The Appellate Division continued in relevant part: However, as we have also noted, we review a sentencing court’s interpretation of the relevant statutes and the Drug Court Manual de novo. Although we generally defer to a sentencing court’s findings of fact and weighing of aggravating and mitigating factors, we are not bound by a judge’s interpretations of the legal consequences that flow from established facts. See Manalapan Realty, LP v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan (1995). Thus, our review of Drug Court track classification is de novo, as this determination is based solely on whether the person is presently subject to a presumption of imprisonment or a mandatory minimum period of parole ineligibility.
Because the trial court in some of the cases before us misinterpreted the statutory framework and applied the wrong track classification, we deem it necessary to remand those cases for reconsideration. The trial court initially denied admission to these defendants on the grounds they were categorically disqualified under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14. We recognize that the trial court issued amplification letters in which the court essentially ruled–in the alternative–that these defendants would be denied admission to Drug Court even if they were deemed to be Track Two candidates. We believe it is important, however, for a court considering the criteria enumerated in N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a) to recognize whether those circumstances are legal prerequisites for Track One candidates or merely relevant factors to be considered along with all other relevant circumstances for Track Two candidates. Importantly, when those statutory criteria are deemed to be discretionary factors rather than categorical disqualifying circumstances, they must be viewed through the lens of a TASC evaluation. A defendant’s prior criminal history, for example, may be the product of a long-standing addiction. In those circumstances, a trial court exercising its discretion in dealing with a Track Two candidate should consider whether the time has finally come to address the defendant’s addiction and interrupt the cycle of recidivism.
It is amazing that such protracted litigation can come from a straightforward interpretation of whether an individual is subject to a presumption of imprisonment or mandatory parole ineligibility. The answer to the questions comes from a straightforward review of whether the charge at issue is a second degree (first degrees are categorically denied Drug Court) or one of the relatively few third degree, fourth degree, or sentencing statutes that call for a period of parole ineligibility.