Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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This appeal concerned consolidated putative class actions brought by plaintiffs whose vehicles were towed at the direction of local police and without plaintiffs’ consent. Each plaintiff was charged for the non-consensual tow by a privately owned towing company that had a contract with the respective local government to perform that towing service. Plaintiffs brought suit challenging those charges in three class actions with common legal claims. Plaintiffs alleged that the fees imposed by the private companies violated the New Jersey Predatory Towing Prevention Act (Towing Act), the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA), and the New Jersey Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA). One class action was dismissed on summary judgment and the other was allowed to proceed only as an individual case. Plaintiffs appealed. The Appellate Division reversed in a consolidated opinion. The New Jersey Supreme Court determined 2018 legislation amending the Towing Act did not have retroactive effect, and agreed with the Appellate Division’s construction of the pre-2018 Act. Therefore, the Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s decision as to exhaustion of administrative remedies, derivative immunity, and the remand as to the Towing Act and CFA claims, all substantially for the same reasons. Separately, the Supreme Court addressed whether plaintiffs could pursue claims under the TCCWNA and found they were unable to state a claim under that statute. The Court therefore reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division on that issue but affirmed as to all others. View "Pisack v. BC Towing, Inc." on Justia Law

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Police took a DNA sample from blue gloves discarded near the scene of a March 2015 burglary, and the sample was uploaded into CODIS. J.P. was later convicted of an unrelated felony, and a routine sample of his DNA was mailed to the Forensics Office. The Forensics Office confirmed a preliminary match between the DNA sample found on the blue gloves and J.P.’s routine offender sample. The notification requested that the local officials submit a follow-up sample to prove the match. As a result of that request, the State applied for J.P.’s investigative detention under Rule 3:5A-1 to obtain a new DNA sample. The court denied the motion, and the Appellate Division affirmed, holding that the State had not shown that the physical characteristics sought could not otherwise practicably be obtained. At issue before the New Jersey Supreme Court was whether, under Rule 3:5A-1 and Rule 3:5A-4(d), the State should have been permitted to obtain a follow-up buccal swab from J.P. so as to be able to prove in court a preliminary match between his DNA and a DNA specimen taken from the scene of the unsolved burglary. The Supreme Court held that in light of the federal and state requirements to obtain a follow-up sample, the State has shown that the physical characteristics sought in this case could not practicably be obtained by any means other than investigative detention pursuant to Rule 3:5A-1. The Court therefore reversed the Appellate Division. View "In the Matter of the Investigation of Burglary & Theft" on Justia Law

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Defendant Roger Covil was convicted of first-degree possession with intent to distribute five ounces or more of cocaine. The Appellate Division reversed defendant’s conviction, and the New Jersey Supreme Court granted cross-petitions for certification filed by the State and defendant. This appeal presented two issues for the Supreme Court's review: (1) defendant’s challenge to the trial court’s admission of the opinions of the State’s drug expert witnesses; and (2) defendant’s argument that the trial court violated his constitutional rights and principles of fundamental fairness when it admitted into evidence a notice of motion for a writ of replevin and supporting certification that he served in a civil forfeiture action that had been stayed at his attorney’s request. Two years after defendant’s trial, the Court decided New Jersey v. Cain, 224 N.J. 410 (2016), and New Jersey v. Simms, 224 N.J. 393 (2016). Those decisions limited the State’s use of hypothetical questions in the presentation of drug expert testimony in criminal trials. Reversing defendant’s conviction in this case, the Appellate Division retroactively applied Cain and Simms, and held that the trial court committed error when it admitted the testimony of the State’s expert witnesses. The Supreme Court determined Cain and Sims were intended to apply prospectively to guide future trials, not retroactively conducted prior to those decisions. At the time of defendant’s trial, the governing law authorized the use of hypothetical questions such as the questions posed to the State’s experts in this case. And the Supreme Court concluded there was no error in the trial court’s admission of defendant’s notice of motion for a writ of replevin and certification. View "New Jersey v. Covil" on Justia Law

