Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

by
Carlos Guerrero and Alex Mejia were walking in New Brunswick after a night of drinking. A video surveillance camera captured defendant Karlton Bailey approaching Guerrero from behind and putting his hand in Guerrero’s back pocket. Mejia responded by running across the street to confront defendant. The conflict quickly turned violent. Upon seeing defendant draw a gun, Mejia held his hands up in the air and backed away. Defendant followed Mejia into the street, struck him in the face, searched his pockets, and fled the scene. A Grand Jury returned an indictment (Indictment 1650) against defendant, charging him with second-degree possession of a firearm by certain persons not to possess a firearm. A second indictment (Indictment 1317) charged defendant with robbery, assault, and weapons offenses. A jury found defendant guilty on all counts of Indictment 1317. A separate jury trial on the certain persons indictment immediately followed. At that trial, defendant did not stipulate to the predicate convictions that prohibited him from possessing a firearm. The parties agreed that evidence of defendant’s prior convictions would be sanitized, that is, “redacted except for the date and the degree of the offense.” The trial court properly advised the jury that they “must disregard [their] prior verdict, and consider anew the evidence previously admitted on possession of a weapon.” The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s review centered on the sanitization and model jury charge, and whether that clean-up infringed on defendant’s constitutional right to be tried by a jury on all necessary elements of each charged offense. Over-sanitization here rendered the proof insufficient to demonstrate that the defendant previously violated a predicate offense enumerated within the certain persons statute. The New Jersey Court reversed and remanded, holding that when a defendant refuses to stipulate to a predicate offense under the certain persons statute, the State shall produce evidence of the predicate offense: the judgment of conviction with the unredacted nature of the offense, the degree of offense, and the date of conviction. Furthermore, the model jury charge on this issue had to be revised. View "New Jersey v. Bailey" on Justia Law

by
A jury convicted defendant Alexis Sanchez-Medina of various sexual-assault crimes that involved four separate victims: R.D., D.J., A.M., and A.B. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review centered on whether defendant was denied his right to a fair trial on sexual assault charges. The prosecution asked defendant whether he had come to the United States legally. Over an objection, the jury learned that defendant had not. Next, although the allegations related to different incidents that involved four separate victims, the case rested heavily on an identification by a single witness. Despite that, neither party requested a jury charge on eyewitness identification, and the trial court did not instruct the jury on the subject. On appeal, the State acknowledged that the prosecution should not have elicited testimony about defendant’s immigration status. The panel found that defendant was not prejudiced by the testimony in light of the trial court’s limiting instructions. The Appellate Division also found that the trial court should have charged the jury on identification. The panel, though, concluded that the omission did not constitute plain error in light of the strong evidence that corroborated R.D.’s identification, specifically, defendant’s statement. The Supreme Court determined the cumulative effect of both errors denied defendant his right to a fair trial, reversed the conviction, and remanded for further proceedings. View "New Jersey v. Sanchez-Medina" on Justia Law

by
In this matter, a police officer pulled over a car under the belief that the vehicle was in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a) and -66 because one of the vehicle’s taillights was not working. The trial court determined that the officer was mistaken about the law and granted defendant’s motion to suppress the fruits of the motor vehicle stop. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the relevant motor vehicle statutes were ambiguous and that, applying the reasoning of the United States Supreme Court in Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. ___ (2014), the officer’s stop of defendant’s car constituted at most an objectively reasonable mistake of law that should be treated in the same manner as a mistake of fact. Accordingly, the panel held that the officer’s mistake of law did not require suppression of the motor vehicle stop. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed: the Appellate Division erred in concluding that the holding in "Heien" was applicable here. Because the motor vehicle statutes pertinent here were not ambiguous, the Court did not consider the issue in light of Heien. "The officer’s stop of defendant’s motor vehicle was not an objectively reasonable mistake of law that gave rise to constitutional reasonable suspicion; the stop was therefore unconstitutional." View "New Jersey v. Sutherland" on Justia Law

