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Grewal: Local Prosecutors Can't Ignore Pot Cases, But Can Use Discretion

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal Photo Credit: DAILY VOICE photo

Prosecutors in New Jersey's municipal courts “are not permitted to adopt their own policies to decriminalize marijuana,” but they can use discretion in how they handle each case, state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said Wednesday.

“Municipal prosecutors cannot decriminalize conduct that the Legislature has criminalized,” Grewal said, in releasing new guidelines on how local authorities handle pot cases. “They cannot adopt blanket policies of non-prosecution.”

However, he said, “municipal prosecutors can and should strive to ensure that individual justice is done in individual cases.”

Grewal also announced that, beginning next Tuesday, municipal prosecutors should resume pursuing those cases.

The attorney general had suspended all local pot cases until then while he received advice on creating a uniform statewide policy from a working group that he said represented a “spectrum of criminal justice stakeholders.”

Although Grewal said that prosecutors may not dismiss marijuana cases out of hand, they can “appropriately exercise prosecutorial discretion on a case-by-case basis, as they would when prosecuting any other type of criminal offense… based on the particular facts and applicable law, and consistent with their ethical obligations.”

According to the attorney general’s guidelines, “a municipal prosecutor may not adopt a categorical policy or practice of refusing to seek convictions for statutory offenses related to marijuana.”

This nullifies a policy adopted by Jersey City authorities who sought to decriminalize marijuana offenses on their own, Grewal emphasized.

“The Supreme Court has prohibited plea bargains for certain marijuana-related offenses, but municipal prosecutors have some discretion to determine unilaterally, and based on the facts of individual cases, whether charges should be dismissed or amended,” the attorney general said.

“In addition, at sentencing, municipal prosecutors may seek to lessen a defendant’s punishment or the collateral consequences of a conviction,” he said.

Most times, but not always, insufficient evidence will be the reason for amending or dismissing a a municipal court complaint, Grewal noted.

“The guidance that I am issuing today confirms that municipal prosecutors can responsibly exercise discretion to deal with minor marijuana possession offenses in a progressive, equitable manner, while respecting the rule of law, including the authority of the Legislature and the Courts,” he said.

Wednesday’s guidance “is only one step toward improving the administration of justice in our municipal courts,” Grewal said. “I look forward to addressing in the near future other, more fundamental issues affecting public confidence in our criminal justice system.”

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