Forfeiture of Public Office (Part 1)

by | Jan 13, 2024 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On December 5, 2023, a three-judge appellate panel decided the Mercer County case of Mary Horne v. Jasi Mikae Edwards. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:51-2 concerned whether a past shoplifting conviction was a basis to require the forfeiture of public office.

Judge Marczyk wrote for the panel in relevant part: Plaintiffs argue the court erred because Edwards had a criminal history in Pennsylvania. They believe shoplifting qualifies as a crime of dishonesty and assert Edwards should be required to forfeit her public employment pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:51-2(a). Moreover, they believe the court should have ordered a hearing on the facts of Edwards’ shoplifting offense prior to making any determination.

We disagree. N.J.S.A. 2C:51-2(a) authorizes forfeiture of public office or employment when a person is convicted while “holding” public office or employment if the offense: involves dishonesty, is a crime of at least the third degree, or involves or touches upon the candidate’s public office, position, or employment. Importantly, Edwards was not convicted–while holding public office–of any predicate offense under N.J.S.A. 2C:51-2(a). Instead, her conviction occurred in 2019, prior to her holding office.

Moreover, N.J.S.A. 2C:51-2(a) does not bar a person from seeking public office in the future based on a past conviction. See, e.g.State v. Williams (App. Div. 2002) (holding that a conviction justifying removal from office at time of conviction does not necessarily disqualify person from all future public office). In fact, when submitting a petition for candidacy, the candidate must disclose prior criminal convictions. N.J.S.A. 19:13-8. Thus, a person may run for public office, notwithstanding a prior criminal conviction, so long as the candidate was not convicted of an offense “involving or touching on his public office.” N.J.S.A. 2C:51-2(d). Here, Edwards’ conviction for shoplifting occurred prior to her election to the Council, and the offense was unrelated to her holding public office. Further, she disclosed it when she became a candidate. Therefore, Edwards’ conviction does not implicate N.J.S.A. 2C:51-2(d).

The law seems to be straightforward on the issue. It may be that the case was brought just to bring attention to the prior conviction and therefore embarrass the candidate and/or hurt their chances at being re-elected.