Contracts and Criminal Liability (Part 2)

by | Oct 23, 2018 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

The panel continued: “If the language leads to a clearly understood result, the judicial inquiry ends without any need to resort to extrinsic sources. When such extrinsic evidence is needed, we look to a variety of sources. Central among them is a statute’s legislative history.”

When the Legislature sets out to define a specific term, ‘the courts are bound by that definition. Otherwise, words in a statue must “be given their generally accepted meaning, according to the approved usage of the language. In determining the common meaning of words, it is appropriate to look to dictionary definitions.”

The term “government contract” is not defined in N.J.S.A. 2C:21-34(b) or otherwise in the Code of Criminal Justice. In N.J.S.A. 2C:20-1, however, the Legislature defined the term “Government” for purposes of “chapters 20 and 21” of the Code, including N.J.S.A. 2C:21-34(b). “‘Government’ means the United States, any state, county, municipality, or other political unit, or any department, agency or subdivision of any of the foregoing, or any corporation or other association carrying out the functions of government.” We apply that statutory definition to our interpretation of the term “government” in N.J.S.A. 2C:21-34(b).

The NJDEP is an agency of the State of New Jersey, and thus falls within the definition of “Government” under N.J.S.A. 2C:20-1(d). Application of N.J.S.A. 2C:20-1(d)’s definition of “Government” to the term “government contract” in N.J.S.A. 2C:21-34(b), requires the conclusion that any “contract” covered by N.J.S.A. 2C:21-34(b) to which the NJDEP is a party is a “government contract.” Defendant does not contend otherwise. It is therefore necessary to determine if the ACO to which the NJDEP and defendants were a party is a “contract” under N.J.S.A. 2C:21-34(b).

“In determining the common meaning of words, it is appropriate to look to dictionary definitions.” A contract has long been defined as “an agreement between two or more parties creating obligations that are enforceable or otherwise recognizable at law” and a “writing that sets forth such an agreement.” Black’s Law Dictionary 389 (10th ed. 2014); Black’s Law Dictionary 318 (7th ed. 1999); see also Webster’s II New College Dictionary 250 (3d ed. 2005) (defining contract as “a legally enforceable agreement between two or more parties,” and “the writing or document containing such an agreement”).

In light of our criminal code’s very broad definition of “government”, it was reasonable to concede that the DEP qualifies. Since the definition encompasses not just governmental agencies like the DEP, but also “associations carrying out the functions of government”, even private entities would fall within the definition.