NJ Supreme Court to Clarify Whether Candidates Can Face Criminal Charges for Accepting Bribes

NJ Supreme Court to Clarify Whether Candidates Can Face Criminal Charges for Accepting Bribes

The Supreme Court of New Jersey recently agreed to consider State v. Jason M. O’Donnell, which involves whether a candidate who loses an election was still be convicted of accepting a bribe.

Facts of the Case

A grand jury charged defendant Jason M. O’Donnell with a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:27-2, which imposes criminal liability on “person[s]” who offer or accept from another “[a]ny benefit as consideration” for, among many things, the performance of official duties. The indictment was based on evidence that, during his 2018 campaign for the office of Bayonne Mayor, O’Donnell agreed to accept from an attorney $10,000 in “street money” in exchange for becoming Bayonne’s tax attorney once defendant was elected. Defendant wasn’t elected.

Because he never took office and was never able to perform his part of this alleged corrupt bargain, O’Donnell moved for a dismissal of the indictment, claiming N.J.S.A. 2C:27-2 does not criminalize an unsuccessful candidate’s acceptance of a bribe. The trial court dismissed the indictment, but the Appellate Division reversed. “[W]conclude N.J.S.A. 2C:27- 2’s plain language reveals an intent to render unlawful what defendant is alleged to have done and that the statute imposes criminal liability on bribe-accepting but unsuccessful candidates for public office.”

In reaching its decision, the Appellate Division emphasized that the New Jersey Legislature “imposed criminal liability on ‘person[s],’ not just public officials and public servants who offer or accept bribes.” The court further stressed that adopting O’Donnell’s interpretation of N.J.S.A. 2C:27-2 “would be to declare open season on the bribing of candidates for public office.” 

“Defendant’s interpretation that candidates are not made criminally liable for accepting bribes in the performance of some future official act would mean, if correct, that a candidate could be bribed before, during, and after being elected, right up until taking the oath of office,” the court wrote.

Issues Before the NJ Supreme Court

The New Jersey Supreme Court granted certification on October 21, 2022. The justices agreed to consider the following question: “Does N.J.S.A. 2C:27-2, which imposes criminal liability for ‘bribery in official and political matters,’ apply to a candidate for political office who is not an incumbent and is ultimately not elected?

In his petition for certification, O’Donnell argued that the Appellate Division ignored “plain text that required at least one party to the offense to be a ‘public servant,’ ‘party official’ or person with ‘official duties.'” Meanwhile, prosecutors argue that the indictment should stand. “The appellate court correctly held that candidates for office may not take bribes in exchange for promising to perform official duties if they are elected,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement.  “That commonsense prohibition is embodied in the plain language of our law, and we look forward to presenting our case before the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Oral arguments have not yet been scheduled. Please check back for updates.

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