Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey

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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

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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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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