Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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In 2020, the Legislature amended N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1 to add a new mitigating factor fourteen: “[t]he defendant was under 26 years of age at the time of the commission of the offense.” N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(b)(14). It provided that “[t]his new act shall take effect immediately.” L. 2020, c. 110, § 2. In this appeal, the Court considers defendant Rahee Lane’s argument that the new mitigating factor should be applied to defendants who were under twenty-six years old at the time of their offenses, if their direct appeals were pending when the statute was amended. The New Jersey Supreme Court construed N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(b)(14) to be prospective, finding in the statutory language no indication that mitigating factor fourteen applied to defendants sentenced prior to the provision’s effective date. The Court viewed N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(b)(14)’s legislative history to confirm the Legislature’s intent to authorize sentencing courts to consider the new mitigating factor in imposing a sentence on or after the date of the amendment. View "New Jersey v. Lane" on Justia Law

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In 2010, a joint task force of local and federal law enforcement began investigating Mykal Derry, the leader of a drug organization, and his brother, Malik, among others. During the course of the investigation, a man was shot and killed in Atlantic City. A federal grand jury indicted nineteen individuals involved with the Derry drug organization in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. Defendants were convicted of various drug offenses, as well as the discharge of a firearm during the commission of a drug trafficking crime. Following their federal convictions, the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office indicted defendants, as relevant here, for murder and conspiracy to commit murder. In federal court, defendants received a sentence enhancement that applied if a victim was killed under circumstances that would constitute murder. The federal prosecutor did not seek restitution because he was informed that New Jersey had charged defendants with murder and would seek restitution in state court. The District Court ultimately sentenced defendants to life without parole on the drug trafficking conviction; a concurrent term of four years on all other drug and conspiracy convictions; ten years on the discharge of a firearm conviction, to be served consecutively to the life sentence; and ten years’ supervised release. Defendants moved to dismiss their state-court indictment under N.J.S.A. 2C:1-3(f), arguing that the federal prosecution already captured the murder because the discharge of a firearm charge covered the shooting of the victim. They further contended that the sentencing enhancement and resultant term of life-plus-ten-years adequately served New Jersey’s interests such that dismissal was in the interest of justice. The trial court denied their motion. Based on the differences between the federal and state proceedings, the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying defendants’ motion to dismiss the indictment. View "New Jersey v. Derry" on Justia Law

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Around midnight on May 7, 2011, a 7-Eleven was robbed. At approximately 12:15 a.m., Sergeant Mark Horan of the Hamilton Township Police Department received a transmission about the armed robbery, which “had just occurred.” Horan testified that the dispatch described the suspects “as two Black males, one with a handgun.” Horan activated the lights and sirens on his marked patrol car and drove towards the 7-Eleven. Approximately three-quarters of a mile from the 7-Eleven, Horan saw a car approaching in the oncoming traffic lane. He illuminated the inside of the vehicle and observed three Black males; “[t]he description of the suspects was two Black males so at that point I decided to issue a motor vehicle stop on the second vehicle.” Horan later explained that he was also struck by the lack of reaction to the spotlight by the occupants of the car, and that he “took into consideration the short distance from the scene, as well as the short amount of time from the call” as he made the stop. Defendant Peter Nyema was sitting in the passenger seat, and defendant Jamar Myers was in the rear passenger-side seat. The dispatcher advised Horan that the vehicle had been reported stolen. All three occupants were placed under arrest. More officers arrived on the scene, and while several officers secured the arrestees, others assisted Horan in searching for a weapon. Officers searched other parts of the vehicle, locating additional clothing in the trunk and a black semi-automatic handgun under the hood. Searches of the men themselves yielded just under $600 cash. Approximately $600 was reported stolen from the 7-Eleven. The vehicle was then impounded, and police transported the three men to the police station. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review in this case was whether reasonable and articulable suspicion existed when Horan conducted an investigatory stop of defendants' vehicle. The Supreme Court determined the only information the officer possessed at the time of the stop was the race and sex of the suspects, with no further descriptors. "That information, which effectively placed every single Black male in the area under the veil of suspicion, was insufficient to justify the stop of the vehicle and therefore does not withstand constitutional scrutiny." View "New Jersey v. Myers" on Justia Law

