Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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In October 2017, an incarcerated woman filed a lawsuit against Cumberland County and several corrections officers, including Tyrone Ellis, alleging she had been forced to engage in non-consensual sex acts on a regular basis. Plaintiff Libertarians for Transparent Government (Libertarians) obtained minutes of the public meeting of the Board of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System at which the Board considered Ellis’s application for special retirement. According to the minutes, the County originally sought to terminate Ellis, who had been charged with a disciplinary infraction. When he submitted his resignation, the County warned that it intended to continue to prosecute the disciplinary matter. Ellis, in turn, “agreed to cooperate” with the County’s investigation of four other officers suspected of similar misconduct. “As a result of his cooperation, Cumberland County agreed to dismiss the disciplinary charges and permit Mr. Ellis to retire in good standing” with a reduced pension. Libertarians sent the County an OPRA request seeking, as relevant here, the settlement agreement and Ellis’s “'name, title, position, salary, length of service, date of separation and the reason therefor’ in accordance with N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10.” The County declined to produce the settlement agreement, claiming it was a personnel record exempt from disclosure. In response to the request for information, the County stated in part that “Officer Ellis was charged with a disciplinary infraction and was terminated.” Libertarians filed a complaint in Superior Court, and the trial court ordered the County to provide a redacted version of the settlement agreement. The County appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s judgment. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded the trial court properly ordered disclosure of a redacted settlement agreement, and the Appellate Division reversed. The Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s order. View "Libertarians for Transparent Government v. Cumberland County" on Justia Law

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In winter 1996, defendant Samuel Ryan (then aged 23) robbed a Bridgeton, New Jersey gas station at gunpoint, stealing $100 and shooting a store clerk in the process. The offense resulted in defendant’s third first-degree robbery conviction, and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole pursuant to the Persistent Offender Accountability Act, known as the “Three Strikes Law.” In this appeal, defendant contended the Three Strikes Law violated the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment contained in the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 12 of the New Jersey Constitution. He alleged that, by allowing courts to count crimes committed while under the age of eighteen as predicate offenses in sentencing defendants to mandatory life without parole, the Three Strikes Law ignored the constitutional constraints embodied in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and New Jersey v. Zuber, 227 N.J. 422 (2017), which prohibited imposition of mandatory life-without-parole sentences or their functional equivalent on juvenile offenders. The New Jersey Supreme Court found that because defendant committed his third offense and received an enhanced sentence of life without parole as an adult, this appeal did not implicate Miller or Zuber. Accordingly, defendant’s sentence was affirmed and the Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of the Three Strikes Law. View "New Jersey v. Ryan" on Justia Law

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This matter involved a legal challenge to the congressional redistricting map selected by the New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission (Commission). On December 22, 2021, a majority of the Commission’s members that included the Chair, voted in favor of the map the Democratic delegation presented. Plaintiffs, the Republican delegation to the Commission, filed an amended complaint on January 5, 2022 to challenge that map. Plaintiffs filed their complaint directly with the New Jersey Supreme Court, pursuant to Article II, Section 2, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. The Supreme Court observed it had no role in the outcome of the redistricting process unless the map is "unlawful." The Supreme Court found none of plaintiffs' arguments asserted the plan was unlawful or the result of "invidious discrimination." Because plaintiffs’ allegations were insufficient to support a claim upon which relief can be granted, defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint with prejudice was granted. View "In the Matter of Establishment of Congressional Districts by the New Jersey Redistricting Commission" on Justia Law

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In 2017, police questioned defendant Laura Gonzalez -- after providing her with her Miranda warnings -- in connection with the discovery that the infant for whom she served as a nanny had two fractures in his right leg and one in his left. In the middle of the interview, defendant asked, “But now what do I do about an attorney and everything?” Rather than seek clarification, the interviewing detective merely advised defendant, “That is your decision. I can’t give you an opinion about anything.” Ultimately, defendant admitted to abusing the child and, at the interviewing detective’s suggestion, wrote his parents an apology note. Defendant was charged with endangerment and aggravated assault. She moved to suppress portions of her statement and the note, arguing that she invoked her right to counsel during her interview. The trial court denied defendant’s motion, reasoning that defendant’s statement did not rise to the level of being an assertion of her right to counsel -- not even an ambiguous assertion of that right, which would have triggered a duty for the interviewing officer to seek clarification under New Jersey law. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division and remanded the matter for further proceedings. The Supreme Court concluded defendant’s question about the attorney was an ambiguous invocation of her right to counsel and that, under settled New Jersey law, the detective was required to cease questioning and clarify whether defendant was requesting counsel during the interview. "And, because the State played defendant’s recorded statement at trial and read the apology note -- written at the detective’s suggestion -- to the jury," the Court found the error to be harmful. View "New Jersey v. Gonzalez" on Justia Law

