In a rare published trial court opinion out of Sussex County, a Law division judge decided the case of State v. K.S. on May 22, 2017. The principle issue in the case is whether a defendant is barred from receiving a Drug Court expungement under N.J.S.A. 35-14(m) when he committed two additional offenses prior to being admitted into Drug Court probation and was convicted of those offenses during the term of probation. Like unpublished appellate division opinions, trial court opinions are not binding on other courts. They are considered persuasive authority.
The K.S. Court does not believe the Legislature intended that a defendant sentenced to special probation be penalized or excluded from obtaining an expungement under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(m) because of previous charges incurred prior to a Drug Court sentencing that remain outstanding at the time he or she receives a special probation sentence. The entire Drug Court statute is focused on rehabilitation. It was not the Legislature’s intent to force defendants to stay in jail to resolve pending court matters before being sentenced to Drug Court special probation. That type of requirement impedes a defendant from beginning placement at a treatment program and is averse to the aim of special probation, which is rehabilitation.
In fact, the court will take judicial notice that there are many Drug Court applicants who are currently approved and awaiting sentencing in this Vicinage who unfortunately have a pending municipal court matter, and sometimes companion Superior Court matters from other counties. Fearful that they will not be able to expunge their record upon successful graduation from Drug Court, they languish in the jail awaiting transports to municipal courts. Some must arrange for sentencing of other Superior Court matters in other counties to occur first so as not to lose the right to expungement. This judicially-noticeable fact should be given great weight since a principle objective of New Jersey’s recent criminal justice reform is to avoid the incarceration of non-violent offenders seeking drug treatment.