The three-judge panel concluded with the following in relevant part: So too a trial court’s determination whether a Track Two candidate’s admission to Drug Court would pose a danger to the community should be made with regard to a TASC evaluation. That professional diagnostic assessment might inform not only whether the circumstances giving rise to the finding of danger–such as past criminal behavior–can be attributed to a long-standing addiction but also whether and to what extent rehabilitation services such as inpatient treatment might ameliorate the risk of future danger.
We recognize that the trial court on remand may well reach the same conclusions as before. The court on remand retains discretion to reject a Track Two candidate based on the court’s consideration of the TASC evaluation and recommendation of the evaluator, the non-binding recommendation of the prosecutor and other team members, the factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a) as permitted under Figaro and the 2020 Manual, the danger defendant’s admission would pose to the community, and the aggravating and mitigating circumstances set forth in N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a) and (b). We offer no opinion as to whether any of the five defendant-appellants in this consolidated appeal should be admitted to Drug Court.
Those defendants–Edger, Santiago, Nelson, Rice, and Matlack–seek to have their cases remanded to a different judge, arguing that the trial court’s amplification letters suggest the judge is predisposed to deny their admission to Drug Court under Track Two. We reject that argument. When leave to appeal an interlocutory order is granted, a Law Division judge is permitted to amplify the statement of reasons previously made. R. 2:5-6(c). It is well-settled, moreover, that “bias cannot be inferred from adverse rulings against a party.” Strahan v. Strahan, (App. Div. 2008).
We note that in Clarke, the Court remanded to the same judge for reconsideration notwithstanding the judge had already denied the defendant’s application for Drug Court based on a misinterpretation of the statute and before having all relevant information about the defendant’s history of substance abuse and treatment needs. We likewise have complete confidence that the trial court on remand will faithfully and impartially apply the relevant facts to the statutory law as we have interpreted it.
The Supreme Court in Clarke also held that motions for determination of Drug Court eligibility do not require plenary hearings and that “an informal hearing is sufficient for the Drug Court to give full and fair consideration to a defendant’s application to the Drug Court program.” We leave to the discretion of the trial court to determine how remand proceedings are to be conducted.
The claim that an applicant is “a danger to the community” is a catch-all that has been used by prosecutors since Drug Court’s inception. With prosecutors’ decisions now being non-binding on the trial court, prosecutors and team members in favor of rejecting an applicant will be motivated to influence the TASC evaluation. The Strahan case cited by the Court refers to the ex-NFL player Michael Strahan’s divorce case.