By: Rob Harris
It’s difficult not to think about New Jersey’s reputation for public corruption–deserved or not–in reading about the fate of a golf course employee found guilty of what many would argue is petty crime. Viewed against celebrated stories of misconduct and financial shenanigans at the highest levels, those believing in second chances and redemption may be troubled by this recent decision handed down by the New Jersey appellate division.
Let’s let the court describe the scenario:
“Defendant was employed in a civil service position as a golf ranger by the Monmouth County Parks Department (Parks Department). Following an investigation into suspicious cash refunds that went through defendant’s register, golf course administrators identified forty suspect transactions between the dates of September 5 and December 23, 2012, totaling $3460.64. After her arrest in January 2013, defendant admitted stealing cash from the golf course since 2012. She pled guilty to third-degree theft, and, in providing a factual basis, testified that she stole approximately $3400 from the Parks Department during a six-month period in 2012. As part of her plea agreement, defendant entered into a consent order in which she forfeited her public office and was disqualified from holding public office in the future.”
As does many states, New Jersey offers a pretrial intervention program, which is designed to permit suitable candidates to avoid what may be significant punishment associated with certain arguably minor crimes.
The director of the New Jersey program recommended the admission of the defendant into the program. The prosecutor objected, even though the prosecutor acknowledged the following:
“The defendant is a 34 year old single female. She has never been married and does not have any children. The defendant is a 1997 graduate of Marlboro High School. She also attended Brookdale Community College but did not graduate. She has been a resident of the State of New Jersey her entire life. She denies any past or present problems with drugs or alcohol. She reports that she is in good physical and mental health. The defendant has no prior criminal history. She was employed by the Monmouth County Parks System from 2001 until 2013. The defendant has expressed remorse for her crimes.”
As to the crime, the prosecutor explained as follows:
“At all times that this offense was committed the defendant was employed by the Monmouth County Parks System through Civil Service designation as a Park Ranger. She was assigned to work at the Charleston Springs Golf Course in Millstone, NJ as a golf ranger. In this capacity, she manned the cash register and collected greens fees from golfers. It was this position that she used to commit her crime. On dozens of occasions from August 2012 through January 2012, when the defendant would receive cash payment for greens fees from a golfer, she would enter the transaction into the cash register or the point of sale terminal (“POS”). Later, when alone, the defendant would manipulate the POS system so that it appeared that the golfer received a refund for their round of golf, when in fact they had not. She would remove the cash from the POS and place it in her pocket. The total amount stolen in this manner was $3,460.”
The prosecutor offered the following as the reason for opposing the defendant’s recommended admission into the pretrial intervention program:
“This case involves a defendant who, as a public employee, was entrusted to handle greens fees for the county parks system. She used that position of trust and confidence to steal. Additionally, there exists a strong public policy in this state to hold public officials or employees accountable for their crimes. To grant her admission into the program would send the message that public employees are not being held accountable for the crimes they commit against the public that they serve.”
The trial court rejected the prosecutor’s argument and deemed the defendant to be a suitable candidate for the program. The trial court specifically rejected the notion that her employment at a municipal golf course should disqualify her. According to the court,
“the defendant was not appointed to serve, she was not an elected official, she was a golf ranger who worked on a public golf course. The defendant was no different from an employee working at a privately-owned golf course, but for the fact that she was a civil servant working at a public golf course.”
The trial court’s decision, however, did not stand. Although acknowledging that the “defendant’s status as a public employee does not necessarily preclude her admission into PTI,” the appellate division nonetheless found the nature of her employment to be a dispositive factor. According to the court,
“As the Prosecutor observed, defendant was entrusted to handle greens fees for the county park system, a position of trust and confidence that she used to steal from the public. The fact that defendant may have been admitted to PTI if she had committed the same offense in private employment does not render the Prosecutor’s decision a patent and gross abuse of discretion or qualify as a compelling reason for her admission. Public employment is a privilege and, in establishing a presumption against admission for a public employee ‘whose offense involved or touched upon [her] public office or employment,’ the Legislature clearly expressed its intent that cases involving public employees are subject to a different standard for admission into PTI.”