The New Jersey Supreme Court reviewed the trial courts’ applications of N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2(a) to the expungement petitions of J.S. and G.P.B. de novo. De novo review means that no deference to the lower court’s decisions on questions of law (as opposed to questions of fact) is required.
In effectuating the legislative intent of the statute, the Court first looks to its plain language, applying the words’ ordinary meanings and construing them within the context of the surrounding provisions in a way that would not produce an absurd result. The plain language of the statute authorizes expungement of “a crime,” not one or more crimes closely related in circumstances or time, while excluding those petitioners who have been “convicted of any prior or subsequent crime.” The adjectives “prior or subsequent” modify “crime,” not “conviction.” Moreover, the 1979 change in the statutory language from “subsequent conviction” to “any prior or subsequent crime” implies a purposeful alteration in the substance of the law. Thus, although N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2(a) permits expungement of a single conviction arising from multiple offenses if those offenses occurred as part of a single, uninterrupted criminal event, the provision’s plain language shows that the Legislature clearly intended to bar expungement when the offender has committed a second crime at an earlier or later time, whether or not those crimes are resolved in the same judgment of conviction.
The plain language of N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2(a) does not permit the expungement of the convictions of either petitioner in these appeals. J.S. committed two offenses five days apart. Although similar in nature, they were not committed as part of a single, uninterrupted criminal event. Instead, each was a discrete “crime” within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2, and the second offense was “subsequent” to the first, thereby rendering J.S. ineligible for expungement. G.P.B. committed his offenses within a short time frame, as well as all in furtherance of the same conspiracy. However, each offense consisted of a separate criminal event. Consequently, G.P.B. also is ineligible for expungement since his crimes, although related, were “prior” and “subsequent” to each other.
Although the dissent invokes policy arguments in support of broader access to the remedy of expungement, the majority notes that the Court’s role is to construe the statute, not to pass judgment on the wisdom of the law or render an opinion as to its representation of social policy. To that end, should the Legislature determine that expungement should be available to offenders such as petitioners, convicted of multiple crimes that occurred in close succession but not concurrently, it may amend N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2 to effect that intent.
Justice LaVecchia, joined in dissent by Justice Albin, expressed the view that the majority’s interpretation of N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2(a) is too restrictive given that the statutory language is susceptible to more than one plausible construction, and that, given the expungement statute’s remedial purpose, a more generous reading is appropriate until such time as the Legislature has spoken with sufficient clarity on this issue. Note that the Court’s opinion still leaves open the slim possibility that two simultaneous crimes can be expunged, even if crimes occurring very close in time cannot be expunged. An example would be when a defendant resists an officer’s arrest and commits an assault at the exact same time.