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State of New Jersey v. A.T.C
Case Number: A-28 September Term 2018
Judge: Anne M. Patterson
Court: SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY
Plaintiff's Attorney: Jennifer E. Kmieciak, Deputy Attorney General
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Defendant was arrested and charged with possession and distribution of child pornography. Defendant admitted that his computer files included pornographic videos of his girlfriend’s daughter, that he had recorded those videos beginning when the child was ten years old, and that he had digitally penetrated the victim’s vagina. Pursuant to a plea agreement that the prosecutor offered in accordance with N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d), defendant pled guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a child less than thirteen years of age. Defendant moved to modify his sentence, contending in relevant part that the JLA contravenes the separation of powers doctrine by vesting in the prosecutor sentencing authority constitutionally delegated to the judiciary.
The court denied defendant’s motion. There was no discussion at defendant’s plea hearing or sentencing hearing as to why the “interests of the victim” warranted a departure, or the degree of the departure, from the JLA’s mandatory twenty-five-year term. Consistent with the plea agreement, the court imposed a term of twenty years’ incarceration, with twenty years’ parole ineligibility, for defendant’s conviction of one count of first-degree aggravated sexual assault of a victim less than thirteen years of age.
The Appellate Division rejected defendant’s separation of powers challenge to the JLA’s mandatory sentencing provisions, 454 N.J. Super. 235, 250-54 (App. Div. 2018).
The Court granted defendant’s petition for certification, “limited to defendant’s facial challenge to N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d) as unconstitutional for violating the separation of powers doctrine.” 236 N.J. 112 (2018). The Court stated that in addressing the question, it “may consider whether the State -- through the sentencing record and the [JLA] Guidelines -- sufficiently explained its use of discretion to permit effective judicial review as required in State v. Vasquez, 129 N.J. 189 (1992), such that A.T.C.’s sentence did not violate the separation of powers doctrine.” Ibid.
HELD: The JLA does not violate the separation of powers doctrine, provided that the State presents a statement of reasons explaining its decision to depart from the twentyfive year mandatory minimum sentence specified in N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a), and the court reviews the prosecutor’s exercise of discretion to determine whether it was arbitrary and capricious. So that the standard adopted today may be applied in this matter, the Court remands to the sentencing court for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.
1. The JLA imposes a term of incarceration of twenty-five years to life, with a period of parole ineligibility of at least twenty-five years, on an offender convicted of an aggravated sexual assault in which the victim is less than thirteen years old. N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a)(1). It also permits a prosecutor, “in consideration of the interests of the victim,” to waive the twenty-five-year mandatory minimum and offer the defendant a negotiated plea agreement in which the term of incarceration and the period of parole ineligibility may not be less than fifteen years. N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d). The sentencing court may accept that negotiated plea agreement, and if it does so, it must sentence the defendant in accordance with that agreement. (pp. 12-14)
2. The Attorney General has issued guidelines that govern the exercise of prosecutorial discretion under the statute. The JLA Guidelines, however, do not require the prosecutor to provide to the court a statement of reasons justifying the proposed reduction of the twenty-five-year term of incarceration and period of parole ineligibility imposed by N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a). Accordingly, no statutory provision or Guideline ensures that the court is informed of the prosecutor’s reasoning when it determines whether to accept or reject a plea agreement offered pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a). (pp. 14-17)
3. The Court reviews separation of powers principles and notes that criminal sentencing is a function that does not fit neatly within a single branch of government. (pp. 17-21)
4. In State v. Lagares, the Court considered a defendant’s separation of powers challenge to a statute that delegated sentencing discretion to prosecutors in certain drug cases. 127 N.J. 20, 24 (1992). The Court agreed with the defendant that, in the absence of guidelines or “any avenue for effective judicial review,” the statute at issue would be unconstitutional. Id. at 31. Noting its obligation “to so construe the statute as to render it constitutional if it is reasonably susceptible to such interpretation,” the Court imposed three requirements. Id. at 32. First, it interpreted the statute to require the adoption of prosecutorial guidelines. Ibid. Second, “to permit effective review of prosecutorial sentencing decisions,” the Court required prosecutors to “state on the trial court record the reasons for seeking an extended sentence.” Ibid. Finally, the Court concluded that “an extended term may be denied or vacated” upon a showing that the prosecutor’s decision to seek that sentence was arbitrary and capricious. Id. at 33. (pp. 21-23)
5. In Vasquez, the Court considered the separation of powers implications of plea bargaining under a provision of the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act that substantially
expanded prosecutorial discretion in drug prosecution plea agreements. 129 N.J. at 197209. The defendant argued that the Legislature’s grant of prosecutorial discretion in the provision contravened separation of powers principles. Id. at 195. The Court viewed the separation of powers issue in Vasquez to be “similar to that resolved in Lagares,” and concluded that “the same interpretation is appropriate.” Id. at 196. It construed the provision to preserve judicial authority to reject a plea bargain or post-conviction agreement that waived, or did not waive, the statutory parole disqualifier in the event that the prosecutor’s discretion was exercised in an arbitrary or capricious manner. In the wake of Vasquez, the Attorney General issued Guidelines for the drug offense sentencing statutes that the Court considered in that decision. (pp. 23-26)
6. In State v. Brimage, the Court held that the Guidelines issued in response to Vasquez fell short of the mark, 153 N.J. 1, 14-15 (1998), and ordered the Attorney General promulgate “new plea offer guidelines, which all counties must follow,” id. at 24-25. It directed that the revised guidelines “specify permissible ranges of plea offers for particular crimes” and that they be “more explicit regarding permissible bases for upward and downward departures.” Id. at 25. “[T]o permit effective judicial review,” the Court required that prosecutors “state on the record their reasons for choosing to waive or not to waive the mandatory minimum period of parole ineligibility specified in the statute,” and their reasons for any departure from the guidelines. Ibid. (pp. 26-28)
7. The JLA Guidelines that govern plea bargaining pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d) satisfy Lagares, Vasquez, and Brimage, with one necessary addition: they should be amended to instruct prosecutors to provide the sentencing court with a statement of reasons for a decision to offer a defendant, in a plea agreement, a term of incarceration or a term of parole ineligibility between fifteen and twenty-five years. Such a statement is essential to effective judicial review for the arbitrary and capricious exercise of prosecutorial discretion under N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d). The Court recognizes that the statement of reasons may implicate confidential information regarding the victim and members of the victim’s immediate family. In the event that a prosecutor concludes that it is necessary in a given case to reveal such confidential information in a statement of reasons, the court should hold an in camera hearing to consider that information. In this case, the prosecutor did not provide the sentencing court with a statement of reasons for his decision to offer defendant a twenty-year term of incarceration with a twenty-year period of parole ineligibility. On remand, the prosecutor should provide such a statement of reasons to the sentencing court. The court should review whether the prosecutor’s exercise of discretion was arbitrary and capricious. (pp. 28-32)
Outcome: The matter is remanded to the sentencing court for further proceedings.