History of The Somerset County Prosecutor's Office

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Somerset County was established by Charter on May 22, 1688. At that time, and continuing into the early 1700’s, all judicial matters, including criminal prosecutions, were handled in neighboring Middlesex County. By 1717 the first Somerset County Courthouse was built in what is now the Franklin Park section of Franklin Township. The courthouse was later re-located to Millstone in 1737 and then Hillsborough in 1779 before moving to Somerville in 1781. At that time court was held in what was then called Tunnison’s Tavern, owned by Cornelius Tunnison, located on the corner of Main and Grove Streets.

Throughout the 1770’s most people appeared in court before a judge and jury unrepresented. Prosecuting officers at that time were either appointed by the court and were referred to as Chief Magistrates of the Court, or the case was prosecuted by the colonial Attorney General. The Office of State Attorney General was officially recognized in the first Constitution of New Jersey adopted on July 2, 1776. In 1812 the Attorney General was authorized to appoint deputy attorneys general to prosecute the pleas of the state in the counties.

In 1822 the New Jersey State Legislature passed a Bill known as An Act Respecting Deputies to the Attorney General, which created the position of “Prosecutor of the Pleas” for the counties. However, the County Prosecutor of the Pleas was still appointed by the court, not the Governor. The first known Prosecutor of the Pleas in Somerset County was William Thompson, who served from 1830 to 1840, and again from 1852 to 1857. The County Prosecutor of the Pleas throughout the nineteenth century handled a wide range of prosecutions, without the assistance of our various municipal police departments, or even the State Police, which had not yet been established. In one case, it was reported that on August 29, 1896, nineteen-year-old Elmer Claussen of Far Hills was hung after conviction for the murder of a Pluckemin farmer allegedly committed during a dispute over $3.00 in unpaid wages.

In an effort to continue to define the powers and duties of the position of Prosecutor of the Pleas in the counties, the State Legislature passed the Criminal Procedure Act of 1874. As stated in the Act, it was the responsibility and duty of the Prosecutor of the Pleas to detect, arrest, indict and convict offenders of the laws in their respective counties. Criminal Procedure Act of 1874, Rev. 1877, Section 100. In the mid-1800’s, the Prosecutor of the Pleas became an officer of the Executive Branch of government rather than a judicial officer as they were previously. As a result, prosecutors were then appointed by the Governor, not the court.

In 1909 the prosecution of cases in Somerset County began in the present day Historic Courthouse, which had just been built at a cost of approximately $250,000. Over the ensuing years, at the conclusion of the prosecution of a case, a bell that is still hanging within the dome of the courthouse was rung to signify that the jury had reached a verdict. Among the more famous of these cases was the prosecution of the Hall-Mills murder trial in 1926, which took place in what is now referred to as the ceremonial courtroom in the Historic Courthouse.

By 1912 New Jersey was only one of five states in the United States not to have locally elected district attorneys. In fact, even to this day New Jersey’s system of law enforcement remains unique in many respects, including the amount of power and authority vested in both the State Attorney General as the chief law enforcement officer of the state and the County Prosecutors as the chief law enforcement officers of the county.

In our present State Constitution, adopted in 1948, the title of Prosecutor of the Pleas was changed to “County Prosecutor.” Although the position of County Prosecutor is constitutionally established, the specific powers, duties and authority are primarily set forth by the State Legislature in statutes such as the County Prosecutor’s Act in Title 2A and in case law. Accordingly, the County Prosecutor is statutorily vested with the same powers, within their county, as the Attorney General. The County Prosecutor has exclusive jurisdiction and broad discretion over prosecution of crime committed in the county. State v. Josephs, 79 N.J. Super. 411 (App. Div. 1963); State v. McMahon, 183 N.J. Super. 97 (Law Div. 1981). Although it is the duty of the Prosecutor to pursue justice and not merely to convict, the Prosecutor must use all reasonable and lawful diligence to bring about a just conviction of offenders against the law. Berger v. U.S., 295 U.S. 78, 88 (1935); State v. Ippolito, 19 N.J. 540 (1955); State v. Marshall, 123 N.J. 1, 152 (1991).

