Forfeiture of Entire Public Pension Due to Guilty Plea of Accepting $300 Bribe is Not an Unconstitutional “Excessive Fine”

State v. Anderson, 463 N.J. Super. 168 (App. Div. 2020). Defendant, formerly employed by the Jersey City Tax Assessor’s office, pled guilty to a federal criminal charge of interference with commerce by extortion under color of official right for accepting a $300 bribe to alter the description of a two-unit dwelling to a three-unit dwelling. After that plea, the State filed suit seeking, among other things, the complete forfeiture of defendant’s pension and related retirement benefits. N.J.S.A. 43:1-3.1 mandated pension forfeiture upon a conviction such as that here.

Proceeding summarily, the Law Division granted the State’s motion for summary judgment. Defendant argued that the pension forfeiture provision of N.J.S.A. 43:1-3.1 was an excessive fine that violated the United States and New Jersey Constitutions, but the Law Division rejected that contention. The court held that because defendant’s pension was a contractual arrangement that was dependent on honorable service, not a property right, and because the Excessive Fines clause applies only to property rights, defendant’s argument failed. The Law Division relied on several out-of-state cases for that result.

Today, on defendant’s appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed, but on different grounds than those offered by the Law Division. Judge Natali wrote the panel’s opinion, which applied de novo review.

After a lengthy analysis of Excessive Fines jurisprudence, the cases on which the Law Division relied, and applicable New Jersey authority, Judge Natali concluded, contrary to the Law Division, that the pension forfeiture was a “fine.” Citing Uricoli v. Bd. of Trustees, Police & Firemen’s Ret. Sys., 91 N.J. 62 (1982), Eyers v. State, Bd. of Trustees, Pub. Emp. Ret. Sys., 91 N.J. 51 (1982), and other authorities, he noted that New Jersey “has recognized that a public employee’s right to pension benefits is analogous to a property interest.” The Appellate Division opinion endorsed, to that extent, a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling cited by defendant, and declined to follow the cases on which the Law Division had based its decision.

But Judge Natali went on to affirm the forfeiture of defendant’s pension. Though that was a ‘fine,” it was not “excessive.” A fine becomes excessive, he observed, citing a United States Supreme Court case, “if it is grossly disproportional to the gravity of defendant’s offense.” That Supreme Court decision stressed that “judgments about the appropriate punishment for an offense belong in the first instance to the legislature.”

The Legislature here was well within its rights “to set this penalty as it saw fit.” Moreover, Judge Natali stated, quoting a Supreme Court of New Jersey case, “the policy requiring forfeiture of pension rights on account of dishonorable service has been part of our law for over half a century.” And N.J.S.A. 43:1-3.1, like other statutes, is “presumed constitutional.”

Judge Natali then applied a four-part test laid out by the United States Supreme Court to assess disproportionality. One of those factors– the fact that defendant’s offense was “unrelated to other illegal activities”– favored defendant. But the other factors led to a finding of no disproportionality.

The federal statute under which defendant pled guilty authorized a maximum punishment of a fine or imprisonment for up to twenty years, showing the gravity of the offense. The other two factors– “the nature and extent of the crime” and “the harm caused”– also favored the Legislature’s judgment. Taking the bribe “significantly and materially breached the public’s trust,” and “even a bribe of $300, which may appear to be a modest sum, … in actuality is a colossal amount when measured against the damage to the public trust caused by that illegal act,” Judge Natali said.

This analysis distinguished the Massachusetts case, which involved a defendant convicted “of effectively ‘snooping’ on his colleagues’ test results,” with no personal gain to that defendant and no concern about protection of the public. In contrast, defendant here “took money illegally to perform a function he was being paid to honorably discharge.” Accordingly, the fine was not excessive, and the panel affirmed the result in the Law Division.