December 20, 2016 (Fault Lines) — New Jersey has two distinct components, each with a unique constitution. North Jersey is a post-industrial wasteland that serves as the resentful bedroom community of the New York metro area. South Jersey, on the other hand, is sufficiently inaccessible from the megalopolis to serve as the pretend-rural summer retreat for the denizens of the Philadelphia metro area.
This is a classic story of the south.
Back on August, 17, 2015, Ashton Funk was late for work as a Margate City Firefighter. But, this being South Jersey, he had to stop at Wawa, the most beloved of all convenience stores. But, alas, the lines, the lines! What’s a dedicated Southjersian to do? He’s gottahava Sizzli!
So Funk walked out without paying for about $8 worth of stuff and went to work. He later claimed that someone in line had offered to pay for his food before he left. But, bottom line, he didn’t pay.
In addition to being a firefighter, Funk was a member of the town’s beach patrol. He was also, apparently, a “dominan[t]” force in the local lifeguard races, and had been shaming his local rivals as the reigning South Jersey champion. Indeed, just the day before his shoplifting indiscretion, Funk had won a lifeguard race against nearby Longport.
Wouldn’t you know it, though, but Lt. Joseph Baumgardener, a police officer for the very same community of Longport, also happened to be in the Wawa that same morning. (Did I mention you gottahava WaWa?) Defending both the laws of the State of New Jersey, and his civic pride, Lt. Baumgardener confronted Funk, who allegedly falsely claimed to have paid for his Sizzli, and then turned him in to the local cops.
After what seems like it must have been an entertaining trial, a municipal court judge convicted Funk of shoplifting and sentenced him to a $150 fine and 10 days of community service. And the whole dumb affair seemed to be at an end.
Unfortunately for Funk, sometimes convictions for dumb shit have serious collateral consequences. In this case, New Jersey law requires “forfeiture” of any public employment after a conviction for “an offense involving dishonesty.” This includes even petty bullshit, like shoplifting. This forfeiture is automatic as well, and while the Attorney General can apply for a waiver on the employee’s behalf, this is a discretionary decision, made by the prosecutor.
Funk, a public employee twice over, was subject to forfeiture of both jobs. And the AG declined to issue a waiver. This meant Funk could no longer humiliate his rivals in the lifeguard races, and, more significantly, lost two positions that represent the acme of South Jersey civic life.
Theoretically, it is understandable that a state would take a stand against public servants, like police officers or firefighters, convicted of crimes involving dishonesty. After all, this is South Jersey; they practically invented public corruption.
At the same time, this is yet another hard lesson about writing in consequences based on categorical judgments about classes of offenses. As we can see, crimes involving dishonesty involve lots of different things. While maybe the point of the law was to address bribery or wire fraud, shoplifting, as a theft offense, is also a classic crime of dishonesty. Even when it involves little more than a Sizzli, and occurred in a court where there is no right to a jury of your Wawa-loving peers. Sometimes this overbreadth, caught up in a rivalry between teams of lifeguards, causes individuals to get screwed over.
This is also a great example of underbreadth. While the statute is supposed to make sure that corrupt public officials won’t be spared from mercy by their cronies, the statute is shockingly limited in what qualifies for categorical forfeiture. Aside from any type of offense involving dishonesty, or those “involving or touching” the office of the offender (whatever that means), any conviction for an offense that is “of the third degree or above” qualifies. A cursory scan of the New Jersey code reveals some pretty interesting offenses outside the scope of this statute. For example, giving someone a roofie so you can rape her is a fourth-degree offense. Aggravated criminal sexual contact? Fourth-degree offense. Driving while intoxicated on the beach, where you flip you car over with your two kids strapped in the backseat? Also fourth-degree. As a result, while one could be fired for these types of convictions, it isn’t mandatory.
Perhaps Funk deserved to get fired. Perhaps that’s the fair cost of shoplifting.