Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in New Jersey Supreme Court

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Defendant was charged with allegedly driving off with an Audi A4 that had been left outside a restaurant in Wallington with the keys in the ignition. After the owner saw that his vehicle was missing, he called 9-1-1 and reported the vehicle stolen. Approximately one hour later, a Fair Lawn police officer saw an Audi being driven in a very aggressive manner. The officer turned on the patrol car's lights and siren, and began to chase. But the Audi accelerated to 130 to 140 miles per hour and the chase was abandoned. Subsequently, a Clifton detective took up the pursuit. While seeking to avoid the pursuit, the driver of the Audi hit a curb, turned into a shopping center, struck a car, and stopped. The occupants of the vehicle ran out of the car. The detective chased and captured the driver, defendant. Defendant was charged with third-degree theft of an automobile, and second-degree eluding by fleeing from a police officer. At the end of the trial, the judge inadvertently failed to provide the jury with the no-adverse-inference charge that was requested by defendant and his counsel. Defense counsel did not object to the failure to provide the requested charge. A jury found defendant not guilty of third-degree theft, but guilty of second-degree eluding. The Appellate Division held that the trial court erred when, after defendant requested the no-adverse-inference charge, the court failed to instruct the jury that it could not draw an adverse inference from defendant's failure to testify. The panel concluded that the trial court's failure to provide the instruction after a defendant requested the instruction was of such constitutional magnitude as to warrant automatic reversal and remand for a new trial. The New Jersey Supreme Court has mandated a trial court's use of the no-adverse-inference instruction when requested at trial. The issue this case presented was whether failure to provide the charge was a per se error requiring automatic reversal, or whether the failure to provide the charge required a harmless-error analysis. After analysis, the Supreme Court concluded that when there is a failure to provide the no-adverse-inference charge, the error constitutes trial error and does not mandate automatic reversal. In this case, the Court found the error was harmless. Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division. View "New Jersey v. Camacho" on Justia Law

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Defendant Reginald Roach was convicted by a jury of aggravated sexual assault, burglary, and other offenses related to the home invasion and rape of a sixty-four-year-old woman. The issue on appeal to the Supreme Court was whether defendant's confrontation rights were violated when the DNA analyst who testified at trial, and who matched the DNA profile developed from defendant's buccal swab to DNA evidence left by the perpetrator at the scene of the offense, did not perform the testing procedures that provided the basis for the DNA profile developed from the perpetrator's evidence. At trial, the evidence from the analyst demonstrated that she had conducted her own review of the DNA testing results obtained from samples of the sperm and blood found on the victim after the sexual assault. The analyst explained that she engaged in that independent review to satisfy herself that she had a correct DNA profile to rely on in order to provide an expert comparison of DNA profiles. Upon review of the trial court record in this case, the Supreme Court held that defendant's confrontation rights were not violated by the analyst's testimony: defendant had the opportunity to confront the analyst who personally reviewed and verified the correctness of the two DNA profiles that resulted in a highly significant statistical match inculpating him as the perpetrator. The Supreme Court therefore affirmed the judgment of the Appellate Division. View "State v. Reginald Roach" on Justia Law

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In this case, a city clerk in a Faulkner Act municipality refused to accept for filing a petition for referendum on the ground that the petition did not have a sufficient number of qualifying signatures. Members of a Committee of Petitioners brought an action in lieu of prerogative writ to have the challenged ordinance put on the ballot. They also brought suit under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(c). Ultimately, the trial court granted the Committee members the relief they sought, placing the ordinance before the voters and awarding them, as the prevailing party, attorney’s fees for the deprivation of a substantive right protected by the Civil Rights Act. The Appellate Division affirmed all but the trial court’s finding of a civil rights violation. The Appellate Division determined that the Committee members did not suffer a deprivation of a right because the court provided the ultimate remedy - the referendum. Accordingly, the award of attorney’s fees was vacated. Upon review, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed that the city clerk violated the right of referendum guaranteed by the Faulkner Act. Furthermore, the Court held that the violation of that right deprived the Committee members a substantive right protected by the Civil Rights Act. The vindication of that right under the Civil Rights Act entitled the Committee members to an award of attorney’s fees. The Court therefore affirmed in part and reversed in part the judgment of the Appellate Division. View "Tumpson v. Farina" on Justia Law

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In 2008, the State filed a petition for the involuntary civil commitment of D.Y., who was convicted of several state and federal charges arising from sexual assaults on minors. At his initial commitment hearing, D.Y. stated that he did not want to be represented by the attorney who had been appointed for him. D.Y. did not attend his final hearing, in which his counsel moved on his behalf for an order permitting D.Y. to represent himself. The judge conducting the hearing denied the motion, stating that individuals subject to Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVPA) commitment must be represented by counsel pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.29(c). D.Y. appealed, asserting a right to self-representation under the Sixth Amendment and the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. An Appellate Division panel affirmed the trial court’s denial of D.Y.’s application, concluding that neither federal constitutional principle invoked by D.Y. afforded a right to self-representation in an SVPA civil commitment proceeding. The Supreme Court reversed: "We recognize that competent litigants in New Jersey have long been permitted to represent themselves in civil proceedings, with specific exceptions identified in statutes, court rules, and case law. Accordingly, we consider the Legislature’s intent when it enacted N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.29(c), and N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.31(a). [. . .] We find no evidence that the Legislature, when it enacted those provisions, intended to preclude an individual facing SVPA commitment from speaking on his or her own behalf, as long as standby counsel is present and available to assist throughout the hearing if needed." View "In the Matter of Civil Commitment of D.Y." on Justia Law

