Justia Juvenile Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
New Jersey v. Lane
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
New Jersey v. Comer
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
New Jersey v. Ryan
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
New Jersey v. Rivera
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
New Jersey v. Ahmad
The issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration was whether defendant Zakariyya Ahmad’s statement to police -- which occurred when defendant was 17 years old and without his being advised of his Miranda rights -- was properly admitted at his trial for multiple offenses related to the murder of a cafe owner in Newark, New Jersey. The Appellate Division affirmed, agreeing that defendant was questioned as “part of an investigatory procedure rather than a custodial interrogation” and that Miranda was therefore not implicated. The Supreme Court found admission of the statement was harmful error: a reasonable 17-year-old in defendant’s position would have believed he was in custody and not free to leave, so Miranda warnings were required. View "New Jersey v. Ahmad" on Justia Law
An Order to Show Cause to Address the Release of Certain Individuals Serving Sentences in State Prisons and Juvenile Facilities
The Office of the Public Defender and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU) applied directly to the New Jersey Supreme Court for relief relating to the spread of the novel coronavirus in state prison and juvenile facility settings. They essentially asked the Judiciary to order a framework for the early release of several groups. Under the proposed framework, judges or court-appointed special masters would decide whether to grant release or a furlough in individual cases. Two days after the Public Defender and ACLU wrote to the Court, the New Jersey Governor issued Executive Order 124 creating a mechanism to identify inmates in state prison to be considered for parole or a medical furlough. The Supreme Court determined Executive Order 124 created a sufficient expectation of eligibility for release through a furlough program to call for certain due process protections. Inmates may challenge the DOC’s action, a final agency decision, by seeking review before the Appellate Division. The agency’s decision is entitled to deference on appeal. Individual inmates may also seek relief independently under Rule 3:21-10(b)(2). They do not have to exhaust the remedies available under the Executive Order before they may file a motion in court. As to sentences imposed on juveniles who are in the custody of the Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC), those individuals may seek relief from the court on an individual basis. To the extent the opinion called for trial judges to rule on motions and the Appellate Division to review agency decisions, the Supreme Court exercised its supervisory authority to require that applications be heard and decided in a matter of days and urged the Commissioner and the Parole Board to act as expeditiously as possible. View "An Order to Show Cause to Address the Release of Certain Individuals Serving Sentences in State Prisons and Juvenile Facilities" on Justia Law
New Jersey in the Interest of D.M.
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
New Jersey in the Interest of A.R.
In the sexual assault trial of fourteen-year-old “Alex,” the family court admitted into evidence the "tender-years" exception to the hearsay rule: the video-recorded statement that seven-year-old “John” gave to police, in which he alleged that Alex had sexually touched him on a school bus. John, who suffered from severe developmental disabilities, who during out-of-court and in-court questioning was unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and who was declared incompetent as a witness by the court, was permitted to testify pursuant to the incompetency proviso of N.J.R.E. 803(c)(27). The State recalled John to the stand. He had difficulty answering simple questions. For example, he stated “It’s right,” if the prosecutor referred to a spider as a flower, and in response to a leading question, indicated that the color black might be red. John stated that Alex, whom he identified in the courtroom, touched him on “my clothes, my pee-pee and my butt.” However, John stated that a little boy named Alex sat near him and that the little boys and big boys were separated on the bus. The family court adjudicated Alex delinquent. Alex appealed. The Appellate Division held that John was effectively unavailable for cross-examination, and therefore the admission of his statement to the detective violated Alex’s federal confrontation rights. The panel did not address any state-law evidentiary claims and remanded to the family court to assess whether the State’s remaining evidence was sufficient to prove the adjudication beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court granted the State’s petition for certification. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed Alex’s delinquency adjudication on state-law grounds, concluding John's video-recorded statement was not admissible because the statement did not possess a sufficient probability of trustworthiness to justify its introduction at trial under N.J.R.E. 803(c)(27). Striking the recorded statement from the record did not leave sufficient evidence in the record to support, on any rational basis, the adjudication of delinquency against Alex. View "New Jersey in the Interest of A.R." on Justia Law
New Jersey in the Interest of J.A.
The issue before the New Jersey Supreme Court in this matter centered on the admissibility of evidence procured from a home after police officers’ warrantless entry. A man was attacked at a bus stop in Willingboro and his cell phone was stolen. He and a police officer tracked the phone’s location to a nearby house using a phone tracking application. Several officers arrived at the house, and one spotted the stolen cell phone’s case through a window. When no one responded to their knocks on the door, the officers entered the house through an unlocked window. Once inside, they performed a protective sweep to determine whether the suspect was inside, and they found defendant, J.A., then seventeen years of age, under the covers of a bed. Shortly thereafter, defendant’s mother and brother arrived home. After the officers explained their investigation, defendant’s mother consented to a search of the house, and defendant’s brother voluntarily retrieved the stolen phone. Defendant was later charged with second-degree robbery for theft of the phone. Defendant moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the officers’ entry into his home was unconstitutional because the officers entered without a warrant and there were no circumstances that would justify an exception to the warrant requirement. The trial court denied defendant’s motion to suppress, finding that although the officers’ search procedure may have been imprudent, it was ultimately defendant’s brother - without any coercion or duress from law enforcement - who retrieved the cell phone. The Appellate Division affirmed. The Supreme Court disagreed with the appellate panel’s determination that the officers’ warrantless entry was justified by the claimed exigency faced by the officers. However, the Court agreed defendant’s brother’s actions did not constitute state action and were sufficiently attenuated from the unlawful police conduct. Because we find that the brother’s independent actions operated to preclude application of the exclusionary rule to the evidence, the Court did not reach the question of defendant’s mother’s consent to search. Accordingly, the Court modified and affirmed the judgment of the Appellate Division. View "New Jersey in the Interest of J.A." on Justia Law
New Jersey in the Interest of C.K.
In New Jersey, juveniles adjudicated delinquent of certain sex offenses were barred for life from seeking relief from the registration and community notification provisions of Megan’s Law. That categorical lifetime bar cannot be lifted, even when the juvenile becomes an adult and poses no public safety risk, is fully rehabilitated, and is a fully productive member of society. Defendant C.K. was adjudicated delinquent for sex offenses committed more than two decades ago and challenged the constitutionality of N.J.S.A. 2C:7-2(g)’s permanent lifetime registration and notification requirements as applied to juveniles. After review of the specific facts of this case, the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded subsection (g)’s lifetime registration and notification requirements as applied to juveniles violated the substantive due process guarantee of Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution. “Permanently barring juveniles who have committed certain sex offenses from petitioning for relief from the Megan’s Law requirements bears no rational relationship to a legitimate governmental objective.” The Court determined that in the absence of subsection (g), N.J.S.A. 2C:7-2(f) provided the original safeguard incorporated into Megan’s Law, and a criminal defendant may petition to be released from registration and notification requirements when a superior court judge is persuaded the defendant has been offense-free and does not likely pose a societal risk after a fifteen-year look-back period. Defendant may apply for termination from the Megan’s Law requirements fifteen years from the date of his juvenile adjudication, and be relieved of those requirements provided he meets the standards set forth in N.J.S.A. 2C:7-2(f). View "New Jersey in the Interest of C.K." on Justia Law