Articles Posted in New Jersey Supreme Court

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In 2007, then eighteen-year-old defendant Kirby Lenihan was driving her vehicle on a road whose speed limit was posted at forty-five miles per hour. K.G., who was then sixteen years old, was in the passenger seat. It was raining heavily and visibility was poor. At approximately 12:39 a.m., defendant veered to the right, drove through the shoulder, collided head-on with the guardrail, and hit a yellow roadway sign about five feet off the side of the road. Defendant and K.G. suffered serious head injuries as a result of the crash. K.G. also sustained serious bodily injuries. Neither defendant nor K.G. were wearing seat belts. Both airbags deployed. Defendant admitted that she was "driving too fast" given the road and weather conditions and her inexperience as a driver. Two aerosol cans of household cleaners, the contents of which contained difluoroethane, were discovered in defendant's car during the police investigation of the accident. Defendant and K.G. were transported to Morristown Memorial Hospital. As a result of the evidence of suspected inhalation ("huffing"), blood was drawn from defendant at the hospital about forty-five minutes after the accident, and difluoroethane was found in her blood. The following morning, K.G. died at 5:26 a.m., as a result of her injuries. Defendant asserted that due to the injuries suffered in the accident, she had no specific recollection of the accident or the events leading up to it. A Grand Jury returned an indictment charging defendant in count one with a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18a, a second-degree offense, based on the Seat Belt Law and recklessly causing the death of K.G. The indictment also charged defendant with second-degree vehicular homicide (count two); and first-degree vehicular homicide within 1000 feet of school property (count three). The latter charge was subsequently dismissed on defendant's motion. Defendant moved to dismiss the indictment in its entirety on the grounds of "bias and preconceived attitude by a grand juror," and "prejudicially improper instructions to the grand jury by the State." Defendant also moved to dismiss count one on the grounds that the Seat Belt Law was not intended to "protect the public health and safety" within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18. That motion was denied by the trial court. As a result of plea negotiations, count one was amended to charge a third-degree crime. The State agreed to recommend dismissal or merger of the vehicular homicide charge and to dismiss various summonses for: failure to wear a seat belt and to ensure that K.G. buckled her seat belt, N.J.S.A. 39:3-76.2f(b); driving under the influence, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(g); and reckless driving, N.J.S.A. 39:4-96. Defendant retained the right to appeal the denial of her motion to dismiss count one. The judge imposed a three-year term of supervised probation conditioned upon serving 180 days in the Sussex County jail. Defendant moved for a stay of the custodial term pending appeal. The Appellate Division granted the application. The Appellate Division held that the Seat Belt Law was a "law intended to protect the public health and safety" as stated in N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18. Moreover, the panel held that the statutory language of N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18 was not unconstitutionally vague as applied. Defendant appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. The issue presented for the Court's review was whether N.J.S.A. 39:3-76.2f could be deemed "a law intended to protect the public health and safety," or a predicate offense within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18b. Under the circumstances presented in this case, a Seat Belt Law violation is a predicate offense that can support a conviction under N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18b. View "New Jersey v. Lenihan" on Justia Law

