The Appellate Division continued in relevant part: We are uncertain what the drafters of the Manual meant by stating: “An applicant’s acceptance into drug court should be based on the defendant’s clinical and legal eligibility, in accordance with the drug court statute.” Id. at 10. We acknowledge that the Manual‘s use of “the drug court statute” is a clear reference to N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14, see id. at 10, 24. As already noted, the statute makes no reference to drug courts. And, we have already pointed out other portions of the Manual‘s text that are inconsistent with strict application of the statutory bars to Track Two eligibility.
Additionally, as defendant argues, there are extra-textual reasons for rejecting the State’s interpretation of the Manual‘s legal eligibility requirements for Track Two admission. We noted that the legal eligibility requirements for Track Two contained in the 2002 Manual included two sections that mirrored statutory bars contained in N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14 at the time, thus expressly prohibiting Track Two admission to Drug Court based on certain prior convictions. The AOC removed references to prior convictions of any kind being per se bars to eligibility in the new Manual. Instead, the Manual permits the prosecutor and the court to consider all the “statutory eligibility criteria” contained in N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14 when reviewing a Track Two application and allows the prosecutor to recommend denial based on those factors. However, “the drug court judge makes all final decisions about program eligibility.” Manual, at 9 (emphasis added). Furthermore, there is no indication in the text of the Manual that the AOC impliedly rejected the holdings in Meyer or Maurer, or that they no longer have vitality.
Lastly, contrary to what the State concedes has been a clear intention to expand Drug Court eligibility over the years due to its successes, we observe that the State’s interpretation of the Manual would make eligibility under Track Two more restrictive than it was under the 2002 Manual. As noted above, Track Two applicants were ineligible under the 2002 Manual if they had been previously convicted of the most serious crimes, or possessed a firearm at the time of the present offense or had a history of possessing a firearm during an offense. 2002 Manual, at 16. However, Track Two applicants who had multiple prior convictions that were not convictions for the enumerated crimes were not barred. As evidenced by Harold’s appeal, under the State’s interpretation of the Manual, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a)(6) would present an absolute bar to Track Two admission to Drug Court, because prior multiple convictions for other than the most serious crimes listed in subsection (a)(7) present an insurmountable hurdle. That was not the case under the 2002 Manual.
We conclude that the State’s interpretation of the Manual‘s eligibility criteria for Track Two applicants to Drug Court is contrary to the text of the document and the intended expansion of the program. We hasten to add that a judge considering whether a Track Two applicant is a candidate for Drug Court must, of course, decide whether a probationary sentence is appropriate in the first instance. See Clarke, 203 N.J. at 176 (“Under the second track, the applicant must convince the judge that a probationary sentence under the general sentencing provisions of the Code of Criminal Justice is appropriate.”) As the Manual expressly states, the criteria in N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14 are relevant to the prosecutor’s recommendation and the court’s consideration.
We reverse the orders under review and remand the matters to the trial court for processing of defendants’ Drug Court applications. We express no opinion whatsoever about their potential admission to the program or the ultimate sentence to be imposed by the court upon any adjudication of guilt.
The part of the holding that addresses the 2002 Manual contains the strongest reasoning in favor of rejecting the State’s position. It is clear that Governor Christie signed legislation that drastically expanded drug court eligibility. There is no reasonable basis to accept an interpretation of that legislation that would make it impossible to be accepted to drug court where acceptance was permitted before the drastic expansion of eligibility.