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State of New Jersey v. William T. Liepe
Case Number: A-7 September Term 2018 080788
Judge: Stuart Jeff Rabner
Court: SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY
Plaintiff's Attorney: Jennifer E. Kmieciak, Deputy Attorney General
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After drinking six to ten beers, defendant drove his Ford Explorer south on Cologne Avenue in Mays Landing at approximately 1:00 p.m. Travelling at about fortyfive miles per hour, defendant struck the rear end of a Honda Accord waiting to make a left turn. The car was driven by a thirty-five-year-old man, M.G., who was driving his eleven-year-old son, M.J.G., and a nine-year-old family friend, R.S., to a softball game. The collision sent the Honda into the northbound lane, where it was struck by a Cadillac Escalade driven by a woman who was taking her mother, R.V., and her two children on a shopping trip. The second collision sent the car into the parking lot of the softball field.
The accident killed R.S. M.J.G. was permanently paralyzed from the waist down as a result of the accident. He is confined to a wheelchair and will require continuous medical care for the rest of his life. M.G. also sustained very serious injuries: he broke many bones, had injured organs, and required a forty-five day hospitalization with multiple surgeries. The driver of the Cadillac and her children were unharmed in the accident; however, R.V. sustained back and neck injuries.
Defendant was tried before a jury and was convicted on all counts. The trial court considered the aggravating and mitigating factors under N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a) and (b). It found three aggravating factors, to which it accorded varying weight, and one mitigating factor, to which it accorded moderate weight. The court concluded that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors. Citing N.J.S.A. 2C:44-5, State v. Yarbough, 100 N.J. 627, 643-44 (1985), and State v. Carey, 168 N.J. 413, 427-31 (2001), the trial court addressed the question of whether defendant’s terms of incarceration for his individual offenses should run concurrently or consecutively to one another. The court noted that, although it was mindful of defendant’s age, its goal was “to impose an appropriate sentence for the crimes committed and not one designed to assure his release prior to the end of his life.”
The trial court sentenced defendant to three consecutive terms of imprisonment: twenty years for the first-degree aggravated manslaughter of R.S.; seven years for the second-degree aggravated assault of M.J.G.; and five years for the second-degree aggravated assault of M.G. Each of the three terms was subject to an eighty-five percent period of parole ineligibility. For the fourth-degree assault by auto of R.V., the court imposed a term of one year’s imprisonment to be served concurrently with defendant’s other terms of incarceration. Defendant’s aggregate sentence was thirty-two years’ incarceration with a parole ineligibility period of twenty-seven years.
The Appellate Division affirmed defendant’s convictions but vacated his sentence and remanded for resentencing. 453 N.J. Super. 126, 142 (App. Div. 2018). The Appellate Division observed that defendant would be ineligible for parole until he reached the age of eighty-nine and found that sentence “shocking to the judicial conscience.” Id. at 133, 135. The Appellate Division “discern[ed] from the [trial] judge’s decision to impose consecutive terms that he believed Carey required consecutive terms -- a conclusion the Court expressly rejected” in Carey. Id. at 136. The Appellate Division also construed the holding of Carey to be limited to cases in which a defendant’s conduct killed more than one victim, and thus determined Carey to be inapplicable to a single-fatality case such as this. Id. at 140-41. The Appellate Division stated that defendant’s sentence “has not been shown to be in accord with any other sentence imposed in similar circumstances” and opined that this disparity impairs “the overarching Yarbough goal that there be uniformity in sentencing.” Id. at 142. In support of that contention, the Appellate Division attached an appendix in which it “synopsized all available post-Carey decisions . . . identifying sentences imposed in multiple-victim vehicular homicide cases.” Id. at 139 n.5, 142-45.
The Court granted the State’s petition for certification. 235 N.J. 295 (2018).
HELD: The trial court properly applied the factors identified in Yarbough for the imposition of consecutive sentences, and defendant’s sentence is consistent with the principles stated in Carey and does not shock the judicial conscience. The Court reverses the Appellate Division’s judgment and reinstates the sentence that the trial court imposed.
1. Appellate review of a sentencing determination is limited to consideration of: (1) whether guidelines for sentencing established by the Legislature or by the courts were violated; (2) whether the aggravating and mitigating factors found by the sentencing court were based on competent credible evidence in the record; and (3) whether the sentence was nevertheless clearly unreasonable so as to shock the judicial conscience. The sentencing provisions of the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice are based on notions of proportionality and focus on the gravity of the offense. In Yarbough, the Court provided guidance to trial courts determining whether to impose concurrent or consecutive terms of incarceration, 100 N.J. at 636-37, and identified guidelines for that decision, id. at 64344. (pp. 15-18)
2. In Carey, the Court reinstated the consecutive sentences imposed by the trial court for two counts of vehicular homicide for the deaths of two people in a car accident caused by an intoxicated driver. 168 N.J. at 420-21, 431. The Court concluded that “[c]rimes involving multiple deaths or victims who have sustained serious bodily injuries represent especially suitable circumstances for the imposition of consecutive sentences,” id. at 428, and held that when a judge sentences a defendant in a vehicular homicide case, “the multiple-victims factor is entitled to great weight and should ordinarily result in the imposition of at least two consecutive terms when multiple deaths or serious bodily injuries have been inflicted upon multiple victims by the defendant,” id. at 429-30. The Court did not impose a presumption in favor of consecutive terms. It simply observed that when a sentencing court compares the harm inflicted by intoxicated driving in the multiple-victim setting with the harm that would have resulted from the offense were there only a single victim, it is likely to conclude that the harm in the former setting is “distinctively worse” than that in the latter. See id. at 428. Like any Yarbough analysis, the sentencing court’s determination regarding consecutive and concurrent terms in the vehicular homicide setting turns on a careful evaluation of the specific case. (pp. 18-24)
3. Nothing in the trial court’s determination in this case suggests that it reached its decision through the application of a presumption, contrary to the Appellate Division’s suggestion. 453 N.J. Super. at 135-36. The court deemed the impact of defendant’s conduct on both R.S. and M.J.G. to be the “worst consequences imaginable,” and observed that the impact of defendant’s conduct on M.G. to be “extremely serious.” To the trial court, the imposition of concurrent sentences for defendant’s offenses would not ensure accountability. The trial court considered the fairness of the aggregate sentence, taking into account defendant’s age. It properly viewed its primary obligation, however, not to ensure that defendant would live long enough to be released on parole, but to craft a sentence warranted by the offenses. The Court finds no deviation from the Code’s sentencing objectives in the trial court’s determination, and accordingly finds no error. Nor does the Court find the sentence imposed by the trial court to shock the judicial conscience. The Court has never imposed on a trial court the obligation to demonstrate that a sentence comports with sentences imposed by other courts in similar cases. The Yarbough guidelines promote proportionality not by a comparative analysis of the sentencing practices of different courts, but by focusing the trial court on the “facts relating to” the defendant’s crimes. Carey, 168 N.J. at 423; see also Yarbough, 100 N.J. at 643-44. Here, the trial court properly focused on the case before it, and on the devastating impact of defendant’s crimes. (pp. 24-27)
Outcome: The judgment of the Appellate Division is reversed, and the sentence imposed by the trial court is reinstated.