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Winslow Township Police Patrolman Carl Mueller testified that he stopped defendant after defendant’s car passed the officer’s police vehicle. Officer Mueller testified defendant was traveling at a “high rate of speed,” and failed to use his turn signal when returning to the normal travel lane. After he approached the vehicle, Officer Mueller detected an odor of alcoholic beverage. Defendant admitted that he had been drinking. Officer Mueller ordered defendant to perform field sobriety tests and defendant acquiesced. Defendant later resisted arrest. The officer requested backup, and eventually resorted to the use of pepper spray to subdue defendant. Defendant was charged with DUI, reckless driving and failing to signal. A Camden County Grand Jury also indicted defendant for third-degree aggravated assault on a police officer, third-degree resisting arrest, and two counts of fourth-degree subjecting a law enforcement officer to bodily fluid. Defendant pled guilty to assaulting the officer and was sentenced to two years non-custodial probation. The remaining counts of the indictment were dismissed and the motor vehicle charges were remanded to municipal court for disposition. At trial, the conviction was entered solely on the basis of evidence elicited at a pre-trial hearing to suppress the fruits of the stop and subsequent arrest. The Appellate Division reversed defendant’s conviction, and entered a judgment of acquittal, holding that a trial court sitting as a fact-finder in a quasi-criminal matter may not rely on the evidence heard in a pre-trial suppression hearing as proof of guilt in the trial on the merits without defendant’s consent. The issue this case presented for the Supreme Court's review was the correct remedy when the municipal court convicts a defendant solely based on evidence adduced in a pre-trial suppression hearing, without defendant’s consent but without objection. Due to the fundamental differences between the purposes of a suppression hearing and a trial on the merits of the charges, the evidence from the pre-trial hearing cannot be used in a subsequent trial on the merits, without a stipulation from both parties. However, the correct remedy for this error is a remand for a new trial rather than a judgment of acquittal. The Court therefore reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division and remanded the case to the municipal court for further proceedings. View "New Jersey v. Gibson" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Supreme Court's review was whether a defendant released on bail on one indictment, later incarcerated on a different indictment, could claim jail credit for the first one. Defendant Daryel Rawls was indicted on drug-related charges in Union County, made bail, but was later arrested for unrelated offenses in Ocean County. Defendant spent 155 days in Ocean County custody before he pled guilty to his Union County charges and his bail was formally revoked. The trial court denied defendant's motion to receive jail credit for this period toward his Union County sentence. The Appellate Division affirmed. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that a direct application of "New Jersey v. Hernandez,"(208 N.J. 24 (2011)), mandated that defendant receive a 155-day jail credit toward his Union County sentence. Accordingly, the Court reverseed the Appellate Division and remanded the case to the trial court for application of the 155-day jail credit. View "New Jersey v. Rawls" on Justia Law

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In late June 2004, approximately fifty young men and women gathered at the apartment of a recent high school graduate to celebrate her graduation. Later in the evening, a verbal argument erupted on the street in front of the apartment between two young men -- defendant Jahnell Weaver and Edward Williams. As the verbal altercation continued, someone drew a gun and fired five shots. Williams died from three gunshot wounds. His friend, Amyr Hill, was gravely wounded by two gunshots but survived. Weaver and his friend fled from the scene. Based on statements obtained from Hill and several eyewitnesses, police determined that the shots were fired by either Weaver or Khalil Bryant. Both were subsequently charged with the murder of Williams, the attempted murder of Hill, and various weapons charges. An issue at trial was the identity of the shooter. Hill initially identified Bryant as the shooter but later modified his identification, stating that he was not sure whether Weaver or Bryant fired the shots. An eyewitness provided similar testimony. Another eyewitness provided a description of the shooting that suggested Bryant was the shooter. Two other eyewitnesses stated unequivocally that Weaver shot both young men. Weaver contended that Bryant, shot the victims. In support of this defense, Weaver sought to introduce evidence of Bryant’s involvement in a later shooting in which he used the murder weapon. Weaver also moved for a separate trial. The trial court denied Weaver’s defensive use of the subsequent other-crimes evidence and denied the severance motion. The jury found defendant guilty of all counts and found Bryant guilty of third-degree unlawful possession of a weapon and two counts of third-degree endangering an injured victim. On appeal, defendant argued that his right to confrontation was violated because the trial court admitted Bryant’s statements identifying defendant as the shooter, even though Bryant did not testify. Defendant also contended that the trial court should have permitted him to introduce the other-crimes evidence, namely that Bryant used the murder weapon in connection with the another shooting incident. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded: "The confluence of defendant’s third-party defense strategy, the erroneous denial of his defensive use of co-defendant’s subsequent acts with the murder weapon, the denial of his motion to sever the trial, the admission of an inadequately redacted statement, and the erroneous admission of when co-defendant received the murder weapon require a new trial. The cumulative impact of these errors was not harmless." View "New Jersey v. Weaver" on Justia Law

