In the Union County Prosecutor’s Office Trial Unit, assistant prosecutors and detectives are assigned to six criminal courts that handle first-, second-, third-, and fourth-degree criminal charges that are not being handled by a specialized investigative unit. The six courts and the designated assistant prosecutors handle arraignments, pre-trial conferences, pre- and post-trial motions, trials, and sentencings.
In addition to their trial responsibilities, the assistant prosecutors conduct case review and issue complaint approval on a rotating, on-call basis. The Unit annually handles upwards of 1,000 cases for crimes including kidnapping, carjacking, burglary, robbery, aggravated assault, weapons possession, eluding, and drug possession and distribution, among others.
The Union County Prosecutor’s Office Grand Jury Unit is responsible for preparing, investigating, and presenting matters involving indictable criminal offenses to a grand jury panel. These panels ultimately make decisions regarding whether to indict defendants; if and when defendants are indicted on criminal charges, the cases against them typically proceed to be resolved either via a plea agreement or a criminal trial.
Union County empanels two separate grand juries. One panel hears investigative matters such as homicides cases, incidents of sexual assault, complex narcotics investigations, and child abuse cases, which are generally investigated by the various units of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office. This panel sits on Wednesdays and Fridays. The second panel hears the vast majority of felony offenses, including but not limited to attempted murders, burglaries, robberies, aggravated assaults, carjackings, narcotics offenses, and weapons offenses. These cases originate in and are investigated by our local municipal police departments with the assistance of the assistant prosecutors from the Elizabeth, Suburban, and Plainfield projects. This panel sits every Tuesday and Thursday.
Both the investigative and regular panels sit year-round, and each grand jury is empanelled for nine weeks, or a total of 18 sessions.
The Union County Prosecutor’s Office Appellate Unit represents the State of New Jersey in various proceedings in the Superior Court Law Division and Appellate Division, the New Jersey Supreme Court, and Federal Court. These proceedings include direct appeals, post-conviction relief proceedings, appeals of municipal court convictions, motions to suppress evidence, expungement petitions, and pretrial intervention (PTI) rejections and appeals. Members of the Unit also conduct legal research and handle interlocutory appeals, both on an emergent and non-emergent basis.
The Union County Prosecutor’s Office Juvenile Unit is responsible for prosecuting juveniles for acts ranging from violations of township ordinances to serious violent crimes. The goals of the Unit are to promote swift and appropriate punishment for repeat violent offenders and to divert minor offenders away from delinquency and further court action. The Unit also provides daily legal advice to the 22 juvenile bureaus within Union County.
Under this model, prosecution of complicated investigations, serious violent offenses, cases involving victims, and other screened cases, will be vertically prosecuted, meaning one assistant prosecutor will handle all aspects of the prosecution from inception/referral to the Office through trial whenever possible. While other cases will be horizontally prosecuted, meaning certain pre-indictment phases and presentation to the grand jury will be handled by specialize units. In those instances, only when the case is indicted, will it be transferred to a trial assistant prosecutor to handle the prosecution through to trial or resolution by plea. In order to implement the hybrid prosecution model, the Office created a Pre-Indictment Department, run by a Director, to encompass the various specialized units that handle pre-indictment matters and important diversionary programs:
The Union County Prosecutor’s Office Plainfield Project is a fully staffed satellite office established in the City of Plainfield with the ultimate goal being the reduction of crime in the city. The office has sought to improve the relationship between the Plainfield Police Division and the Prosecutor’s Office as well as to make the services of the Prosecutor’s Office more accessible to the citizens of the city.
The staff of the Plainfield Project provides legal advice and assistance, as well as investigative support, to the Police Division on a daily basis. This includes not only the preparation and review of search warrant affidavits and other legal documents that become necessary during investigations, but also the supplying of manpower to police operations and investigations. Furthermore, all criminal matters arising within the City are screened for accuracy and completeness before being forwarded to the county seat for Grand Jury presentation.
