New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal recently issued new Guidance reminding municipal prosecutors that they cannot categorically refuse to prosecute marijuana cases while the Legislature is considering proposals relating to decriminalization. That said, the guidance reminds prosecutors that they have considerable discretion when deciding which maijuana cases to pursue. While this advice is fairly standard stuff, the second half of the guidance document is a fascinating glimpse into prosecutorial decision-making as it relates to collateral consequences. It follows a growing scholarly and legal consensus calling for opening the “black box” that is the prosecutorial mindset. For too long, the thought-processes behind prosecutorial decisions have eluded the public eye.
In essence, the guidance advises that the decision whether or not to bring charges may depend upon a defendant’s exposure to severe collateral consequences if convicted. Recognizing that prosecutors should consider collateral consequences brings their obligations closer to those imposed on defense attorneys by the Supreme Court eight years ago in Padilla v. Kentucky. Padilla required defense attorneys to know the immigration consequences faced by their clients or risk being labeled constitutionally ineffective. Many defense attorneys, public defenders, and legal aid organizations have devoted substantial effort to ensuring their clients know about housing, employment, educational, and other consequences that might attach to a conviction.
But any public defender can tell you that reliance on overburdened defense and legal aid attorneys to warn defendants and educate prosecutors about collateral consequences is bound to frustrate the goal of increasing systemic literacy. The value of the new AG guidance is in placing a burden on prosecutors to discover and take into account the effect of collateral consequences in particular cases in deciding whether or not to prosecute.