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Sentence in theft from Bergen church was legit, state court rules

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

ONLY ON CLIFFVIEW PILOT: A local church can’t force a Bergen County judge to reconsider probation for a former bookkeeper accused of pocketing nearly $70,000 in church funds, even though it wasn’t informed of the plea deal that led to the sentence, a state appeals court has ruled.

The Community Church of Paramus said it should have known of the sentencing date after Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli’s Office reached a plea agreement with Victoria Stratos.

However, a state appeals court agreed with Molinelli that nothing was stopping the 82-year-old church from suing Stratos in civil court to try and recover its losses.

Stratos, 51, of Paramus, worked for the church for 14 years as a volunteer bookkeeper, administrator and secretary. For about three years leading up to the end of March 2009, she admitted, she took the money.

However, her lawyer insisted the take was about half the amount the church claimed.

After being charged with a felony, Stratos agreed to plead guilty to an amended count of theft by
deception, a disorderly persons offense. She was sentenced on the same day — provided she pay $15,000 in restitution, along with fines and penalties.

The church went to court, asking for reconsideration of her sentence, including the amount of restitution.  Peter Ferriero, a deacon, said church officials weren’t told of the plea and sentence, losing the right to make a “victim impact statement” to the judge.

A local judge in Bergen County denied the move, and the church appealed.

The state Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights allows for victims to “be informed about the criminal justice process” and to “be advised of case progress and final disposition.” They are also permitted to make “an in-person statement directly to the sentencing court concerning the impact of the crime” before sentencing.

However, the state Supreme Court previously ruled that legal constraints prevent a prosecutor from backing out of a plea deal, even if the victim hadn’t been notified, the appeals panel noted.

Generally, once an agreement is reached and a defendant pleads guilty, that person has voluntarily and knowingly waived his or her constitutional rights to a trial, the Supremes said. By vacating the her sentence, a court would encroach on Stratos’s constitutional rights, the appeals judges added.

“In this case, a specific provision of the plea agreement was that defendant would pay $15,000 in restitution as a condition of probation,” the appellate court wrote. “The prosecutor informed the court that this condition did not preclude the victim from pursuing additional restitution through civil litigation.”

To vacate the sentence would essentially transform a civil claim “into a criminal proceeding,“ the judges concluded.

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