On July 20, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Morris County cases of State v. Antoine McCray and State v. Sahaile Gabourel. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:29-9 was whether the prosecution can bring a contempt charge for violating the conditions of pretrial release.
Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Rabner held in relevant part: To be sure, if prosecutors had the authority to prosecute every violation under the contempt statute, they would exercise discretion and could decline to bring charges for minor violations. But the broad-based proposition the State advances undermines the CJRA’s goals. Once again, the law provides for progressive enforcement of violations of pretrial release conditions. Viewed more broadly, the Act favors pretrial release on non-monetary conditions over the prior practice of holding poor defendants who posed minimal risk in custody. N.J.S.A. 2A:162-15; see also JCCJ Report. And the CJRA provides for detention only for high-risk defendants. N.J.S.A. 2A:162-18, -19. It is difficult to glean from those principles that the Legislature intended to allow contempt prosecutions for any and all violations of conditions of release, no matter how minor.
The State, as well as the Appellate Division, also relies on the language of the contempt statute for support: “A person” who “purposely or knowingly disobeys a judicial order or protective order” can be found guilty of a crime. N.J.S.A. 2C:29-9(a). Because an order of release is a court order, the State submits, a violation of the order is subject to contempt charges.
Viewed in isolation, the argument has some persuasive force. But we cannot ignore the legislative history recounted above. The Legislature considered and rejected contempt sanctions during the drafting stage, despite looking to other laws that embraced that approach.
The prosecution’s position is intellectually dishonest in light of the Legislative history. The growing backlog of cases in NJ as a result of the COVID pandemic is another reason to not allow the State to bring additional minor charges that will add to the backlog.