Since 1994, when Prosecutor Andrew K. Ruotolo Jr. established the Elizabeth Project, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office has assigned an assistant prosecutor to work full-time at the Elizabeth Police Department providing legal advice and investigative support to the officers in the Department.
The assistant prosecutor annually reviews hundreds of police reports and statements to determine when there is sufficient evidence for indictable charges to be filed or whether the case should be heard in Elizabeth Municipal Court. This allows Elizabeth Police Department detectives to spend more time on cases involving serious indictable charges and also eases the burden of the clerical, investigative, and legal staffs of both the Elizabeth Police Department and the Prosecutor’s Office. The Prosecutor’s Office representative also screens all criminal investigations for accuracy, completeness, and disposition before they are forwarded to the Prosecutor’s Office for presentation to the Grand Jury, and he or she provides daily legal advice to the investigative units of the Elizabeth Police Department.
An assistant prosecutor is assigned to provide full-time support to our many suburban municipal departments. The assistant prosecutor serves as a liaison between the departments and UCPO while also providing critical legal guidance and investigative staff for the work being done by officers across this County.
Upon the enactment of the New Jersey Criminal Justice Reform Act, assistant prosecutors must make applications to the Court on behalf of the State in order to detain defendants prior to trial. Defendants are then entitled to a hearing where the Judge must determine whether the State has probable cause for the offense(s) charged and whether pre-trial detention is appropriate. Assistant prosecutors assigned to the Detention Unit appear on behalf of the State of New Jersey at such hearings.
Asset Forfeiture Unit
The Union County Prosecutor’s Office Asset Forfeiture Unit enforces the forfeiture laws in the State of New Jersey that allow for law enforcement to maintain custody of certain property that has been seized from a criminal defendant. Examples of such items include contraband such as controlled dangerous substances; firearms that have been unlawfully acquired, possessed, or used; and any illegally possessed gambling device. In addition, the State can bring forfeiture proceedings against properties that constitute the proceeds of unlawful activity or any properties that were used or intended to be used in furtherance of unlawful activity (or properties that have become an integral part of unlawful activity). The purpose of these laws is to deprive defendants of the proceeds of their unlawful activities and to act as a deterrent in preventing similar activity in the future.
Municipal law enforcement agencies work jointly with members of the Unit with regard to the investigation of assets obtained as a result of criminal activity and coordinate seizures of such property with the Prosecutor’s Office. The Unit also coordinates its activities and interacts with other State and Federal law enforcement agencies.
Pre-Disposition Conference Unit
The Union County Prosecutor’s Office Pre-Disposition Conference is assigned the responsibility of reviewing the majority of criminal cases in Union County involving second-, third-, and fourth-degree criminal charges. The goal of the Unit is to resolve as many cases as possible prior to any grand jury action. This not only saves the State the time, cost, and effort of processing these cases through the criminal justice system, but it helps bring closure to victims of crimes in a timely manner.
The Unit handles all cases assigned a pre-disposition conference date at the time of defendant’s first appearance hearing. The time between the complaint and the pre-disposition conference hearing is approximately six weeks. The Unit also reviews cases for which a complaint has been signed but the defendant has not received a first appearance date.
Pre-Trial Intervention (Diversionary Unit)
The State’s Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI) Program is a diversionary program designed for first-time offenders who commit non-violent, victimless offenses.
Special Offenders (Diversionary Unit)
Content coming soon.
Drug Court (Diversionary Unit)
New Jersey’s Drug Court Program offers non-violent offenders who are prone to substance abuse a community treatment-based alternative to state prison. During recent years several hundred individuals annually participated in Drug Court in Union County and were required to report to Court on a weekly, bi-monthly, or monthly basis, depending upon the length of time and success within the Program.
Participants are required to submit to random drug testing, submit to unannounced home visits, report to a probation officer on a weekly basis, obtain employment or education, and participate in either inpatient or outpatient treatment, as clinically determined.