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Defendant Christopher Dekowski entered a bank carrying what looked like a briefcase, went to a teller’s counter, and with the use of a note demanded money and threatened that he had a bomb. The bank manager did as she was told and gave defendant cash. A jury convicted defendant of first-degree robbery. In New Jersey v. Williams, the Supreme Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction of first-degree robbery for threatening a bank teller with a deadly weapon in the course of committing a theft despite having been unarmed on only having made the threat of use of a deadly weapon. The Court held that to find the defendant guilty of first-degree robbery in a simulated deadly weapon case, the victim must have an actual and reasonable belief that the defendant threatened the immediate use of such a weapon. The Appellate Division overturned the first-degree conviction in this case finding the evidence insufficient to prove that defendant simulated possession of a deadly weapon. In rendering that decision, the panel referred to the failure of the State’s witnesses to express in their testimony that “they believed defendant had a bomb in the briefcase, or that he led them to believe that it contained a bomb, or even that it was shaped in such a way that it was likely to hold a bomb.” The panel concluded that the evidence instead established second-degree robbery and remanded for resentencing. The Supreme Court reversed: "A terrorized victim cannot be expected to demand proof from the robber that he is armed with a deadly weapon, such as a bomb. [. . .] It is enough if the victim has an actual and reasonable belief that the robber has a bomb based on the totality of the circumstances, including defendant’s verbal threat, dress, any hand-held objects, and overall conduct." View "New Jersey v. Dekowski" on Justia Law

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A jury convicted defendant Kelvin Williams of first-degree robbery based on evidence that he entered a bank, told a teller he possessed a bomb, and demanded money. Defendant made no gesture as he made his threat, and a bomb was not displayed. Defendant was dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and pants, and his hands were not visible. It was undisputed that defendant was not armed with a bomb. The issue in this appeal was whether defendant’s demand of money from the bank employee while telling her he was armed with a bomb, in the absence of any gesture suggesting the truth of his remark, constituted sufficient evidence of an immediate threat to use a deadly weapon. The Appellate Division concluded that the failure of defendant to make some gesture suggesting he was armed with a bomb did not allow a finding that defendant threatened the immediate use of a deadly weapon. The appellate panel therefore overturned the jury verdict. The Supreme Court disagreed with the Appellate Division: "Well-documented events since 2001 have made the public painfully aware that bombs can be secreted in cunning ways [. . .] and can be exploded by various means, including by timers and remote devices. A defendant who makes a credible threat that he is armed with a bomb may be taken at his word for purposes of first-degree robbery. So long as the victim had an actual and reasonable belief that a defendant was armed with a bomb based on the totality of the circumstances, including the defendant’s words, conduct, and dress, a gesture is not a prerequisite for a finding that defendant threatened the immediate use of a deadly weapon." The Court reversed the Appellate Division, reinstated defendant’s conviction of first-degree robbery, and remanded the case to the Appellate Division for consideration of the remaining issue not addressed in defendant’s appeal. View "New Jersey v. Williams" on Justia Law

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At trial on attempted murder and related charges, a State's witness against defendant Vonte Skinner was permitted to read to the jury, at great length, violent and profane rap lyrics that had been written by defendant before the events at issue. There was no assertion at trial that the violence-laden verses were in any way revealing of some specific factual connection that strongly tied defendant to the underlying incident. Nevertheless, the State maintained that the lyrics helped to demonstrate defendant’s "motive and intent" in connection with the offense because the rap lyrics addressed a street culture of violence and retribution that fit with the State’s view of defendant’s role in the attempted murder. The Appellate Division reversed defendant’s conviction based on the admission of the rap lyrics into evidence in defendant’s trial. In reaching its conclusion, the panel used an N.J.R.E. 404(b) analysis and determined that the prejudicial impact of defendant’s rap lyrics vastly outweighed any potential probative value. The Supreme Court affirmed, finding that admission of the lyrics constituted highly prejudicial evidence against him that bore little or no probative value as to any motive or intent behind the attempted murder offense with which he was charged. "The admission of defendant’s inflammatory rap verses, a genre that certain members of society view as art and others view as distasteful and descriptive of a mean-spirited culture, risked poisoning the jury against defendant. Fictional forms of inflammatory self-expression, such as poems, musical compositions, and other like writings about bad acts, wrongful acts, or crimes, are not properly evidential unless the writing reveals a strong nexus between the specific details of the artistic composition and the circumstances of the underlying offense for which a person is charged, and the probative value of that evidence outweighs its apparent prejudicial impact. In the weighing process, trial courts should consider the existence of other evidence that can be used to make the same point. When admissible, such evidence should be carefully redacted to ensure that irrelevant and inflammatory content is not needlessly presented to the jury." View "New Jersey v. Skinner" on Justia Law