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The victim and his friend “Craig” had previously purchased oxycodone from a supplier, “John.” On this occasion, John had no supplies, but referred the victim to defendant Earnest Williams. When Craig and the victim arrived at the appointed location, the victim took $900 in cash and followed defendant into the building. Craig heard gun shots and called the police, who found the victim dead from gunshots to his abdomen and to the back of his head, with $500 on his body. On the night of the shooting, defendant made a series of admissions to several of his cohorts: he never had any drugs to sell because his intent was to rob the victim; he carried the gun to the transaction; a scuffle ensued when he attempted to rob the victim; and he shot the victim in the leg, then in the head, took some of his money, and then ran. At issue before the New Jersey Supreme Court was whether the trial court properly excluded evidence proffered by Williams at trial: he sought to buttress his defense with evidence of the victim’s prior, unrelated drug deal with another individual to establish the victim brought a handgun to the July 2012 transaction. The trial court precluded defendant from presenting such evidence. The jury ultimately convicted defendant of aggravated manslaughter and felony murder. The Appellate Division reversed, finding the trial court erred by not permitting defendant to present evidence of the victim’s prior drug purchase in a public place. Having remanded the case for a new trial, the Appellate Division did not address defendant’s sentencing issues. The Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division, finding defendant’s proffered evidence failed to meet the threshold requirement of admissibility: relevancy. View "New Jersey v. Williams" on Justia Law

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In September 2013, the Passaic Police Department received a 9-1-1 report of a brutally beaten body of a woman, later identified as “Katie,” in a wooded area near a river bank behind a ShopRite store. Sergeant Bordamonte, the lead detective in the matter, was tipped off that Katie was last seen with a person described as a “violent Mexican male” on the night before Katie’s death. The informant said that the man had assaulted another woman. Officers located that male, defendant Rafael Camey, at a bar he frequented after work. A detective advised defendant of his Miranda rights and interviewed him in Spanish, his native language, but presented him with a consent form for a buccal swab printed in English. After defendant signed the untranslated form, another detective took a buccal swab from defendant and released him. Weeks later, Bordamonte sent defendant’s DNA sample, along with approximately twenty other samples to the State Police Laboratory for testing. In June 2014, the State Police notified Bordamonte that DNA found on Katie’s body matched defendant’s DNA profile. That day, defendant was placed under arrest and charged with felony murder, murder, and aggravated sexual assault. The issues this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review involved two key pre-trial determinations involving the DNA evidence from defendant: (1) the trial court ruled the results of a buccal swab that had been excluded on the basis of invalid consent inadmissible under either of the State’s inevitable discovery arguments; and (2) the trial court applied an inevitable discovery analysis in rejecting the State’s application to take a second buccal swab from defendant. The second determination raised a novel question: Under what circumstances, if any, may the police apply to conduct a new search for immutable evidence like DNA? Is a suspect’s DNA off-limits to law enforcement for all time if an initial search was invalid? Or, are there situations in which law enforcement may seek a new buccal swab to examine a person’s DNA? The Supreme Court affirmed suppression of the first swab, however, the State's application for a second swab called for a remand for further proceedings. "To apply for a new buccal swab for DNA evidence under Rule 3:5A, the State must demonstrate probable cause for the new search. That showing may include evidence that existed before the initial invalid search, but cannot be tainted by the results of the prior search. In addition, to deter wrongdoing by the police, the State must show by clear and convincing evidence that the initial impermissible search was not the result of flagrant police misconduct." View "New Jersey v. Camey" on Justia Law

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The primary issue before the New Jersey Supreme Court in this appeal was whether the interrogation techniques that included false promises of leniency induced defendant L.H. to confess to two alleged sexual assaults and one alleged attempted sexual assault and overbore defendant’s will. Specifically, the Court had to determine whether the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that, under the totality of the circumstances, defendant’s confession was voluntary. In addition, the Court also considered whether a remand was necessary because, when M.H., a victim, identified defendant from a photographic lineup, the full dialogue between M.H. and the administering officer in making the identification was not memorialized. After review of the trial court record, the Supreme Court determined the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that, under the totality of the circumstances, defendant’s statement was voluntary. The failure to record the identification procedure required a remand to allow defendant the benefit of a hearing to inquire into the reliability of the identification and any other remedy deemed appropriate by the trial court. View "New Jersey v. L.H." on Justia Law

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Defendants Joey Fowler and Jamil Hearns were convicted by jury of murder. According to the State, Hearns walked up to the victim and, in an act of revenge, shot him at point-blank range. Hearns then returned to Fowler’s waiting car and both attempted to flee but were promptly apprehended by nearby on-duty officers. According to defendants’ version, the victim -- a bystander -- was shot due to the accidental discharge of a gun during a struggle that occurred between Hearns and the victim’s cousin, Algere Jones. The Appellate Division found the trial court erred in not instructing the jury on self-defense and reversed conviction; the New Jersey Supreme Court determined the appellate court erred in reversing the trial court. The matter was remanded to the Appellate Division for consideration of defendants' "numerous" other arguments that were not yet addressed. View "New Jersey v. Fowler" on Justia Law

