Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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In connection with a 2014 shooting, defendant David Chavies was charged with murder, aggravated assault, and weapons offenses. In June 2016, defendant pled guilty to second-degree aggravated assault based on accomplice liability. His prison intake form indicated that his health was poor and that he suffered from asthma, sickle cell anemia, and a heart murmur. Defendant was sentenced to a ten-year term of imprisonment with an 85% period of parole ineligibility under the No Early Release Act (NERA). In May 2020, defendant filed a Rule 3:21-10(b)(2) motion for release from custody and, in the alternative, sought a judicial furlough until the COVID-19 pandemic subsided. Defendant provided voluminous medical documents in support of his motion showing he had been undergoing treatment for his ailments. The court determined that defendant was barred from relief under Rule 3:21-10(b)(2) because he had not yet served 85% of his sentence, the period of parole ineligibility, as mandated by NERA. Finding no reversible error, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's judgment. View "New Jersey v. Chavies" on Justia Law

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This appeal centered on the selection process for F.G., a Black male from Newark, New Jersey. F.G. was questioned at sidebar for about a half hour; F.G. told the court he believed he could be a fair and impartial juror. The State challenged F.G. for cause, noting that F.G. “has an awful lot of background” and “uses all of the lingo about, you know, the criminal justice system.” A second prosecutor voiced concern that F.G.’s “close friends hustle, engaged in criminal activity” because “[t]hat draws into question whether [F.G.] respects the criminal justice system” and his role as a juror. The trial court denied the State’s motion. After the court’s ruling, the prosecution ran a criminal history check on F.G. The next day, the court explained the prosecutor “came to see me yesterday” and revealed that there were “warrants out for F.G.” and that “[t]hey were going to lock him up.” Afterward, the State renewed its application to remove F.G. for cause. Defense counsel expressed concern about tainting the jury. The prosecutor replied that “the State is not in the habit of . . .looking at a random juror’s” criminal history, and then reiterated concerns the State had voiced the day before to explain why it ran a background check. Defendant Edwin Andujar was convicted as charged. On appeal, he argued he was denied the right to a fair trial because racial discrimination infected the jury selection process. In doing so, the Supreme Court addressed for the first time when a criminal history check could be run on a prospective juror. The New Jersey Supreme Court found nothing in the record that justified the State's decision to selectively focus on F.G. and investigate only his criminal record. "Based on all of the circumstances, the Court infers that F.G.’s removal from the jury panel may have stemmed from implicit or unconscious bias on the part of the State, which can violate a defendant’s right to a fair trial in the same way that purposeful discrimination can." The Court therefore reversed his conviction and remanded for a new trial. View "New Jersey v. Andujar" on Justia Law

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Raquel Ramirez and Jorge Orozco were charged with murder and endangering the welfare of a child in connection with the death of their two-year-old daughter and tried jointly. The prosecution argued in part that defendants were equally responsible for the many injuries their daughter suffered, including the blunt-force head trauma that caused her death, by failing to prevent those injuries. In keeping with that theory of the case, the court instructed the jury on the elements of N.J.S.A. 2C:2-6(c)(1)(c), which governed accomplice liability for the failure to prevent the commission of an offense when under a legal duty to do so. In preparing the jury charge, the trial court looked to the only precedential authority to address that particular section of the accomplice liability statute, New Jersey v. Bass, 221 N.J. Super. 466 (App. Div. 1987). The trial court expressed misgivings about the charge approved in Bass, which seemed to the court to create a “real possibility that a defendant can be convicted as an accomplice of murder without striking a blow and without sharing the purposeful intent to kill.” Nevertheless, noting that Bass remained good law, the court derived its charge to accomplice liability for murder directly from that opinion. The jury acquitted both defendants of murder but convicted each of a lesser included offense: Ramirez of second-degree reckless manslaughter, Orozco of first-degree aggravated manslaughter. The jury found both defendants guilty of endangering. The Appellate Division reversed, and vacated both the manslaughter and the endangering convictions of each defendant. After its review, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed as to defendants’ respective manslaughter convictions but reversed as to their convictions for endangerment. Because the jury was improperly instructed as to endangerment, the matter was remanded for a new trial. View "New Jersey v. Ramirez" on Justia Law