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Malik & Son, LLC owned property in the Borough of Merchantville. The Property contained a fifty-four unit apartment building and had been designated by the Borough as an area in need of redevelopment. Malik assumed a mortgage loan issued by LB-RPR REO Holdings, LLC’s (LB) predecessor, and defaulted on the loan. LB’s predecessor in interest filed a complaint to foreclose the mortgage, and Malik did not file an answer. In early 2011, the court entered a final judgment of foreclosure. LB’s predecessor in interest transferred all its rights and interest in the Property to LB the next day. Once it acquired the loan, LB had a receiver appointed for the Property and made substantial repairs to the building. In an effort to protect its interest in the Property, LB sought, and the court entered, an order that directed that Malik could not sell the Property without the express approval of the sale price by LB. Throughout 2010 and 2011, the Borough pursued a plan to redevelop the Property. The Borough designated Citadel Wellwood, LLC (Citadel) as the redeveloper of the Property, and adopted the redevelopment and rehabilitation plan for the Property. Months before Citadel was designated as the redeveloper of the Property, Citadel entered a contract to purchase it for $1,250,000. Richard DePetro, the principal of Citadel, cancelled the contract after seeking a $200,000 reduction in the purchase price due to the deteriorated condition of the building. Malik rejected the offer, citing the amount due on the LB mortgage. Prior to cancelling the contract, Citadel contacted LB and offered to purchase the Property for $1,250,000 if LB agreed to a short sale to permit satisfaction of other liens. In the course of those discussions, DePetro mentioned to LB’s representative that the Borough would probably condemn the Property. In June 2011, in response to an inquiry from an LB representative, the Borough denied any intention to condemn the Property. However, once the Borough adopted the redevelopment plan on September 26, 2011, the Borough engaged an appraiser to ascertain the fair market value of the Property. The appraiser opined that as of August 24, 2011, its fair market value was $0. He calculated that value because the cost to renovate the Property far exceeded its market value following renovation and rehabilitation. The appraiser also assigned a fair market value of $270,000 without renovations. In a letter dated November 11, 2011, the Borough offered Malik $270,000 for the Property. Malik declined the Borough's offer. That same date, LB’s attorney contacted the Borough, expressing its surprise that the Borough intended to condemn the Property and noted that the Borough’s offer was far less than the price offered by Citadel in June 2011. LB’s attorney informed the Borough that it had obtained a final judgment of foreclosure and that the Property was scheduled to be sold at Sheriff’s Sale. Noting that it would soon own the Property, LB expressed its desire to meet with the Borough to discuss reasonable compensation for the Property. In this appeal, the issue this case presented to the Supreme Court was whether N.J.S.A. 20:3-6 required a condemning authority to engage in bona fide negotiations with a mortgage holder that has obtained a final judgment of foreclosure for the property sought to be condemned. In this case, the condemning authority initiated eminent domain proceedings after the property owner rejected its offer to acquire the property, just days before the holder of the foreclosure judgment expected the property to be sold at a Sheriff’s Sale. The judgment holder contended it was the real party in interest, and that the condemning authority had an obligation to negotiate with it rather than the property owner prior to initiating condemnation proceedings. The trial court concluded that the condemning authority had properly submitted the offer to the owner of record, and the subsequent rejection of the offer satisfied the statutory requirement of bona fide negotiations prior to the exercise of eminent domain authority. The trial court also determined that the condemning authority had no obligation to advise the foreclosure judgment holder of its intention to condemn or to engage in bona fide negotiations with it. In a reported decision, the Appellate Division affirmed. The Supreme Court agreed and affirmed the judgment of the Appellate Division. View "Borough of Merchantville v. Malik & Son, LLC" on Justia Law