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After drinking six to ten beers, defendant William Liepe drove his Ford Explorer at approximately 1:00 p.m. Traveling at about forty-five miles per hour, defendant struck the rear end of a Honda Accord waiting to make a left turn. The car was driven by a thirty-five-year-old man, M.G., who was driving his eleven-year-old son, M.J.G., and a nine-year-old family friend, R.S., to a softball game. The collision sent the Honda into the northbound lane, where it was struck by a Cadillac Escalade driven by a woman who was taking her mother, R.V., and her two children on a shopping trip. The second collision sent the car into the parking lot of the softball field. The accident killed R.S. M.J.G. was permanently paralyzed from the waist down as a result of the accident. He was confined to a wheelchair and requires continuous medical care for the rest of his life. M.G. also sustained very serious injuries: he broke many bones, had injured organs, and required a forty-five day hospitalization with multiple surgeries. The driver of the Cadillac and her children were unharmed in the accident; however, R.V. sustained back and neck injuries. Defendant was tried before a jury and was convicted on all counts. The Appellate Division affirmed defendant’s convictions but vacated his sentence and remanded for resentencing, observing that defendant would be ineligible for parole until he reached the age of eighty-nine and found that sentence “shocking to the judicial conscience.” The State appealed, challenging the appellate court's holding that the trial court abused its discretion in imposing consecutive terms and that defendant's aggregate sentence so shocked the judicial conscience. The New Jersey Supreme Court did not share the Appellate Division's view that the trial court erred in arriving at defendant's sentence, and reversed. View "New Jersey v. Liepe" on Justia Law

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The State indicted defendant Keith Cuff for fifty-five offenses arising from five residential robberies and an additional incident in which defendant stole a vehicle while attempting to escape from a traffic stop. A jury convicted defendant of nineteen of those offenses, including three counts of first-degree kidnapping while in possession of a firearm. The trial court sentenced defendant to an aggregate ninety-eight-year sentence, with more than sixty-six years of parole ineligibility. The Appellate Division affirmed defendant’s conviction and sentence with respect to all but one of the offenses, and reduced his sentence to an aggregate ninety-year sentence, with more than sixty-four years’ parole ineligibility. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted defendant's petition for review, limited to two of the issues he raised on appeal. The Supreme Court reversed as to the trial court's imposition of consecutive sentences, finding the trial court should resentence defendant after considering whether certain offenses committed within the same criminal episode warranted concurrent rather than consecutive sentences, as well as whether the decision to make the sentences consecutive rather than concurrent made the aggregate sentence imposed on defendant an abuse of discretion. View "New Jersey v. Cuff" on Justia Law

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In 2015, defendant Charudutt Patel was charged in two separate instances with DWI. Patel had twice before been convicted of DWI. Because of the passage of more than ten years between the first and second convictions, Patel was sentenced as a first-time offender. The two 2015 DWI charges exposed Patel to potential third and fourth DWI convictions. Patel claimed that his 1994 conviction in the Piscataway Municipal Court was uncounseled and therefore could not be used for custodial enhancement purposes pursuant to New Jersey v. Laurick, 120 N.J. 1, 16-17 (1990). Thus, for Laurick purposes, Patel contended that he stood before the court as a second-time offender, and he moved to bar the use of his allegedly uncounseled 1994 DWI guilty plea to enhance any custodial sentence in the pending DWI cases. The court denied Patel’s Laurick motion. Patel filed a motion for reconsideration and a third certification to clarify his earlier certifications. He asserted that in 1994, “the judge never advised me that I had a right to retain an attorney nor did he advise me that I had a right to an appointed attorney at no charge. Therefore, I simply pled guilty.” The court denied the motion for reconsideration, stating that in the absence of municipal court records, Patel’s certifications were insufficient to prove that he was denied notice of his right to counsel twenty-two years earlier and that, in any event, he should have filed his Laurick motion in 2010 when he was charged with his second DWI. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed: "Although his certifications were far from ideal, Patel carried his burden of presenting sufficient proof -- unrebutted by the State -- that his 1994 guilty plea was uncounseled, whether he was indigent or non-indigent. Patel had no obligation to establish that he would not have pled guilty or been convicted at trial had he been represented by counsel." The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "New Jersey v. Patel" on Justia Law