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New Jersey Supreme Court: Prosecution May Appeal Drug Court Sentence Only When Sentence Is Illegal

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the State cannot appeal a “special probation Drug Court sentence” unless the sentence is illegal.

Susan Hyland was driving drunk when she struck and killed a 16-year-old boy. Hyland fled the scene. After she was indicted on three charges, a substance abuse evaluation indicated she was clinically eligible for Drug Court. Hyland pleaded guilty to all charges, including knowingly leaving the scene of a fatal motor vehicle accident. The prosecutor objected to a Drug Court sentence on the grounds Hyland fled the scene without offering the boy any assistance, making her a danger to the community. The trial court found Hyland legally eligible for Drug Court pursuant to N.J.S.A. § 2C:35-14 and sentenced her to concurrent five-year special probation Drug Court terms. The State appealed. The Appellate Division dismissed the appeal on the grounds that since the sentence was legal and not appealable, it lacked jurisdiction to hear the appeal. The Supreme Court granted the State’s petition for certification.

The Court observed that the State’s right to appeal in a criminal proceeding is limited to six circumstances. Rule 2:3-1(b). Regarding sentencing, the State may appeal where there is “express statutory authority” to do so. State v. Roth, 471 A.2d 370 (N.J. 1984). Or when the sentence is an illegal sentence. State v. Ciancaglini, 10 A.3d 870 (N.J. 2011). In 2012, the Legislature amended N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14 to repeal the State’s express statutory authority to appeal Drug Court sentences. Thus, the State may appeal a Drug Court sentence only if the sentence is illegal. There are two categories of illegal sentences: (1) those that exceed the penalties authorized for a particular offense and (2) those not authorized by law. State v. Schubert, 53 A.3d 1210 (N.J. 2012). A sentence that disregards controlling case law or rests on an abuse of discretion is a legal sentence so long as the penalty imposed is authorized by statute. State v. Acevedo, 11 A.3d 858 (N.J. 2011). A trial court may sentence a defendant to Drug Court probationary terms as long as the trial court finds that the circumstances of the case satisfy the nine factors of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14.

The State argued on appeal that the sentence is illegal because Hyland is a danger to the community, and N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(9), the ninth factor, requires the trial court to find that Hyland would not pose a danger to the community. Thus, according to the State, the trial judge erred in imposing a Drug Court sentence on a defendant whose circumstances did not satisfy all nine factors. The Supreme Court rejected the State’s argument because the ninth factor, as well as the second, third, fourth, and fifth factors, are discretionary. Only when a sentencing judge improperly finds one of the remaining nondiscretionary factors would it constitute a sentence that is “not imposed in accordance with law” and be an illegal sentence. Acevedo. The Court concluded that the sentence is not illegal; therefore, the Court has no jurisdiction to consider the State’s appeal.

To clarify, the Court explained that “the State may appeal a Drug Court sentence only when the sentencing judge makes a plain mistaken, non-discretionary, non-factual finding under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a).” It also provided “future guidance” as follows: “Not all of the eligibility criteria set forth in [the statute] necessitate fact-finding or an exercise of discretion by the sentencing judge.” For example, factors (1), (6), (7), and (8) “require objective, per se legal determinations.”

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Appellate Division. See: State v. Hyland, 207 A.3d 1286 (N.J. 2019). 

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State v. Hyland



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