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State v. Hyland

Supreme Court of New Jersey

June 3, 2019

State of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Susan Hyland, Defendant-Respondent.

          Argued April 24, 2019

          On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 452 N.J.Super. 372 (App. Div. 2017).

          Jennifer E. Kmieciak, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for appellant (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Jennifer E. Kmieciak, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Tamar Y. Lerer, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for respondent (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Tamar Y. Lerer, of counsel and on the briefs, and Linda A. Shashoua, Camden County Assistant Prosecutor, on the briefs).

          SOLOMON, J., writing for the Court.

         To impose a Drug Court sentence, a sentencing judge must ensure that the nine requirements set forth in N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a) are satisfied. In this appeal, the Court considers whether a judge's finding under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a)(9) -- that a defendant would not be a danger to the community while on special Drug Court probation -- may render a sentence appealable by the State as an illegal sentence.

         On a night in March 2016, defendant, who was driving an automobile, struck and killed sixteen-year-old Q.T. and then fled the scene. She was indicted on three counts. The Camden County Prosecutor's Office recommended against defendant's admission into Drug Court. According to the prosecutor, because defendant left the scene of a fatal accident and failed to help Q.T., she was not the type of non-violent offender intended for Drug Court and would be a "danger to the community." N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a)(9).

         The judge determined over the State's objection that defendant was legally eligible for a special probation Drug Court sentence. The judge acknowledged defendant's "slew of arrests and convictions" -- six in Superior Court and eleven in Municipal Court -- and stressed that defendant had made a "terrible choice" after striking Q.T. But the judge did not agree that defendant would be a danger to the community if admitted to Drug Court.

         Defendant pled guilty to all three charges in the indictment. During sentencing, the judge analyzed the nine statutory factors required to impose a Drug Court sentence under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a), found that defendant was "likely to respond affirmatively to Drug Court probation," and sentenced her to concurrent five-year special probation Drug Court terms on her convictions.

         The State appealed. Finding neither an illegal sentence nor statutory authorization, the Appellate Division dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. 452 N.J.Super. 372, 389 (App. Div. 2017).

         The Court granted the State's petition for certification. 236 N.J. 110 (2018).

         HELD: The State may appeal a Drug Court sentence only when the sentencing judge makes a plainly mistaken, non-discretionary, non-factual finding under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a). Because application of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a)(9) requires fact-finding and an exercise of the sentencing judge's discretion, a sentence based on application of that factor is not appealable as an illegal sentence.

         1. In the context of sentencing, the State has the authority to appeal in two circumstances: where there is express statutory authority to do so, or if the sentence imposed is illegal. (pp. 9-10)

         2. N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14 was enacted in 1987 as part of the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act of 1987. The statute permits alternatives to imprisonment -- namely, the imposition of special probation Drug Court sentences -- for offenders "subject to a presumption of incarceration or a mandatory minimum period of parole ineligibility." N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a). Where certain statutory requirements are satisfied, and upon notice to the prosecutor, the court may place a drug or alcohol dependent person on special probation for a term of five years. In 1999, the Legislature amended N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14 and expressly authorized the State to appeal the imposition of a special probation Drug Court sentence under certain circumstances. The amended statute also permitted the prosecutor to "veto" a defendant's admission to Drug Court. In 2012, the Legislature amended N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14 by eliminating both the prosecutorial veto and the State's right to appeal Drug Court sentences. In doing so, the Legislature gave courts greater discretion to place the person on special probation. As a result, the State has the right to appeal a special probation Drug Court sentence only if it is illegal. (pp. 9-12)

         3. There are two categories of illegal sentences: those that exceed the penalties authorized for a particular offense, and those that are not authorized by law. Those two categories have been defined narrowly, and even sentences that disregard controlling case law or rest on an abuse of discretion by the sentencing court are legal so long as they impose penalties authorized by statute for a particular offense and include a disposition that is authorized by law. Deciding whether defendant's Drug Court sentence is authorized by law necessarily requires an analysis of the nine Drug Court eligibility criteria set forth in N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14, which the court must find on the record before a defendant may be sentenced to special probation. Certain eligibility criteria, such as N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a)(4) and (9), are discretionary determinations requiring the sentencing judge to engage in fact-finding. Here, for example, the judge applied defendant's unique characteristics and circumstances and determined that she was amenable to treatment and not a risk to the community. Even if the court abused its discretion by making a clear error in judgment, it did not impose an illegal sentence by finding that defendant satisfies N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a)(9). Because sentences authorized by law but premised on an abuse of discretion are not illegal, the State may not appeal a special probation Drug Court sentence based on the judge's finding of one or more of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a)'s discretionary factors. (pp. 12-15)

          4. For future guidance, the Court adds that not all of the eligibility criteria set forth in N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a) necessitate fact-finding or an exercise of discretion by the sentencing judge. Rather, some factors -- for example, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a)(1), (6), (7), and (8) -- require objective, per se legal determinations. Because the sentencing court must find all nine factors under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a) before imposing a special probation Drug Court sentence, improper application by the sentencing judge of one of the nondiscretionary factors would constitute a sentence that is not imposed in accordance with law. Such a sentence would be appealable as illegal. (p. 16)

         5. Because defendant's sentence is not illegal and an appeal is not expressly authorized by statute, the Court has no jurisdiction to consider the State's appeal of defendant's special probation Drug Court sentence. (p. 17)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED AS MODIFIED.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, and TIMPONE join in JUSTICE SOLOMON'S opinion.

          OPINION

          ...


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