Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey

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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

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The State of New Jersey charged fourteen-year-old D.M. with delinquency based on conduct which, if committed by an adult, would constitute first-degree aggravated sexual assault. The State alleged D.M. committed acts of sexual penetration against an eleven-year-old acquaintance, Z.Y. With the parties’ consent, the Family Part judge considered the lesser-related charge of third-degree endangering the welfare of a child. In this appeal, the issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review centered on whether a juvenile could be adjudicated delinquent for endangering the welfare of a child when the juvenile and his alleged victim were fewer than four years apart in age and the Family Part judge made no findings of sexual penetration, force, or coercion. An Appellate Division panel reversed the juvenile adjudication, reasoning that the Legislature did not intend for the endangering statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(1), to support a delinquency adjudication based on a juvenile’s sexual contact with another minor fewer than four years younger than he, in the absence of a finding of sexual penetration, force, or coercion. The New Jersey Supreme Court did not concur with the Appellate Division panel’s construction of the endangering statute. Although the Legislature may decide that statute: "nothing in the current text of N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(1) precludes the adjudication in this case. We decline to rewrite the statute’s plain language in this appeal." The Court concluded, however, that the Family Part court’s adjudication had to be reversed: "When the court, at the disposition hearing, disavowed critical aspects of its previously-stated factual findings and characterized its decision to adjudicate D.M. under the lesser-related offense as a humanitarian gesture, it undermined its determination as to both offenses. In this extraordinary setting, it is unclear whether the State met its burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that D.M. violated N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(1)." View "New Jersey in the Interest of D.M." on Justia Law

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In May 2011, an off-duty Newark police officer was shot and killed at a Texas Fried Chicken and Pizza Restaurant, known as the “chicken shack.” Defendant Rasul McNeil-Thomas was convicted by a jury of shooting the officer, among other crimes. In this appeal, the issue his appeal presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court centered on the Appellate Division’s reversal of defendant’s convictions upon its findings that a brief segment of video surveillance played during summation was not admitted into evidence at trial and that, during summation, the prosecutor improperly linked defendant to one of the vehicles shown in the video. The Supreme Court found the trial court did not abuse its discretion in permitting the prosecutor to play the video segment during his closing remarks, and the prosecutor’s comments were reasonable and fair inferences supported by the evidence presented at trial. View "New Jersey v. McNeil-Thomas" on Justia Law

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Defendant Kareem Tillery was convicted of second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon and a fourth-degree offense. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the remaining charges against him. The trial court sentenced defendant to an extended term, and the Appellate Division upheld defendant’s conviction and sentence. The issue Tillery's appeal presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration centered on defendant’s contention that the trial court improperly admitted into evidence his statement to police because he did not expressly or implicitly waive his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), before answering questions. Defendant also challenged his sentence, arguing that the court inappropriately considered his criminal record and evidence relating to charges as to which the jury failed to reach a verdict. The Court expressed "significant concerns" about the procedure followed in this case. "Neither the script set forth on the Miranda card nor the detective’s statement to defendant addressed whether defendant agreed to waive his rights before answering questions." However, the Court held any error in the trial court’s admission of the statement was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because the State presented overwhelming independent evidence of defendant’s guilt. "And, although the State should have moved to dismiss the charges on which the jury had deadlocked before the court considered evidence relevant to those charges, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in applying three aggravating factors to impose an extended-term sentence at the high end of the statutory range." View "New Jersey v. Tillery" on Justia Law

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On a night in March 2016, defendant Susan Hyland was driving an automobile, and struck and killed sixteen-year-old Q.T., then fled the scene. She was indicted on three counts. The Prosecutor’s Office recommended against defendant’s admission into Drug Court because defendant left the scene of a fatal accident and failed to help Q.T., she was not the type of non-violent offender intended for Drug Court and would be a “danger to the community.” Defendant pled guilty to all three charges in the indictment. The trial judge analyzed the factors required to impose a drug court sentence, found defendant was likely to respond affirmatively to Drug Court probation, and sentenced her to concurrent five-year special probation Drug Court terms. The State appealed. The Appellate Division found no neither an illegal sentence nor statutory authorization, and dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded the State may appeal a Drug Court sentence only when the sentencing judge makes a plainly mistaken, non-discretionary, non-factual finding under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a). Because application of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14(a)(9) required fact-finding and an exercise of the sentencing judge’s discretion, a sentence based on application of that factor was not appealable as an illegal sentence. View "New Jersey v. Hyland" on Justia Law

