Oral Argument Before the New Jersey Supreme Court

In re Expungement Application of D.J.B.: Randolph Wolf Presents Oral Argument Before the New Jersey Supreme Court

Randolph Wolf appeared before the New Jersey Supreme Court today to present oral argument in the case of In re Expungement Application of D.J.B. (You may remember a prior article we posted on this case, available here: Randolph Wolf to Argue Expungement Case Before the New Jersey Supreme Court).

To summarize, the issue before the Court was whether prior delinquency adjudications for acts that would have been crimes if committed by an adult must be counted when considering an application under N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2 for expungement of a subsequent offense committed as an adult, in light of the unnumbered paragraph contained in the juvenile expungement statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1. The paragraph in question reads as follows:

“For purposes of expungement, any act which resulted in a juvenile being adjudged a delinquent shall be classified as if that act had been committed by an adult.”

Prosecutor’s offices throughout the State of New Jersey have been interpreting this paragraph broadly, to apply to expungements as a whole. The consequence of this interpretation was that prosecutors were using prior adjudications of delinquency to bar the expungement of subsequent adult convictions.

The entire text of subsection (a) of N.J.S.A. 2C:4.1(a), the juvenile expungement statute, reads as follows:

a. Any person adjudged a juvenile delinquent may have such adjudication expunged as follows:

(1) Pursuant to N.J.S.2C:52-2, if the act committed by the juvenile would have constituted a crime if committed by an adult;
(2) Pursuant to N.J.S.2C:52-3, if the act committed by the juvenile would have constituted a disorderly or petty disorderly persons offense if committed by an adult; or
(3) Pursuant to N.J.S.2C:52-4, if the act committed by the juvenile would have constituted an ordinance violation if committed by an adult.

For purposes of expungement, any act which resulted in a juvenile being adjudged a delinquent shall be classified as if that act had been committed by an adult.

Randolph Wolf began by drawing upon his own personal experience representing juveniles to explain that the object of the juvenile justice system was to rehabilitate – rather than to punish juveniles.  He explained that attorneys representing children in the courts sometimes made getting assistance for the child their primary goal, rather than to simply try to have the juvenile found not guilty of the offense.  Recognizing that some of the juveniles he represented needed help with drug or social issues, often, the goal of both the attorney and the court in those situations was to simply rehabilitate the juvenile.

Mr. Wolf then went on to address the statute. He explained that the language of the N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1 was perfectly clear. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1(a), an individual may have a delinquency adjudication pursuant to subsections (1), (2), and (3) of the statute, depending on whether the offense would have constituted a crime, disorderly persons offense, or an ordinance violation if it had been committed by an adult. He argued that the unnumbered paragraph in question at the end of subsection (a) clarifies the earlier portions of subsection (a) by confirming that in evaluating whether a petitioner is eligible for expungement of a juvenile adjudication under one of the sections cited in subsection (a), any other delinquency adjudications will be considered in the same manner they would be if the underlying conduct had been committed by an adult.

So, for instance, if a petitioner seeks expungement of a delinquency adjudication that would have constituted a Title 2C crime if committed as an adult, then under subsection (a)(1), the petition would be measured by the requirements of N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2. This provision, in turn, normally provides that a petition must be denied if the petition has had either a single additional conviction for a crime or additional convictions on more than two occasions for disorderly persons offenses. The effect of the unnumbered paragraph is to direct that expungement for the delinquency adjudication would be precluded if the petitioner also had either another delinquency adjudication that would constitute a crime or more than two delinquency adjudications that would constitute disorderly persons offenses. Thus, rather than being superfluous if not read broadly, this paragraph has a very clear meaning just within the context of its own subsection.

During argument, one of the Justices asked Mr. Wolf what the outcome should be if they were to determine that the language in the unnumbered paragraph was not so clear. Mr, Wolf argued that the Court should then consider the overall purpose or intent of the Legislature in enacting the statute. He explained that the juvenile expungement statute was enacted in response to In re State of N.J. v. W.J.A., 173 N.J. Super. 19 (Law Div. 1980). In that case, an adult sought expungement of his juvenile delinquency adjudications together with other aspects of his criminal record. While the court granted the rest of the relief, and was sympathetic to his request relative to the juvenile record, it held that its hands were tied because the Title 2C expungement chapter contained no provision that allowed for the expungement of juvenile delinquency adjudications. Almost immediately, the Legislature enacted N.J.S.A. 2C:52-4.1 and extended the remedy of expungement to juveniles. Mr. Wolf argued that there was nothing in the statute’s legislative history that suggested that the Legislature at the same time intended to restrict adult expungements.

Moreover, he argued that the canons of statutory interpretation likewise support such a construction. He reasoned that if the Legislature had intended the paragraph to apply to the expungement of adult crimes, then surely it would have included this paragraph somewhere within the adult expungement statutes, rather than in the provision dealing with expungement of juvenile delinquency adjudications. The most appropriate location would seem to be within subsection (f) of N.J.S.A. 2C:52-14, dealing with grounds for denial of relief.

Both the Attorney General’s office, appearing amicus curiae, and the prosecutor’s office pointed to language contained in N.J.S.A. 2C:52-32 explaining that the primary purpose of the expungement statute was to provide relief to the “one-time offender.” They argued that the statute was not intended to “wipe the slate clean” for an individual such as D.J.B. who had been convicted of multiple adjudications of delinquency, a disorderly persons offense, and a conviction for fourth degree receiving stolen property.

On rebuttal, Mr. Wolf pointed out that the “one-time offender” language contained in N.J.S.A. 2C:52-32 was included in the original expungement statute, as enacted in 1931. At that time, the expungement statute applied only to crimes (or felonies). The statute was subsequently amended in 1968 to permit the expungement of up to three disorderly persons offenses. In State v. A.N.J., 98 N.J. 421 (1985), the New Jersey Supreme Court, after thoroughly analyzing the legislative history of the statutes, expressly held that the Legislature meant to limit expungement to the one-time “criminal” offender.

With oral arguments concluded, we now await the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision. The Court usually renders its decision three to four months after oral argument. We will continue to keep you updated on this important expungement issue.