School Zone Offense Under New Jersey’s Drug Statute
If you distribute or possess with intent to distribute, an illegal drug (i.e. heroin or cocaine) within 1000 feet of a school or school bus you have committed a very serious crime that will expose you to a three-year minimum mandatory term of incarceration without parole opportunity and a fine of up to $150,000. (School Zone Offense). See, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7 If, however, the substance subject of the charge is less than one ounce of marijuana, the maximum term of imprisonment is one year.
In a School Zone Offense case, the government must prove that you committed one of the crimes laid out in the statute (i.e. distribution, possession with intent to distribute, etc.) within 1000 feet of a school bus or property owned or leased by a school, which includes playgrounds and athletic fields. The government must also show that the property was used for a “school purpose.” But, more of that later.
It is no defense to say that the school or school facility was closed for the summer; that the event occurred after school hours; or that no school children were present. In essence, the drug statute creates a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week safe-zone for children. Moreover, your ignorance of the school zone is irrelevant. The crime is virtually a strict-liability offense in that there does not have to be an intent to distribute a substance like heroin, cocaine or marijuana in a school zone to be convicted of the offense.
You can be convicted of a School Zone Offense by merely riding a bicycle through a school zone, in possession of enough illegal drugs to allow a jury to conclude that the possession of illegal drugs was with intent to distribute. You can also be convicted of a School Zone Offense even if the arresting officer first notices your suspicious conduct outside a school zone, follows you into a school zone and arrests you there. Finally, you may be found guilty of a School Zone Offense if you are transacting drug business in a school zone, but, the drugs are located outside the school zone.
In order to establish the 1000-foot distance component of this crime, the government will generally use a map, which must have been approved by municipal ordinance or resolution and has been kept on file in the municipality where the offense occurred. Once the map is properly admitted into evidence, the jury can presume that the site of the incident was, in fact, in a school zone. Even if a school-zone map is not produced, and that is an unlikely event, the government can establish that the violation occurred within 1000 feet of a school zone by other means. In one infamous case, a measuring tape was successfully used to establish the 1000-foot requirement, even though the tape’s accuracy had not been certified by the State Division of Weights and Measures.
As to the facts needed to establish the “school purpose” part of a School Zone Offense, it has been said that if a school is located on the property, its mere presence is enough to establish that it is used for a school purpose and, that is so, despite the fact that, courts have recognized that schools are sometimes permanently closed or put to other non-school uses. In some situations, the “school purpose” issue may not be so evident. In one case, an athletic field owned by a town and used by the town’s people was determined to be school zone property, where it was leased to a parochial school for its athletic events only on certain days and times. In that case, the court noted that the jury’s analysis on the “school purpose” issue can be influenced by “Drug Free School Zone” signs; other signs, flags or banners indicating school use; published schedules; newspaper articles, the presence of uniformed children on the playing field and even lease agreements that may not have been publicly filed. Ultimately, the “school purpose” issue must be resolved by a jury.
There may be a defense against a School Zone Offense, however, if you can show that the incident took place in a private residence; that the people present were all over 17- years- of-age; and that the incident did not suggest profit as a motive. Mysteriously, this defense did not apply to a transaction that occurred in a prison facility between a prisoner and a visitor within 1000 feet of a school zone.
If you are a drug-dependent person with no prior convictions for distribution or possession with the intent to distribute, you may escape the mandatory term of imprisonment required by a School Zone Offense, provided you agree to participate in a long-term drug program. See specific information relative to this program elsewhere on this website.
To protect your best interest, you need to hire a criminal lawyer who has long experiences with drug related cases. Frank T. Luciano, Esq., has been defending individuals in drug related cases for over 40 years. He is also a lifetime member of National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Law’s (NORML) Legal Committee. He is also a longtime member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
To better appreciate his unyielding commitment to his client and his never ending quest to obtain the best possible result in your drug case, visit the testimonials section of this website.