The Final Post of 2017: The Mistaken Imprisonment Act

Watson v. New Jersey Department of Treasury, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2017). The Mistaken Imprisonment Act, N.J.S.A. 52:4C-1 to -7, (“the Act”) allows claims for damages by persons who have been wrongly convicted of a crime and who served a part of a sentence for that crime. The Act contains a statute of limitations: any claim “shall be brought by the claimant within a period of two years after his release from imprisonment, or after the grant of a pardon to him.”

Plaintiff was arrested in 1988 on the New Jersey Turnpike for unlawful possession of controlled dangerous substances and weapons. He was convicted and served about five and one-half years in prison and was released in March 1996. In April 1999, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office issued a report regarding racial profiling on the Turnpike that had occurred from 1988 to 1999. In light of that report, the Attorney General agreed to vacate convictions that it identified. Plaintiff’s 1988 conviction was not vacated until May 2, 2014. Plaintiff filed suit for violation of the Act on April 27, 2016, just within two years of the vacation of plaintiff’s conviction.

The State moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, citing multiple grounds. The Law Division accepted those arguments and dismissed the case. The only ground that was the subject of today’s opinion by Judge Gibbons Whipple, however, was the untimeliness of plaintiff’s suit. Applying de novo review, the applicable standard in evaluating a ruling on a motion to dismiss, the Appellate Division affirmed the dismissal on limitations grounds.

Though the Act was “remedial legislation intended to facilitate the claims of innocent persons who have been wrongly convicted of crimes and subsequently imprisoned,” Judge Gibbons Whipple emphasized that the plain language of the Act needed to be followed. She observed that the Act “identifies two triggering events from which to calculate the two-year statute of limitations: release from imprisonment or a pardon…. The Legislature did not include, as a triggering event, reversals or vacatur of convictions subsequent to a criminal defendant’s release from imprisonment.” Thus, plaintiff’s complaint was too late, and the decision below dismissing his case was affirmed without the need to address the Law Division’s other grounds for dismissal.