Saturday, March 28, 2015

An ordinance for all seasons. All types of illegal conduct fit into a South Jersey Township's vague proscription.

The Township of Upper Deerfield (Cumberland County) has Ordinance §259-3 (formerly §67-3) on the books entitled "Offenses against peace, safety and morals."  §259-3 states, in its entirety:
It shall be unlawful for any person to commit an offense against the public peace, safety and morals, as defined herein.
Elsewhere, the code defines "public peace, safety and morals" as:
Offenses against the public peace, safety and morals, without limiting the commonly accepted definition thereof, shall include destroying property of another; defacing property of another; loitering in groups of three or more in any public place; littering, destroying or defacing public property; destroying or defacing privately owned property used on a public playground or public park; consumption of alcoholic beverages on a public street; drunkenness; begging; lack of supervision by a parent or legal guardian or other person or persons having the care and custody of a minor child under the age of 18 years; indecent exposure; mugging; assault; assault and battery; larceny; burglary; robbery; sale or use of narcotics or other controlled dangerous substances.
One might ask: Why would Upper Deerfield have an ordinance on its books that makes offenses such as robbery, assault and narcotic sales--things that are already illegal under state statute--also violations of the Township's code?  Why would Upper Deerfield want to make a crime such as robbery, which can draw a long prison term, also a violation of a municipal ordinance that is usually satisfied by a fine and at most a short term in the county jail?

The answers to these questions may found in some documents I recently received from the Cumberland-Salem Regional Municipal Court.  These documents, which are on-line here, are complaints issued by New Jersey State Troopers for offenses that occurred in Upper Deerfield.  The first page of each complaint shows the charge as the State Trooper wrote it.  The second page shows that the Municipal Court "amended" the Trooper's charge to a violation of Upper Deerfield's Ordinance §259-3 (formerly §67-3) and collected a fine of between $100 and $300.

Among the varied violations that the Municipal Court was able to shoehorn into §67-3: Hitting someone in the face several times (State v. Kristopher K. Burt); throwing "perishable items" at a store employee (State v. Stanyell M. Jones); breaking car windows with a baseball bat (State v. Jason C. Lillia); trying to use a credit card without the cardholder's consent (State v. Brittany L. Lamanteer and Mark A. Gosbin, Jr.) and running from a State Trooper and locking oneself in the bathroom (State v. Anthony M. Bartley).

One might ask: Why weren't these defendants tried on the charges that the State Trooper wrote?

First, the Municipal Court' s system of downgrading offenses was severely limited by a 1998 Directive issued by then Attorney General Peter Verniero. (Download the Directive here).  Unfortunately, some courts--such as the Cumberland Salem Regional Municipal Court—still allows defendants to plead guilty to loitering offenses several years after the Directive was issued.

Second, the Municipal Court Judge and Prosecutor, although they should, do not consider the integrity of the criminal justice system as their top priority.  If they did, they'd abide by the Attorney General's directive.  Rather, the Judge and Prosecutor's main interests are collecting the cash and moving the court's calendar along.  These defendants, if convicted of the offenses that the Troopers charged, would have faced possible jail time, mandatory financial penalties to the Violent Crime Compensation Board and Safe Neighborhood Services Fund, a loss of the "presumption on non-incarceration" that first offenders enjoy and an inability to expunge the matters from their records for at least five five years.  But, because of the Judge's and Prosecutor's willingness to violate the Attorney General's directive, the Cumberland Salem Joint Municipal Court more closely resembles the "Let's Make a Deal" game show than a legitimate part of the New Jersey Judiciary.

Postscript: In case any readers are wondering whether I've complained to Cumberland County Prosecutor Jacqueline Webb-McRae about the municipal prosecutors under her watch violating the Attorney General's directive, please see the correspondence chain on-line here.  On August 16, 2010, Webb-McRae sent a memo to all prosecutors in Cumberland regarding the importance of following the Attorney General's directive.  Yet, some municipal prosecutors are ignoring Webb-McRae by still allowing the improper downgrades.