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A jury convicted defendant, Bryden Williams, of murder, third-degree possession of a handgun without a carrying permit, and second-degree possession of a handgun with the purpose to use it unlawfully against another. In 2006, Joel Whitley, Omar Boyd, and Boyd's girlfriend attended a party at Dynesha Gibson's apartment. Whitley became intoxicated and involved in an altercation with another party guest, and was asked to leave. A short time later, Whitley realized he had left his cell phone at the party, and he and Boyd went back to retrieve it. Gibson refused to return the phone and Whitley started kicking the apartment's front door. Gibson told Whitley and Boyd that they should leave before defendant arrived. As Whitley and Boyd were leaving, defendant arrived. He exited his car and, armed with a handgun, aimed it at Boyd and asked, "What's the problem?" After Gibson yelled from the window that Whitley had "disrespected" either her or her sister, defendant put the gun to Whitley's head and forced him into an adjacent alley. Defendant then pointed the gun at Whitley's chest and fired once, killing him. At trial, defendant asserted that he acted in self-defense. He claimed that when he arrived at Gibson's apartment, he saw Whitley banging on the apartment's door and told him to get off the porch. As Whitley stepped off of the porch, defendant claimed that Whitley pulled out a gun and pointed it toward him. Defendant claimed that he struggled with Whitley and that as they wrestled, a single shot was fired with the gun still in Whitley's hand. Defendant stated that he never touched the gun's handle and was trying to disarm Whitley when the gun fired. Dr. Zhongxue Hua, the Chief Medical Examiner of Union County and an expert in forensic pathology, testified as to the cause and manner of Whitley's death. Dr. Hua did not perform or assist in the autopsy. The doctor that had performed the autopsy was not called as a witness, and defendant did not object to Dr. Hua's testimony or qualifications. On cross-examination, defense counsel pursued a line of questioning consistent with a theory of self-defense. Based on gunpowder residue discovered on Whitley's clothing, defense counsel elicited from Dr. Hua that the gun was fired several inches away from Whitley. Defense counsel also had Dr. Hua explain that the bullet took a downward path through Whitley's body. In response to defense questioning, Dr. Hua stated that if Whitley had been holding the gun's handle when it discharged, gunpowder residue would have been found on his hand, but that the autopsy report did not indicate whether Whitley's hand was tested for gunpowder residue. Ultimately, the jury rejected self-defense as a justification for the shooting and found defendant guilty of all charges. Defendant appealed, claiming that his right to confrontation had been violated. In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division rejected defendant's claim. The Supreme Court affirmed: defendant's failure to object to the admission of the testimony on confrontation grounds and his decision to cross-examine the medical examiner constituted a waiver of his right of confrontation. View "New Jersey v. Williams" on Justia Law

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Defendant Julie Michaels was charged with second-degree vehicular homicide, third-degree assault by auto, and four other related charges, as well as motor vehicle citations, including driving while intoxicated, reckless driving, possession of a controlled dangerous substance in a motor vehicle, and possession of an open container of alcohol. Laboratory results of gas chromatography/mass spectrometry tests performed on defendant's blood sample, which was drawn at a hospital the evening of her motor vehicle accident, revealed the presence of cocaine, alprazolam, and benzoethylene (a cocaine metabolite). At trial, the State introduced testimony from Edward Barbieri, Ph.D., an assistant supervisor and toxicology technical leader from the private laboratory that had performed the testing on defendant's blood sample and issued a report certifying the test results. Dr. Barbieri was responsible for supervising the technicians and analysts who were involved in the gas chromatography/mass spectrometry testing. Over defendant's objection, the report was admitted into evidence without the testimony of the fourteen individuals who had performed various tasks associated with the testing procedures. A jury convicted defendant on all counts, and the Appellate Division affirmed defendant's conviction. Defendant argued on appeal to the Supreme Court that her Sixth Amendment confrontation rights were violated because the laboratory report was admitted, although defendant had not had the opportunity to confront each laboratory employee who participated in the testing that generated the results contained in the report. The Supreme Court concluded after review that the admission of the laboratory report did not violate defendant's confrontation rights. The laboratory supervisor (who testified and was available for cross-examination) was knowledgeable about the testing process that he was responsible for supervising. "We recognize that the forensic report in issue is 'testimonial' and that it is the type of document subject to the Confrontation Clause. [. . .] However, in this matter we join the many courts that have concluded that a defendant's confrontation rights are not violated if a forensic report is admitted at trial and only the supervisor/reviewer testifies and is available for cross-examination, when the supervisor is knowledgeable about the testing process, reviews scientific testing data produced, concludes that the data indicates the presence of drugs, and prepares, certifies, and signs a report setting forth the results of the testing." View "New Jersey v. Michaels" on Justia Law