Drunk mom turns life around but NJ courts won’t clean her record
Social media and English comp courses aren't the only places where people will argue over the Oxford comma or dependent clauses.
A Monmouth County woman's fight to clear her record of child abuse charges boiled down to the placement of a single punctuation mark in the text of the law.
The woman was arrested after getting drunk at the beach and nearly drowning while her toddler son watched. A decade later, she says she has turned her life around: She’s sober, counsels others struggling with substance abuse and has earned several degrees and professional credentials.
Yet the child endangerment charge she pleaded guilty to 11 years ago continues to haunt her — and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future because state law prevents her from getting the conviction expunged, judges ruled this week.
The woman’s appeal of the expungement denial drew the attention of the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed arguments on her behalf.
The appeal focused on the use of a comma in the 2016 expansion to the expungement law. The latest version of the law prevents record expungements involving certain crimes, including “endangering the welfare of a child by engaging in sexual conduct which would impair or debauch the morals of the child, or causing the child other harm.”
The woman — who is not named in the appellate decision in order to protect the privacy of her children — argued that because she was not accused of sexual misconduct, she should have been allowed to have this charge expunged.
She argued that the part of the sentence in the law that reads “causing the child other harm” was referring to sex crimes. The state Office of the Public Defender, which represented her on appeal, argued that the use of the comma made this part of the sentence a dependent clause.
A panel of three appellate judges rejected this argument.
Disputes over commas in the law have come up before in New Jersey courts. The appellate decision cites past decisions holding that the word “or” in a law “is considered a disjunctive particle indicating an alternative,” meaning that what comes after the comma is “distinct and separate.”
In other words, child endangerment crimes involving sex cannot be expunged just as child endangerment crimes involving “other harm” cannot be expunged.
The judges also pointed out that if lawmakers had wanted to exclude certain parts of the child endangerment law from the expungement ban, they would have specified it.
In 2006, the Division of Youth and Family Services removed the woman’s four children and gave their father custody. She was allowed two hours a week of supervised visits. It was during one of these visits that the woman got drunk and had to be rescued from the ocean while her 3-year-old son waded in knee-deep water.
She was arrested and charged with second-degree child endangerment, public intoxication and possession of an open container of alcohol. She pleaded guilty in 2008 to third-degree child endangerment and received five years of probation in Drug Court.
Since then, she has earned a master’s degree in clinical mental health and obtained licenses in real estate and professional drug and alcohol counseling. She also is a sponsor at Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
She tried to get her record expunged because it was preventing her from getting a job with an insurance company or becoming an independent contractor with a real estate firm.
In the end, while the judges found that the woman had "admirably transformed her life,” they concluded that her “achievements cannot override the unambiguous expungement statute.”
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.