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While surveilling a street corner in Newark, two detectives observed several men loitering in the area. A detective testified that one of the individuals, later identified as defendant Tywaun Hedgespeth, adjusted his clothes, at which point officers saw what looked like the butt of a gun. Backup units were told to apprehend the men and to be cautious with defendant. A detective apprehended defendant, ordered him to show his hands, took him to the ground, and then alerted fellow officers that he found a weapon. Defendant was searched by the arresting officers who discovered crack cocaine on his person. No fingerprints were found on the gun. Defendant went to trial on a drug possession charge and an unlawful possession of a weapon charge. The jury found defendant guilty on both counts, and he pleaded guilty to a certain-persons offense the same day. The Appellate Division affirmed defendant’s convictions. Defendant appealed, arguing: (1) the trial court committed harmful error in permitting impeachment of defendant by his prior convictions; and (2) the trial court erred in admitting an affidavit by a non-testifying officer. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded after review of the record that the trial court erred in allowing the State to enter into evidence information set forth in the affidavit of a non-testifying officer concerning the no-permit results from a search of the State firearm registry, and that violation was not cured by testimony concerning the search of an Essex County firearm database. Further, the trial court’s incorrect N.J.R.E. 609 ruling constituted harmful error requiring reversal of the conviction. However, the Court declined to adopt the position that an evidentiary ruling that results in a defendant’s decision not to testify can never be harmless. Accordingly, the judgment of the Appellate Division was reversed. View "New Jersey v. Hedgespeth" on Justia Law

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Defendant Jose Carrion appealed his conviction by jury on weapons and drug offenses, as well as assault. Specifically he appealed the denial of his motion to suppress a statement that he made to law enforcement and for which he received Miranda warnings, but that he made after an earlier, unwarned statement. At trial, the prosecution sought to admit an affidavit of Brett Bloom of the State Firearms Investigative Unit, asserting that Bloom searched and found no record that Carrion had a firearm permit. The State asked the court to submit the affidavit as a self-authenticating document under N.J.R.E. 902(k) and under the absence-of-a-public-record exception to the hearsay rule, N.J.R.E. 803(c)(10). Defense counsel objected, arguing that there were hearsay and Confrontation Clause issues. The court found the document both reliable and admissible under N.J.R.E. 902(k) and exceptions to the hearsay rule. The Appellate Division affirmed defendant's conviction and sentence. The New Jersey Supreme Court found the State’s reliance on an affidavit by a non-testifying witness to introduce over defendant’s objection the results of the database search violated defendant’s right to confront the witnesses against him. And, under the totality of the circumstances, Carrion’s second statement should have been suppressed because the Miranda warnings issued to Carrion prior to his second statement to police were insufficient in these circumstances to ensure that his waiver of rights was voluntary and knowing. Because of its holding on the suppression issue, the Court could not conclude that the denial of defendant’s right to confrontation constituted harmless error. View "New Jersey v. Carrion" on Justia Law

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Around midnight on May 7, 2011, a 7-Eleven was robbed. Approximately three-quarters of a mile from the 7-Eleven, Sergeant Mark Horan saw a car approaching in the oncoming traffic lane. Using the spotlight mounted to his police vehicle to illuminate the inside of the car, he observed that the occupants were a man and a woman and let them pass. Sergeant Horan testified that as he continued on, a second set of headlights approached. 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. Horan radioed headquarters with the license plate number and a description of the car, and two more officers arrived. Defendant Peter Nyema was sitting in the passenger seat and 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. The question this case presented was whether a reasonable and articulable suspicion existed when a police officer conducted an investigatory stop of the vehicle in which defendants Peter Nyema and Jamar Myers were riding with co-defendant Tyrone Miller. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded 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. Nyema" on Justia Law