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Defendant Luis Masionet was charged with first-degree murder and other offenses in connection with a September 2016 shooting. After learning that his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, Christopher Romero, were expecting a child, defendant went to the store in the outlet mall where Romero worked, pulled out a handgun, and fatally shot Romero. Trial was scheduled to start in late 2017. By then, defendant had been represented by the same assistant deputy public defender for fifteen months. Right before jury selection was to begin, defendant asked the court for an adjournment, stating that, although he would have stayed with his attorney “all the way to the end” if he had taken a plea, “I cannot go to trial with [appointed counsel]” because she had tried only two cases in her career, neither of which were murder trials. The trial judge denied the adjournment request and indicated that appointed counsel would represent defendant through trial. The case proceeded to trial, and the jury convicted defendant on all counts presented. The issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review was whether defendant's constitutional right to counsel was denied when, on the day his murder trial was set to begin, he sought an adjournment to see if he could hire a private attorney and his request was denied. Like the Appellate Division, the Supreme Court rejected defendant's claim: "If a trial judge does not conduct the proper analysis...it may be necessary to reverse a conviction and start anew. But defendants are not automatically entitled to a new trial. ...the Appellate Division found no abuse of discretion under the circumstances. We agree and affirm defendant's conviction." View "New Jersey v. Maisonet" on Justia Law

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In June 2014, police officers pulled into a parking lot of an abandoned building and found defendants Andrea Dunbrack and Gabriel Rodriguez standing near an unoccupied vehicle. The police observed the victim, N.R., lying on the ground in the fetal position, verbally unresponsive, naked, and bloodied. A small fire was ablaze nearby. N.R.’s clothes were strewn about on the ground and on the front passenger seat of Dunbrack’s car, along with his passport, wallet, and money. A gun stained with N.R.’s blood lay on the driver’s seat, and police later retrieved another gun on Dunbrack’s person. The officers arrested Dunbrack, whose feet had N.R.’s blood on them. Rodriguez fled as police approached, and police later arrested him with N.R.’s cell phone in his pocket. Rodriguez and Dunbrack were charged with robbery, among other offenses, and were tried together. A jury convicted both defendants on all charges. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded for a new trial, holding that the trial court was obligated to give the lesser included theft charge sua sponte because the facts giving rise to that charge were evident from the record. The New Jersey Supreme Court found no error, “let alone plain error,” in the trial court’s omission of a theft charge: “Nothing in Dunbrack’s version of the events ‘jumps off the page’ as indicative of theft. Neither Dunbrack nor Rodriguez requested an instruction on theft, and the trial court was not required to scour the record for a combination of facts to justify giving such a lesser included jury charge.” View "New Jersey v. Dunbrack" on Justia Law

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In consolidated appeals, the issue they presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review centered on whether the Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA) empowered judges to detain defendants who were non-citizens to prevent immigration officials from removing them from the country before trial. Defendants Juan Molchor and Jose Rios were arrested and charged with aggravated assault and criminal mischief. Pretrial Services prepared Public Safety Assessments (PSAs) for both defendants, rating both defendants 1 out of 6 for failure to appear (the lowest level of risk), and 2 out of 6 for new criminal activity. Neither defendant had any pending charges, prior convictions, prior failures to appear, or prior juvenile adjudications. Pretrial Services recommended that both be released with monthly reporting. The State moved for pretrial detention, claiming defendants posed a flight risk because they were undocumented immigrants. The State presented no evidence that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was interested in either defendant. The court ordered both defendants detained pretrial, noting that, but for their immigration status, both would likely have been released. The Appellate Division reversed. The Supreme Court agreed with the Appellate Division that the DJRA did not authorize judges to detain defendants to thwart their possible removal by ICE: "it would be preferable for ICE to refrain from deporting defendants while they await trial for many reasons. If removal proceedings occur while a case is pending, we again urge ICE officials to work with prosecutors to allow pending criminal charges to be resolved." View "New Jersey v. Lopez-Carrera" on Justia Law