In 1953, the New Jersey Supreme Court clearly and unequivocally declared that the County Prosecutor, as the chief law enforcement officer for the county, had the “dominant position and the primary responsibility for the enforcement of the criminal laws.” State v. Winne, 12 N.J. 152, 167 (1953). Moreover, the authority of the Prosecutor over a local police chief and the police department was emphatically set forth by the Supreme Court when it stated that any lack of responsiveness could be “on pain of possible indictment if they do not cooperate with him (Prosecutor) in enforcing the law.” Id. The Supreme Court’s opinion concerning the supervisory authority of the County Prosecutor over local law enforcement is even more viable today than in 1953. For instance, The Criminal Justice Act of 1970, N.J.S.A. 52:17B-97 et seq., further broadened the extensive powers of the County Prosecutor and reinforced his role as the dominant law enforcement officer within the county. The Criminal Justice Act also clearly established a chain of command in law enforcement in New Jersey. That line of authority was determined to run from the Attorney General to the County Prosecutor to the local law enforcement agencies.

Even though the County Prosecutor is a State Constitutional Officer and is exclusively bestowed with the sole appointment power of the assistant prosecutors, detectives and other staff, along with having complete autonomy in the internal management of the prosecutor’s office, it is the County Board of County Commissioners that sets the budget for the operation of the office. As a result the State Legislature has provided for County Prosecutors to be able to petition the Assignment Judge of that county for an Order for the appointment of additional staff or for expenditures beyond the appropriations provided by the County Commissioners. Application of Bigley, 55 N.J. 53 (1969).

At about the same time the Legislature was considering The Criminal Justice Act, it also passed New Jersey’s first Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:156A-1 et seq., effective January 1969. Pursuant to this statute, no law enforcement officer can make application to the court for any electronic surveillance order without the written approval of the County Prosecutor or Attorney General.

In Somerset County in 1981, the Supreme Court of New Jersey authorized a modification to the Court Rules for Somerset County to allow for the implementation of what was then referred to as the “Somerset County Delay Reduction Master Plan.” In accordance with this procedure, no criminal complaints can be filed in Somerset County without the authorization of the Prosecutor. This 24 hour direct screening process is still in operation today and has proven extremely effective.

Also in 1981, after the passage of the State’s first Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, County Prosecutors, as well as local law enforcement officers, were given increased enforcement and prosecutorial authority. In addition, the Prosecutors’ Offices were given the exclusive responsibility for the disposition of any weapons seized pursuant to this law.

In 1985, the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office, along with the Sheriff and the Chiefs of Police, created the first county-wide S.W.A.T. Team. Later, a Crisis Negotiation Team, Emergency Medical Team and a Dive-Rescue Team were all added to what is now called the Somerset County Emergency Response Teams.

In 1986, the State Legislature passed the Victim-Witness Assistance Act requiring County Prosecutors to establish and maintain a county Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy with a county Victim-Witness Coordinator. Additionally, New Jersey is one of only a few states that in 1991 ratified a Constitutional Amendment for crime victims. Constitution of the State of New Jersey, Article I, Paragraph 22. In Somerset County, the Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy is actively involved in all our cases, including domestic violence matters and juvenile cases, often from the moment the crime is reported, throughout the investigation and trial, and beyond.

In 1987, the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office, in conjunction with the Sheriff and Chiefs of Police, established the Somerset County Police Academy. Presently, the Academy conducts two basic courses for police officers each year which, at 22 weeks, is the longest and most comprehensive of its kind in the State. In addition, the Police Academy conducts more than 100 advanced training and in-service courses each year for police officers, detectives and assistant prosecutors.

Pursuant to the Statewide Narcotics Action Plans of 1987 and 1993, the Attorney General directed that “County Prosecutors shall maintain County Narcotics Task Forces and each police department… shall participate in the task force.” The County Prosecutor is responsible for overseeing the supervision of this County Task Force.

In 1994, the Legislature enacted the Registration and Notification of Release of Certain Offenders Act, also known as “Megan’s Law.” Pursuant to this Act the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office, as did the other prosecutors throughout the State, designated an assistant prosecutor, a detective and a paralegal to work as a team to handle the classification and notification responsibilities required of the Prosecutor under this law.

In 1996, the State Legislature placed municipal prosecutors under the supervision of the County Prosecutor. One year later the County Prosecutor’s wide-ranging supervisory power and control over municipal prosecutors was confirmed by the Appellate Division in State v. Ward, 303 N.J. Super. 47, 54 (App. Div. 1997). On January 19, 2000, the New Jersey Supreme Court in State v. Clark, 162 N.J. 201 (2000), re-affirmed the County Prosecutor’s supervision of municipal prosecutors when it prohibited them from serving as defense counsel in any court in the same county. In addition to the Supreme Court’s decision, the Legislature also passed legislation requiring that only sworn municipal prosecutors or the County Prosecutor may be allowed to represent the State in municipal courts.

In 1999, after obtaining a grant from the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety, the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office and Chiefs of Police established a Vehicular Homicide Task Force and Collision Analysis Reconstruction (C.A.R.) Team, which the County Prosecutor supervises.