DDS No. 36-2-3189

March 13, 2014 (Date Decided)

Judge Waugh; Judge Accurso, concurring

For Plaintiff-Respondents: Kenneth D. Aita. For Amicus Curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey – Benjamin Yaster (Gibbons P.C.; Yaster and Lawrence S. Lustberg on the brief)

For Defendant-Appellant: Peter Slocum, Deputy Attorney General (John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General; Christopher S. Porrino and Melissa H. Raksa, Assistant Attorneys General, of counsel)

Following the indictment of five members of the Camden Police Department for conspiracy to deprive criminal defendants of their constitutional rights, the prosecutor voluntarily dismissed charges against approximately 200 defendants, including plaintiffs in this action seeking to recover damages under the Mistaken Imprisonment Act, N.J.S.A. 52:4C-1 to -6, for wrongful conviction and incarceration.

The State moved to dismiss, arguing that plaintiffs’ failure to verify their complaint deprived the court of subject matter jurisdiction and that because plaintiffs’ convictions resulted from guilty pleas, they were precluded from recovery under the “own-conduct” bar in N.J.S.A. 52:4C-3(c).

The trial court granted plaintiffs leave to amend their complaint to add their verifications, notwithstanding expiration of the two-year limitations period, and denied the State’s motion to dismiss, holding that a guilty plea is not a per se bar to recovery under the Act. On leave granted, the State appealed.

Noting that the Act is remedial legislation entitled to a liberal interpretation, that the State suffered no actual prejudice from plaintiffs’ failure to verify the complaint, and that the defect is easily correctable, the Appellate panel holds that plaintiffs’ failure did not deprive the court of subject matter jurisdiction. Further, citing the policy against procedural frustration of just determinations on the merits, it concludes that the running of the limitations period was equitably tolled by the State’s unreasonable and unexplained delay in raising the issue and in the absence of prejudice to the State. The denial of the State’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction is affirmed.

However, the panel reverses the denial of the State’s motion for summary judgment. It concludes that there is no suggestion in the plain wording of the statute or in the legislative history to support the argument that, despite its use of the phrase “by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction,” the Legislature intended to exclude a guilty plea from the application of the broadly worded bar to recovery found in subsection (c). Thus, the panel concludes that the plain meaning of the statutory language requires application of the own-conduct bar to a guilty plea as a matter of law.

The concurring judge agrees that plaintiffs’ claims under the Act are barred by their guilty pleas. She would not address the lack of subject matter jurisdiction issue.