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The New Jersey Office of the Public Defender and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU) jointly sought two forms of relief: (1) the release of all defendants detained for six months or longer whose most serious charge is a second-degree offense or lower, with an opportunity for the State to object in individual cases and seek to justify continued detention under an enhanced burden of proof; and (2) new detention hearings under N.J.S.A. 2A:162-19(f) for all defendants detained for six months or longer who were charged with a first-degree offense and entitled to a presumption of release. Movants relied on constitutional and statutory bases in support of their requests, but the New Jersey Supreme Court declined to grant total relief, finding N.J.S.A. 2A:162-19(f) presented a path for individual defendants to argue against continued detention when (1) there is new information, or a change in circumstances, (2) that is material to the release decision. As to the first prong, the Court found “that the worldwide pandemic that has afflicted New Jersey and its prison system amounts to a change in circumstances” within the meaning of Rule 3:21-10(b)(2). "The Judiciary ... will again resume criminal jury trials in person when conditions sufficiently improve. Although there will be a considerable backlog of cases to address, we hope that recent positive developments will enable the criminal justice system to resolve many outstanding criminal charges in a timely manner." View "In the Matter of the Request to Release Certain Pretrial Detainees" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration was whether defendant Herby Desir was entitled to discovery regarding the controlled purchase of narcotics by a confidential informant (CI). Defendant was not charged in connection with that controlled purchase; however, the purchase formed the probable cause for issuance of a search warrant for defendant’s home, and execution of the search warrant led to charges against defendant for multiple drug and weapons offenses. The Appellate Division reversed the denial of defendant’s motion to compel discovery and remanded for further proceedings, thus permitting defendant, after receiving discovery, “either to withdraw his plea and proceed to trial . . . or to accept his earlier conviction and sentence.” The Appellate Division found that, under provisions of Rule 3:13-3(b)(1), the State should have automatically given defendant the laboratory report -- along with any police reports and video and sound recordings -- once the indictment was filed. The Supreme Court held a defendant seeking discovery in connection with a "Franks" hearing may -- in the trial court’s discretion and on showing a plausible justification that casts reasonable doubt on the veracity of the affidavit -- be entitled to limited discovery described with particularity that is material to the determination of probable cause. The Court affirmed and modified the Appellate Division’s judgment and remanded to the trial court for consideration under the standard adopted in this decision. View "New Jersey v. Desir" on Justia Law

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In January 2015, a man entered a gas station store wielding a machete and told the cashier to give him the money. The man took the money and fled. The events were captured on the gas station’s surveillance video, which police retrieved that night. Officers dispatched to the scene noticed and chased an individual in dark clothing. After losing sight of the suspect, one of the officers found an individual, later identified as defendant, wearing dark clothing, sweating, and breathing heavily in a nearby backyard. Defendant resisted arrest. Detective Jorge Quesada, who also responded to the dispatch, joined the effort to subdue defendant. Investigators found a machete and the robbery proceeds in the area where defendant was arrested. Police recovered a sweatshirt, one glove, and sneakers with a white sole and stripes from defendant. At defendant’s trial, the cashier narrated the gas station’s surveillance footage for the jury. Detective Quesada also narrated the footage, referring to an individual depicted in the video as “the defendant” twice. Defense counsel did not object. The prosecutor next showed the detective a pair of sneakers admitted into evidence and Detective Quesada testified, “[t]hese were the sneakers that the defendant was wearing at the time of his arrest.” Defense counsel objected, but the trial judge permitted Detective Quesada to testify about the similarities between the sneakers he saw on the video and the sneakers worn by defendant at the time of his arrest. Defendant was convicted of first-degree robbery and other offenses. On appeal, he challenged Detective Quesada’s testimony as “improper lay-witness opinion testimony as to the content of the surveillance video and the identity of the robber.” The Appellate Division affirmed defendant’s convictions and sentence. The Supreme Court granted certification limited to the lay-witness opinion issue and concluded the detective should not have referenced defendant in his summary of the surveillance footage. However, the Court found that fleeting reference did not amount to plain error in light of the other evidence produced. And the detective’s testimony regarding the sneakers was proper. View "New Jersey v. Singh" on Justia Law

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Consolidated appeals presented a common issue: whether state or federal constitutional ex post facto prohibitions permitted the defendants in these cases to be charged with and convicted of the enhanced third-degree offense of failure to comply with sex offender registration requirements when each defendant’s registration requirement arose from a conviction that occurred before the penalty for noncompliance was raised a degree. In 1995, Rodney Brown (R.B.) was convicted of sexual assault. In 2000, Hakum Brown (H.B.) was convicted of sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child. As a result of those predicate convictions, H.B. and R.B. were subject to the sex offender registration requirements imposed by Megan’s Law. At the time of H.B.’s and R.B.’s sex-offender convictions, failure to comply with the registration requirements was punishable as a fourth-degree offense. However, in 2007, the Legislature upgraded failure to register to a third-degree offense. In 2014, H.B. failed to timely register with his local police department. R.B. similarly failed to register in 2015. Each was charged with third-degree failure to register. The New Jersey Supreme Court determined defendants suffered no ex post facto violation as a result of being charged with failure-to-register offenses bearing the increased degree. "The Legislature is free to increase the penalty for the offense of failure to comply with the regulatory registration requirement -- which is separate and apart from defendants’ predicate sex offenses -- without violating ex post facto principles as to those predicate offenses." View "New Jersey v. Brown" on Justia Law