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In June 2011, defendant Christopher Radel pled guilty to a weapons offense. In October 2015, the court entered an order directing the local police department to confiscate any firearms at Radel's residence. Before carrying out the order, police learned: Radel resided at an address different than on the court order; Radel had two active municipal arrest warrants; and he possessed firearms other than a Beretta listed on the order. Police thereafter set in motion a plan to enforce the order to retrieve weapons and arrest Radel on the outstanding warrants. Performing a protective sweep, officers observed in plain view imitation firearms, butterfly knives, hatchets, bows and arrows, a ballistic vest, simulated police identification badges, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a glass pipe, and a safe capable of storing firearms. Police obtained a search warrant, netting the multiple weapons, drugs and related paraphernalia, and over $8,000 in cash found in the protective sweep. The trial court denied Radel’s motion to suppress the evidence, and the Appellate Division reversed, finding “no support for the [trial court’s] conclusion that the police had a reasonable and articulable suspicion that there were other persons inside the home or that they posed a risk to the police or others.” In 2017, a warrant for Tyler Fuller’s arrest was issued. Police learned Fuller might have been staying at a trailer park, in possession of a "large amount of narcotics." Four officers went directly to the front building where the trailer's owner (Terres) had said Fuller might be found. As police approached the front door, which was wide open, they observed two men inside, later identified as Mark Boston and William Willis. The officers announced their presence, Boston ran toward a bedroom, with one officer pursuing, believing that he might be Fuller. The officer struggled with Boston and eventually handcuffed him. A computer check revealed that both Boston and Willis had outstanding warrants for their arrest. During a protective sweep of the trailer, an offer peered into a hole in the floor, "large enough for a person to hide" under the residence. The next day a search warrant was issued, and multiple weapons were seized from the trailer. The trial court denied Terres’s motion to suppress the evidence, and the Appellate Division affirmed. The New Jersey Supreme Court found that "a self-created exigency by the police cannot justify entry into the home or a protective sweep." Here, the Court found a protective sweep was not warranted in the Radel case, but was constitutionally justified in the Terres case. View "New Jersey v. Terres" on Justia Law

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Defendants James Comer and James Zarate asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to find that a mandatory sentence of at least 30 years without parole was unconstitutional as applied to juveniles. Seventeen year old Comer was sentenced in 2004 to an aggregate term of 75 years in prison with 68.25 years of parole ineligibility for his participation in four armed robberies, one of which, an accomplice shot and killed a robbery victim. Zarate was convicted of participating in a brutal murder with his older brother. At the time of his offense in 2005, Zarate was 14 years old, less than one month shy of his 15th birthday. For the murder conviction, the court sentenced Zarate to life imprisonment, subject to an 85-percent period of parole ineligibility under the No Early Release Act (NERA), with consecutive sentences for two additional offenses. After weighing other statutory factors, Zarate was resentenced for murder to 50 years in prison. The Supreme Court reversed in both cases: "The statutory framework for sentencing juveniles, if not addressed, will contravene Article I, Paragraph 12 of the State Constitution. To remedy the concerns defendants raise and save the statute from constitutional infirmity, the Court will permit juvenile offenders convicted under the law to petition for a review of their sentence after they have served two decades in prison. At that time, judges will assess a series of factors the United States Supreme Court has set forth in Miller v. Alabama, which are designed to consider the 'mitigating qualities of youth.'" View "New Jersey v. Comer" on Justia Law

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In July 2001, victim C.S. was sexually assaulted by an unknown assailant. The New Jersey State Police Lab (“Lab”) created a profile for the suspect’s DNA sample, Specimen 12A, retrieved from C.S.’s body. In 2002, the Lab entered the DNA profile into the national Combined DNA Index System (“CODIS”). The DNA profile in CODIS did not include certain exclusionary data; without that data, it would have been impossible for Specimen 12A to generate a match with another DNA profile entered into CODIS. In 2004, defendant Bradley Thompson’s DNA sample was collected in an unrelated matter and his DNA profile entered into CODIS in 2006. In 2010, the FBI updated the National DNA Index System (“NDIS”) Operational Procedures Manual to explicitly allow the exclusionary data withheld from Specimen 12A to be entered into the system. In 2016, the Lab entered the exclusionary data for Specimen 12A into CODIS and was alerted that the specimen matched defendant’s DNA sample that had been entered into CODIS years earlier. Based on that match, defendant was indicted in May 2017 for offenses related to the July 2001 sexual assault. Defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the five-year statute of limitations began to run in 2004, when the State possessed both the physical evidence from the crime and defendant’s DNA sample. The trial court denied his motion and concluded that the statute of limitations started running when the State had evidence of a match. Defendant was ultimately convicted of fourth-degree criminal sexual contact and fourth-degree criminal trespass. The Appellate Division affirmed defendant’s conviction, finding that the statute of limitations began to run in 2016 when the State received a DNA match. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding the statute of limitations began to run in 2010, when the FBI’s updated scientific guidance rendered the Lab capable of generating a match based on the DNA samples in its possession. View "New Jersey v. Thompson" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, a detective administered Miranda warnings but repeatedly undermined them throughout an interrogation. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded the detective here repeatedly contradicted and minimized the significance of the Miranda warnings -- starting at the outset of the interrogation and continuing throughout -- meaning the State could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt, that defendant knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently waived his rights. The Appellate Division concluded defendant's statement made to police in violation of his Miranda rights had to be suppressed, and the Supreme Court affirmed. View "New Jersey v. O.D.A.-C." on Justia Law