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This appeal arose from defendant Davon Johnson’s unsuccessful application for pretrial intervention (PTI), filed in anticipation of his indictment for third-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance (CDS) within 1000 feet of a school zone. In May 2014, defendant was charged with motor vehicle and CDS offenses, including violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7(a). He applied for PTI and included a statement of compelling reasons supporting his admission. The prosecutor rejected defendant’s application. The prosecutor relied on New Jersey v. Caliguiri, 158 N.J. 28 (1999), which permitted prosecutors to treat an N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7 offense as a second-degree offense, thereby triggering the presumption against admission into PTI. And, quoting PTI Guideline 3(i), the prosecutor found defendant presumptively ineligible for PTI because he was charged with the “sale or dispensing” of a Schedule I or II narcotic and was not drug dependent. Following the denial of his application, a grand jury indicted defendant. Defendant appealed the denial to the trial court, which refused to disturb the prosecutor’s determination. Defendant then entered a guilty plea to third-degree possession of heroin. He appealed to the Appellate Division, arguing the prosecutor incorrectly applied the two presumptions against PTI. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted review and found that the 2009 amendments to N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7’s sentencing structure reflected a more flexible sentencing policy that rendered Caliguiri’s reasoning no longer viable. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held the presumption against PTI for second-degree offenders could not be applied to N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7(a) offenders. The Court also found that the presumption against PTI for the “sale” of narcotics was not applicable here because defendant was charged with possession with intent to “distribute” and there was no allegation or evidence that he sold the narcotics. The matter was remanded so that the prosecutor could reassess defendant’s application without consideration of the presumptions. View "New Jersey v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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In consolidated appeals, defendants were convicted of fourth-degree operating a motor vehicle during a period of license suspension for driving while intoxicated (DWI) under N.J.S.A. 2C:40-26. The issue presented was whether N.J.S.A. 2C:40-26(c) -- which prescribed a “fixed minimum” sentence of at least 180 days without parole eligibility -- overrode N.J.S.A. 2C:43-2(b)(7)’s general sentencing option, which allowed a court to impose a sentence that was served “at night or on weekends with liberty to work or to participate in training or educational programs,” unless otherwise provided. All five defendants -- Rene Rodriguez, Elizabeth Colon, Eric Lowers, Stephen Nolan, and Courtney Swiderski -- appeared before the same judge and were sentenced to 180 days in the county jail, to be served intermittently. Rodriguez and Colon were ordered to serve their sentences four nights per week, while Lowers, Nolan, and Swiderski were ordered to serve their sentences on weekends. The New Jersey Supreme Court determined the language chosen by the Legislature in enacting New Jersey’s Code of Criminal Justice (the Criminal Code or Title 2C) as interpreted by the Court meant that an individual sentenced to a fixed minimum term of parole ineligibility under N.J.S.A. 2C:40-26(c) could not serve his or her sentence intermittently at night or on weekends pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:43-2(b)(7). The Court therefore reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division. View "New Jersey v. Rodriguez" on Justia Law

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Defendant Shameik Byrd sold heroin to defendants Noel Ferguson and Anthony Potts in Paterson, New Jersey. Afterwards, Ferguson and Potts returned to their home state of New York where they sold the heroin they purchased to Kean Cabral in the Town of Warwick. Cabral died of an overdose in his home after taking the heroin originally sold by Byrd. As a result of allegedly causing Cabral’s death, Ferguson, Potts, and Byrd were charged with violating New Jersey’s strict-liability drug-induced death statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-9. Generally, the State can exercise territorial jurisdiction when either the defendant’s conduct or the result of that conduct occurs in New Jersey and is an element of a criminal offense. However, absent a clear legislative purpose indicating otherwise, a defendant cannot be prosecuted for “conduct charged” in New Jersey when that defendant’s acts within the State's borders cause a result in another state where, under that state’s law, the “conduct charged” does not constitute a crime. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that New Jersey’s Code of Criminal Justice restricted the State’s exercise of territorial jurisdiction over Ferguson, Potts, and Byrd for a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-9. Under N.J.S.A. 2C:1-3(a)(1), the State could not exercise territorial jurisdiction over Ferguson and Potts on the strict-liability drug-induced death charge because their distribution of heroin to Cabral and Cabral’s death did not occur in New Jersey. View "New Jersey v. Ferguson" on Justia Law