be eligible for expungement. (pp. 10-13)

4. The sentence in question follows three clauses that tell the reader how to determine whether a juvenile adjudication can be expunged. By its placement, the last sentence guides those determinations and appears to apply only to section 52-4.1(a). If read in isolation, though, the sentence is not crystal clear. It does not expressly say that it applies to the expungement statute in its entirety and does not expressly limit its application to section 52-4.1(a). The Court therefore turns to extrinsic sources for further guidance to determine the Legislature's intent. (pp. 13-14)

5. The Legislature enacted a comprehensive expungement scheme in 1979 but did not provide for the expungement of juvenile adjudications. The Legislature amended the expungement statute in 1980 "to allow for the expungement of juvenile delinquency adjudications." S., No. 1266 (Sponsor's Statement), 199th Leg. (N.J. May 5, 1980). Before the 1980 amendment, a prior juvenile adjudication could not stand in the way of an effort to expunge an adult criminal record. Nothing in the legislative history suggests an intent to change that course or that the 1980 amendment was meant to affect the expungement of adult records. The State argues that someone with a juvenile record should be ineligible for expungement because the expungement law's "primary objective" is to "provid[e] relief to the one-time offender." N.J.S.A. 2C:52-32. Because section 32 was part of the original 1979 expungement statute, however, it did not prevent adults with prior juvenile adjudications from expunging a crime when first passed. Nothing in the legislative history of the 1980 amendment changed that. (pp. 14-17)

6. The Code of Juvenile Justice declares that a juvenile who is adjudged delinquent is not "deemed a criminal by reason of such disposition" and that "[n]o disposition [of delinquency] shall operate to impose any of the civil disabilities ordinarily imposed by virtue of a criminal conviction." N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-48. When two statutes address the same subject, courts should make every effort to reconcile them, so as to give effect to both expressions of the lawmaker's will. A broad reading of section 52-4.1(a) would run counter to the principles expressed in the Juvenile Code and impose a clear disability -- a bar to expungement of a crime -- because of a juvenile adjudication alone. A narrower reading, however, allows both statutes to be read together as a unitary and harmonious whole. Finally, a broad reading of section 52-4.1(a) would render parts of the same statute surplusage. N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1(b) allows a person to have his delinquency record expunged if, among other things, he "has not been convicted of a crime, or a disorderly or petty disorderly persons offense, or adjudged a delinquent" during the past five years. If the last sentence of section 52-4.1(a) applied to other parts of the expungement law, there would be no need to include the language "adjudged a delinquent" in section 52-4.1(b) because 52-4.1(a) would have classified acts of juvenile delinquency as though they had been committed by an adult. For all of those reasons, the last sentence in section 52-4.1(a) applies only to the expungement of juvenile adjudications. (pp. 17-20)

7. Pursuant to the above analysis, the Court does not consider D.J.B.'s prior juvenile adjudications in reviewing his petition to expunge his adult conviction. Based on the prerequisites for expungement contained in section 52-2, D.J.B is presumptively eligible for expungement. The burden shifts to the State to overcome the presumption and demonstrate why D.J.B. does not qualify for relief under the statute. The State has focused its argument on D.J.B.'s prior adjudications and did not raise other possible impediments to expungement under the statute. Because D.J.B. meets the statutory requirements for expungement and the State has identified no grounds to deny him relief, he is entitled to an order expunging his 1996 fourth-degree conviction for receipt of stolen property. (pp. 20-22)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for the entry of an order expunging D.J.B.'s 1996 conviction.

JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, and PATTERSON and JUDGE CUFF (temporarily assigned) join in CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER's opinion. JUDGE RODRÍGUEZ (temporarily assigned) did not participate.

OPINION

RABNER, CHIEF JUSTICE

In this case, we consider whether someone who has been adjudged delinquent as a juvenile –- for acts that would be considered crimes had they been committed by an adult –- can have an adult criminal conviction expunged. The question turns on the specific language of the expungement statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:52-1 to -32, and the Legislature's intent.

Two sections of the expungement law are central to the case: (1) N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2, which allows an adult conviction to be expunged under certain circumstances if a defendant has not been convicted of a prior or subsequent crime; and (2) N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1(a), which allows a juvenile adjudication to be expunged. The Legislature added the latter section in 1980 to create a pathway for the expungement of juvenile adjudications. The section ends with the following language: "[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."

The parties debate the meaning of that sentence –-specifically, whether it transforms juvenile adjudications into "crimes" that would bar a later attempt to expunge an adult conviction. Based on the language of the statute and its legislative history, we conclude that section 52-4.1(a) applies only to the expungement of juvenile adjudications. There is no evidence that, when the Legislature amended the law in 1980 to address juvenile adjudications, it meant to tighten the rules for expunging adult convictions. As a result, an adult who is otherwise eligible for expungement of a crime is not disqualified because of a prior juvenile adjudication. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division, which affirmed the trial court's order denying expungement.

I.

D.J.B. is thirty-six years old. He is married, has three children, and has worked in the insurance industry for many years. He plans to start his own insurance brokerage firm and claims that a 1996 fourth-degree conviction for receiving stolen property has impeded his efforts to advance his career. He now seeks to expunge that adult conviction.

As a juvenile, D.J.B. was adjudged delinquent on several occasions for offenses that spanned an eleven-month period in 1993 and 1994. At age sixteen, in two separate matters in November 1993 and March 1994, he was adjudged delinquent under N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-23 of charges that, if committed by an adult, would amount to third-degree burglary. In each matter, the court sentenced D.J.B. to one year of probation, among other terms.

At age seventeen, in April 1994, D.J.B. was charged in a series of four complaints. Three complaints alleged behavior that, if committed by an adult, would amount to third-degree burglary; two of those complaints also charged the equivalent of third-degree theft. A separate, fourth complaint contained twelve charges that, if committed by an adult, would constitute third-degree burglary, third-degree theft, third-degree possession of an imitation controlled dangerous substance, fourth-degree possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, third-degree possession of marijuana with intent to distribute within 1000 feet of school property, third-degree credit card fraud, and several disorderly persons offenses. The court consolidated the complaints and adjudged D.J.B. delinquent in January 1995. D.J.B. was ultimately sentenced to one year of detention, one year of probation, and one year's loss of his driver's license, among other terms.[1]

D.J.B. also has a more limited adult record. In November 1995, at age eighteen, he was charged with third-degree receipt of stolen property. He pleaded guilty months later, in June 1996, to an amended fourth-degree offense contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7a. The court sentenced him to three years of probation, community service, restitution in the amount of $21.20, as well as various fines and fees. He completed probation in August 1999.

Finally, in September 1999, at age twenty-two, D.J.B. pleaded guilty to two counts of contempt, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-9, a disorderly persons offense. He represents that the charges stemmed from a dispute with his then-girlfriend, to whom he is now married. The court sentenced D.J.B. to one year of ...


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