Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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The Office of the Public Defender and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU) applied directly to the New Jersey Supreme Court for relief relating to the spread of the novel coronavirus in state prison and juvenile facility settings. They essentially asked the Judiciary to order a framework for the early release of several groups. Under the proposed framework, judges or court-appointed special masters would decide whether to grant release or a furlough in individual cases. Two days after the Public Defender and ACLU wrote to the Court, the New Jersey Governor issued Executive Order 124 creating a mechanism to identify inmates in state prison to be considered for parole or a medical furlough. The Supreme Court determined Executive Order 124 created a sufficient expectation of eligibility for release through a furlough program to call for certain due process protections. Inmates may challenge the DOC’s action, a final agency decision, by seeking review before the Appellate Division. The agency’s decision is entitled to deference on appeal. Individual inmates may also seek relief independently under Rule 3:21-10(b)(2). They do not have to exhaust the remedies available under the Executive Order before they may file a motion in court. As to sentences imposed on juveniles who are in the custody of the Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC), those individuals may seek relief from the court on an individual basis. To the extent the opinion called for trial judges to rule on motions and the Appellate Division to review agency decisions, the Supreme Court exercised its supervisory authority to require that applications be heard and decided in a matter of days and urged the Commissioner and the Parole Board to act as expeditiously as possible. View "An Order to Show Cause to Address the Release of Certain Individuals Serving Sentences in State Prisons and Juvenile Facilities" on Justia Law

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Defendant Isaiah Bell was arrested after James Kargbo died from stab wounds apparently inflicted during an altercation that occurred when defendant and his partner arrived at Kargbo’s house to pick up her son. A Somerset County prosecutor asked a grand jury to consider two charges against defendant: murder, a crime of the first degree, and third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. The prosecutor explained the counts and elements of the offenses. A grand juror twice asked whether murder had different degrees, and the prosecutor explained that grand jurors do not determine degrees, only whether the facts presented “fit the elements of the crime.” After several witnesses testified and answered questions, the same grand juror asked, “is there such a thing as second-degree murder?” The prosecutor responded by discussing the grand jury’s responsibilities regarding “lesser included lower offenses,” and the elements of murder. The grand juror asked, “[T]here’s no part of the . . . statute that speaks to premeditation?” The prosecutor confirmed that there was not and read the model jury charge for murder. The grand jury indicted defendant on both counts. The issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration was whether the prosecutor's failure to instruct the grand jury on lesser-included offense for murder in response to questions posed by the grand juror constituted an abuse of prosecutorial discretion that warranted dismissal of defendant's indictment for first-degree murder and weapons charges. The Supreme Court determined the prosecutor did not impermissibly interfere with the grand jury's investigative function. View "New Jersey v. Bell" on Justia Law

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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