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Consolidated appeals presented an issue of first impression for the New Jersey Supreme Court: whether police have a right to conduct a protective sweep of a home when an arrest is made outside the home and, if so, the requisite justification for a warrantless entry and protective sweep. In doing so, the Court balanced two important values: an individual’s fundamental privacy right in the home and the significant state interest in officer safety. The Court concluded that when an arrest occurs outside a home, the police may not enter the dwelling or conduct a protective sweep in the absence of a reasonable and articulable suspicion that a person or persons are present inside and pose an imminent threat to the officers’ safety. "This sensible balancing of the fundamental right to privacy in one’s home and the compelling interest in officer safety will depend on an objective assessment of the particular circumstances in each case, such as the manner of the arrest, the distance of the arrest from the home, the reasonableness of the officers’ suspicion that persons were in the dwelling and likely to launch an imminent attack, and any other relevant factors. A self-created exigency by the police cannot justify entry into the home or a protective sweep." In the case of Christopher Radel, a protective sweep was not warranted, but was constitutionally justified in Keith Terres' case. View "New Jersey v. Radel" on Justia Law

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Defendant Cynthia Rivera admitted to planning and participating in the armed robbery of Justin Garcia, resulting in serious injuries to Garcia and the murder of his friend, Andrew Torres. At the time of the offenses, defendant was eighteen years old and in a relationship with Martin Martinez. Defendant pled guilty to aggravated manslaughter and assault and to conspiracy to commit robbery. At the time of sentencing, defendant was then nineteen years old with no prior criminal history, no juvenile record, and no arrests. Defendant expressed deep regret for her actions and told the court she had severed her relationship with Martinez, who defendant stated was physically, mentally, and emotionally abusive to her. The sentencing court applied two aggravating factors -- the risk defendant would commit another offense; and the need for deterrence-- and two mitigating factors -- the absence of a prior record, and willingness to cooperate with law enforcement. The court did not address mitigating factor nine -- unlikeliness to reoffend -- which the State had conceded. The court weighed aggravating factor three, the risk of reoffense, more heavily than the other factors, relying in large part on defendant’s youth. Thus, the court concluded that the aggravating factors substantially outweighed the mitigating factors and sentenced defendant in accordance with that finding. The Appellate Division affirmed. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted review here to consider whether a defendant’s youth could serve as an aggravating factor in sentencing. The Supreme Court reversed, vacated defendant's sentence and remanded for resentencing. "Consistent with both this Court’s precedent and the intent of the Legislature in recently adopting youth as a mitigating statutory factor, we hold that a defendant’s youth may be considered only as a mitigating factor in sentencing." Additionally, the Court held that on resentencing, the sentencing court should consider mitigating factor fourteen -- that “the defendant was under [twenty six] years of age at the time of the commission of the offense.” View "New Jersey v. Rivera" on Justia Law

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In April 2018, a seventeen-year-old civilian called police and reported that she had saw a man, later identified as defendant William Gerena, exposing himself to a group of children at a playground. Police officers responded to the scene and saw defendant sitting on a bench facing the playground, with his penis exposed and erect. Defendant was charged with second-degree sexual assault by contact and fourth-degree lewdness, which both required the State to prove that at least one of the victims was under the age of thirteen. At trial, one of the police officers and the civilian eyewitness recounted to the jury what they had saw at the park. The officer estimated that the children were around three to thirteen years old and that the smallest child appeared to be no higher than his waist. The civilian testified that the children were approximately six to fifteen years old and that the shortest child appeared no taller than her hip. Over defendant’s objection, the trial court admitted the witnesses’ lay opinions about the children’s ages and heights. The State relied on that testimony to prove that one or more of the children was under the age of thirteen, and the jury found defendant guilty of fourth-degree lewdness. The Appellate Division affirmed, finding that the two witnesses had an adequate opportunity to view the physical characteristics and activities of the group of children to enable them to provide lay opinions about the perceived ranges of the children’s heights and ages. The issue presented on appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court was whether the Appellate Division abused its discretion in admitting the eyewitnesses' lay opinions. Finding no such abuse, the Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division's judgment. View "New Jersey v. Gerena" on Justia Law