Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
New Jersey’s Appellate Division has recently decided a case which resulted in a rare reversal of a PTI denial. In State v. Denman, the defendant, a former Scotch Plains police officer, appealed from his conviction for third-degree attempted misapplication of funds, N.J.S.A. 2C:21-15 and 2C:5-1. The defendant had been the treasurer the Police Athletic League (PAL), a nonprofit, for the previous ten years and had access to all of PAL’s banking information and accounts. Defendant made himself a loan out of the PAL account to cover personal expenses. Four months later, the defendant paid the loan back in full plus interest, however the loan was unlawful and defendant was charged with third-degree attempted misapplication of funds.
Defendant applied for PTI, but the prosecutor rejected defendant’s application. The PTI statute requires prosecutors to consider a non-exclusive list of seventeen criteria. N.J.S.A. 2C:43-12(e). These criteria “include ‘the details of the case, defendant’s motives, age, past criminal record, standing in the community, and employment performance[.]'” State v. Roseman, 221 N.J. 611, 621 (2015). Pursuant to PTI Guideline 3(i)(4), a defendant may be rejected from PTI for a crime that is “a breach of the public trust where the admission to a PTI program would deprecate the seriousness of defendant’s crime.” The prosecutor believed defendant’s actions constituted a breach of the public trust, and denied his application for PTI.
A breach of the public trust occurs when a governmental agency or officer, vested with the public trust, causes harm to the public by breaching its trust. Such a breach occurs when two elements are present:
- the defendant serves as a public trustee at the time of the alleged offense, and
- the defendant causes direct injury to the public at large in his or her role as a public trustee.
Defendant appealed the denial. A court’s “severely limited” scope of review for overturning PTI denials is designed to address “only the ‘most egregious examples of injustice and unfairness.'” Ibid. (quoting State v. Leonardis, 73 N.J. 360, 384 (1977)). Although courts rarely overturn the rejection of a PTI application, the prosecutor’s discretion is not unlimited and can be overturned if the prosecutor abused his or discretion. Ordinarily, an abuse of discretion will be manifest if defendant can show that a prosecutorial veto:
- was not premised upon a consideration of all relevant factors,
- was based upon a consideration of irrelevant or inappropriate factors, or
- amounted to a clear error of judgment.
In this case the prosecutor abused his discretion by denying defendant’s PTI application. The court ruled that the record contained no evidence PAL received any funding from any public entities nor did the State assert any connection between public money and PAL. Without such a connection, there was no basis for concluding defendant committed “a breach of the public trust” as contemplated by Guideline 3(i)(4). Therefore, if the defendant did not breach the public trust, his PTI application would have to be reevaluated since it was denied on a basis of breach of the public trust.
The court also rejected the argument that the defendant breached the public trust because of his employment as a police officer.