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A car driven by defendant Rashaun Bell crashed into two teenaged boys riding a bicycle on a roadway in Jersey City. Both boys died as a result of the accident. Defendant and his three passengers fled the scene. Defendant was eventually apprehended and indicted on two counts of leaving the scene of an accident; he moved to dismiss one of the counts, arguing that, as applied here, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1 violated the rule against multiplicity. The trial court denied defendant’s motion and concluded N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1 holds a driver who knowingly flees the scene of an accident criminally responsible for each person who dies in the accident. Defendant thereafter pled guilty, pursuant to a plea agreement as to both counts of the indictment. Consistent with the agreement, the trial court sentenced defendant to two consecutive five-year terms of imprisonment. In response to defendant’s appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s ruling, dismissed one of the convictions, vacated the five-year term of imprisonment for that conviction, and remanded the matter to the trial court to amend the judgment of conviction accordingly. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the number of fatalities caused by the accident was not an element of the second-degree offense codified in N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.1. Therefore, the Court affirmed the part of the Appellate Division's judgment, but reversed with respect to that court's sua sponte amendment to defendant's sentence, "in a manner not contemplated by the terms of the plea agreement negotiated by the parties in good faith and approved by the trial court under Rule 3:9-2. Under these circumstances, the appellate court should have remanded the case to the trial court to permit the parties to negotiate a new plea agreement that the trial court finds acceptable or otherwise schedule the case for trial." View "New Jersey v. Bell" on Justia Law

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Defendant Anthony Sims, Jr. challenged his conviction of attempted murder and weapons offenses arising from the April 9, 2014 shooting of P.V. One of the issues this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review centered on the Appellate Division majority’s holding that police officers, prior to interrogation, were required to inform an arrestee of the charges that will be filed against him, even when no complaint or arrest warrant has been issued identifying those charges. Here, the divided panel found that the police officers who interrogated defendant violated his Miranda rights by not providing that information. Further, this case presented the issue of whether the trial court’s decision to admit at trial P.V.’s prior testimony at a pretrial hearing violated the rule against hearsay and the Confrontation Clause. P.V. was indicted for the murder of defendant’s brother. Although offered an immunity agreement by the State and ordered to testify by the trial court, P.V. asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege not to testify. The trial court permitted the State to present at trial P.V.’s testimony at the Wade/Henderson hearing as the prior testimony of an unavailable witness. The Appellate Division vacated defendant’s convictions and remanded for a new trial. A divided panel held that the police officers who interrogated defendant violated his Miranda rights. The court unanimously held that the trial court’s decision to admit at trial P.V.’s prior testimony violated the rule against hearsay and the Confrontation Clause. The Supreme Court declined to adopt the Appellate Division's analysis, and found no plain error in the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motion to suppress his statement to police. The Court also concurred with the trial court that the victim’s testimony at the pretrial hearing was admissible under N.J.R.E. 804(b)(1)(A)’s exception to the hearsay rule for the prior testimony of a witness unavailable at trial, and that the admission of that testimony did not violate defendant’s confrontation rights. View "New Jersey v. Sims" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Kathleen Moynihan and defendant Edward Lynch were involved in a long-term “marital-style relationship.” Anticipating the potential dissolution of that relationship, they signed and notarized a written agreement, without the assistance of counsel, that finalized the financial obligations each owed to the other. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review was the validity of that palimony agreement. In 2015, the parties parted ways, and Lynch refused to abide by their written agreement. Moynihan filed a complaint seeking enforcement of the written agreement and an alleged oral palimony agreement that she claimed the parties had entered before the Legislature in 2010 amended N.J.S.A. 25:1-5 to include subparagraph (h), which mandated that palimony agreements be reduced to writing and “made with the independent advice of counsel.” She challenged N.J.S.A. 25:1-5(h) on constitutional grounds and urged enforcement as a typical contract; alternatively, she sought enforcement of the agreement on equitable grounds. Lynch denied the existence of an oral palimony agreement and asserted that the written agreement was unenforceable because the parties did not receive the independent advice of counsel before entering it. The Supreme Court concluded the palimony agreement, as written and signed, without the attorney review requirement, was enforceable. That portion of N.J.S.A. 25:1-5(h), which imposed an attorney-review requirement to enforce a palimony agreement, contravenes Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution. The Court concluded the parties did not enter an oral palimony agreement. View "Moynihan v. Lynch" on Justia Law