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The issue before the Supreme Court was whether State intercepted phone conversations and text messages between a husband and wife, pursuant to a court-approved wiretap, were protected communications under the marital communications privilege. A second issue raised in this case was whether New Jersey should adopt a crime-fraud exception to the marital communications privilege. In the fall of 2010, the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office was investigating Teron Savoy as the alleged leader of a drug trafficking network. As part of the investigation, the State obtained court orders under the New Jersey Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act authorizing wiretaps of two cell phones Savoy used. Among many hours of interceptions, the State recorded two or three phone calls and intercepted five text messages between Savoy and his wife Yolanda Terry. In those communications, Savoy asked Terry to pick up money from co-defendant Chardel Holman. The State alleged that Savoy had previously fronted heroin to Holman. In a detailed oral opinion, the trial judge denied the motion to suppress the conversations. The court found that the communications were admissible at trial because any confidential communication would be disclosed by a third party, and not a spouse. The trial court also discussed the crime-fraud exception to the marital communications privilege, which many federal and state courts have adopted, and concluded that “any communication made in this case in furtherance of drug trafficking is [not] worthy of protection.” Defendants appealed. In a published opinion, the Appellate Division reversed. The panel determined that under Rule 509 and the Wiretap Act, the communications in question were protected. In addition, the panel noted that strong public policy concerns supported applying a crime-fraud exception to the marital communications privilege. The Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division: "A confidential marital communication protected under the marital communications privilege does not lose its privileged status by virtue of a wiretap under the New Jersey Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act." The Court, however, proposed a crime-fraud exception to the marital communications privilege and, pursuant to the Evidence Act of 1960, sent it for approval by a joint resolution of the Legislature and for the Governor’s signature. View "New Jersey v. Terry" on Justia Law

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This was the second time defendant James Robinson appeared before the Supreme Court concerning his conviction for two drug transactions in December 2003 and January 2004. In "New Jersey v. Robinson," (200 N.J. 1, 18 (2009)), the Court held that a twenty- to thirty-second delay between the police knocking and announcing their presence to execute a search warrant and the forcible entry into defendant's apartment was not unreasonable. Defendant then filed a motion to reduce his fifteen-year term of imprisonment subject to a five-year period of parole ineligibility. The trial court had imposed two mandatory extended terms on one count of second-degree distribution of a controlled dangerous substance (CDS) within 500 feet of public property and one count of third-degree possession of CDS with intent to distribute. Treating the motion as an application to correct an illegal sentence, the trial court held that the mandatory repeat drug offender extended term should not have been imposed on the second-degree offense. The trial court then imposed a discretionary persistent offender extended term sentence of fifteen years' imprisonment subject to a five-year period of parole ineligibility on the second-degree offense and a mandatory repeat drug offender extended term of seven years' imprisonment subject to a three-year period of parole ineligibility on the third-degree offense. Defendant argued that this sentence also was illegal. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that the plain language of N.J.S.A. 2C:44-5(a)(2) barred the imposition of a discretionary extended term when the prosecutor has requested one and the trial court is obliged to impose a mandatory extended term on another offense in the same proceeding. "The statutes governing sentencing provide sufficient flexibility to fashion an appropriate sentence to address the repeat offender without resorting to multiple extended terms. To that end, when a defendant is eligible for imposition of both a discretionary extended term and a mandatory extended term, the State may elect which extended term it wishes to pursue." View "New Jersey v. Robinson" on Justia Law

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An investigation of a reported shooting in a part of town led Pennsville police to the house in which police knew defendant Michael Lamb had resided at one time. Defendant's stepfather emphatically informed police that they were not welcome on his property or in his house. Defendant’s girlfriend appeared at the door and left the house. She supplied information to police that provided probable cause for defendant’s arrest and confirmed his presence in the house. Later, defendant’s stepfather agreed to leave the house, and soon thereafter, defendant left the house at the insistence of his mother. Defendant’s mother permitted police officers to enter the house and agreed to a search of the room where her son and his girlfriend were staying. Police located a loaded handgun and ammunition similar to the equipment used in the earlier shooting. The issue on appeal before the Supreme Court was defendant's challenge to the warrantless search of the house. The Court concluded after review that the consent to search provided by defendant’s mother was knowing, voluntary, and valid. The absence of defendant and his stepfather from the home permitted defendant’s mother to provide or withhold consent. View "New Jersey v. Lamb" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented to the New Jersey Supreme Court centered on the validity of a warrantless search of the bedroom of defendant Byseem Coles, "nine days shy of twenty years old" when the events pertinent to this appeal occurred. Defendant lived with other family members in his aunt’s home where he had his own bedroom. The bedroom door had a padlock on it to keep others, especially young children living in the household, from getting into his private belongings. While out one evening, defendant was detained by a police officer investigating a reported robbery in the area. After a showup in which the robbery victim failed to identify defendant as the perpetrator, and after a search of defendant’s person that produced no evidence linking defendant to the crime, defendant’s detention was continued because he had no identifying documents on him. At defendant’s urging, two officers walked a few houses over from where defendant was being held in a patrol car to ask one of defendant’s relatives to confirm that he lived at the address he had given the police. Instead of merely confirming defendant’s identity and that he lived in the home, the inquiries by the police turned into a concerted effort to obtain defendant’s aunt’s permission to search defendant’s bedroom. During the ensuing search, weapons unrelated to the robbery under investigation were found in his room. Upon review of defendant's appeal, the Supreme Court concluded defendant’s detention was unlawful. The police lacked probable cause to continue his detention after the showup and the search of defendant produced no evidence linking him to the crime. Although the police officers were entitled to a reasonable, but brief, opportunity to confirm defendant’s identity, that identification was accomplished at the threshold of defendant’s home. When the police efforts turned immediately thereafter to securing from defendant’s aunt consent to search defendant’s bedroom, their actions were premised on the belief that the man held in the patrol car was Byseem Coles. However, at that point, defendant’s detention ceased to be lawful. The interactions with defendant’s aunt cannot be disentangled from the unlawful detention of defendant in a patrol car parked a few houses down the street. Thus, the objective reasonableness of this asserted consent-based search founders on the unlawfulness of the police detention of defendant in the totality of these circumstances. View "New Jersey v. Coles" on Justia Law

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The incident underlying defendant’s convictions occurred in the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) where defendant worked from 2003 through 2006 as a technician in the information technology (IT) department. In 2006, all of the OAG’s network printers began to repeatedly print a document depicting a confederate flag and a threatening, racist message. A second, similar printing incident occurred a few hours later. An OAG IT security manager and one of defendant’s supervisors, attempted to stop the printing and determine the source of the problem. The manager testified that, at first, defendant had not assisted with the IT staff’s collection of the printed documents; instead, defendant and another member of the IT staff had been "kind of giggling" and acting "giddy." The manager informed the State Police about the specific internet protocol (IP) address that was determined to be the source of the print orders and about his discovery of a phony media access control (MAC) address. In addition, the manager named as suspects defendant and the other IT staff member with whom defendant had been "giggling." At the Miranda hearing during which defendant testified that his initial confession during the interrogation at the OAG had been induced by police officers’ promises of leniency, including the offer of an "easy sentence" and participation in a pretrial intervention (PTI) program. The interrogating officer testified that he was unable to remember whether any such promises had been made. The trial court denied defendant’s suppression motion, finding that defendant’s confession had not been induced by promises of leniency and further finding that the officer had denied any threats or promises of leniency. Defendant’s confession was admitted in evidence and the jury convicted him on both counts of the indictment. The issue this case presented to the Supreme Court was whether, under the totality-of-the-circumstances test, the defendant voluntarily waived his Miranda rights. The Supreme Court concluded that the record lacked sufficient credible evidence to support the trial court’s finding that defendant was not offered leniency in exchange for his confession. The case was remanded for a new Miranda hearing to allow a trial court to make fresh credibility and factual findings, after which the trial court may decide what weight, if any, to assign to any promises of leniency when it applies the totality-of-the-circumstances test. View "New Jersey v. Hreha" on Justia Law

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Prior to sentencing, defendant applied for admission to the Pretrial Intervention program (PTI), which the State denied. Defendant appealed to the Law Division, claiming that he was entitled to PTI because the second-degree offense (which his attorney advised barred him from PTI), had been dismissed. He also claimed that he was similarly situated to co-defendant, who was admitted to PTI. The trial court requested that the State reconsider defendant’s application, asking for clarification why it accepted co-defendant into PTI but not defendant. The State again concluded that defendant was not an appropriate candidate for PTI, explaining that it reviewed each application individually and that, in its view, defendant showed no remorse and the victim did not consent to defendant’s admission to the program. The trial court admitted defendant into the PTI program over the prosecutor’s objection, finding that defendant and co-defendant were similarly situated and the prosecutor’s decision to deny defendant PTI entry was a clear error of judgment. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded, finding that defendant’s PTI application was not timely because the statute governing PTI required applications to be made “prior to trial.” The panel also stated enrollment into PTI should be resolved before or at the pretrial conference and, in any event, before a plea or verdict. After its review of the case, the Supreme Court concluded PTI was not available to defendant once the charges have been tried before a judge or a jury and a guilty verdict has been returned. View "New Jersey v. Bell" on Justia Law