by
Defendant Akeem Boone faced seven charges related to drugs and a weapon found during an August 2012 search of his apartment in Hackensack. He sought to suppress the evidence seized pursuant to a search warrant police had secured for his apartment, Unit 4A, because the warrant application did not include any evidence as to why that specific unit should be searched. The trial court denied Boone’s motion to suppress. It found, based on the totality of the circumstances, that the warrant application sufficiently detailed hand-to-hand transactions, counter-surveillance techniques, and past interactions with Boone to establish probable cause for a search. Subsequently, Boone pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute and a related weapons offense. The Appellate Division affirmed, finding that the application contained “adequate circumstantial indicia” to support issuing a warrant to search Boone’s apartment unit. The New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed: although police submitted a detailed warrant application that included information about Boone’s alleged drug-dealing in the general area, nothing in the application specified how police knew Boone lived in Unit 4A or why that unit -- one of thirty units in the building -- should have been searched. Because the warrant affidavit failed to provide specific information as to why Boone’s apartment and not other units should be searched, the warrant application was deficient. Accordingly, the judgment of the Appellate Division was reversed and Boone's convictions vacated. View "New Jersey v. Boone" on Justia Law

by
William Burkert and Gerald Halton were corrections officers, who held positions in different unions representing distinct classes of officers. Their relationship became strained after Burkert read online comments attributed to Halton’s wife that Burkert felt insulted him and his family. Angered by the insulting online comments, Burkert retaliated by downloading the Haltons’ wedding photograph, copied it and made two flyers, writing lewd dialogue in speech bubbles over the faces of the bride and groom. Halton testified that when he arrived at the employee garage of the Union County Jail and saw papers “blowing all over the place.” He picked one up and discovered Flyer #1. The next day, when Halton arrived at work, a sergeant handed him Flyer #2, which the sergeant had found in the area of the officers’ locker room. Halton identified the handwriting on both flyers as Burkert’s. Halton was engaged in union negotiations, a lieutenant handed him Flyer #2, stating, “This came out the other night.” Halton indicated that he “was a mess in negotiations,” went home, and never returned to work. Halton explained that he felt embarrassed and concerned for his safety and received psychological counseling and treatment. Ten months after the flyer incidents, Halton filed criminal harassment charges against Burkert. During the county’s investigation into the flyers, Burkert admitted that he had prepared the flyers but denied circulating them. Though a municipal court found Burkert guilty of harassment, a panel of the Appellate Division reversed Burkert's conviction, finding the commentary added to the wedding photograph as constitutionally protected speech. The panel also found that the vulgar commentary on the flyers did not constitute criminal harassment. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed: "Burkert’s intent to annoy was not a crime, and he did not engage in the type of repetitive acts contemplated by the statute. Therefore, Burkert is not guilty of a petty disorderly persons offense, although he may be subject to workplace discipline or a civil tort action. The language on the flyers, despite its vulgarity and meanness, is constitutionally protected from a criminal prosecution for harassment." View "New Jersey v. Burkert" on Justia Law

by
Defendant S.B. was a congregant of the Eternal Life Christian Center (ELCC), a registered non-profit and religious institution. Defendant was also subject to Megan’s Law because of two sexual assault convictions in 1991. To comply with the Megan’s Law reporting requirements, defendant notified the ELCC pastors and elders of his convictions. Defendant participated in the church’s No Limits Youth Ministry (NLYM), the stated goal of which is to prepare students to be effective at home, junior high, senior high, and college. Based on defendant’s participation in the NLYM, the grand jury indicted him for third-degree prohibited participation in a youth serving organization, in violation of N.J.S.A.2C:7-23. Defendant moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing that the NLYM was not a youth serving organization under Megan’s Law. The trial court granted defendant s motion, reasoning that the statute was vague with respect to how religious institutions fit within the definition of youth serving organization. The issue presented for the New Jersey’s review centered on whether the NLYM was exempt from the definition of a youth serving organization under N.J.S.A.2C:7-22. The Court concluded a plain-language reading of N.J.S.A.2C:7-22 did not exempt a youth ministry associated with a church or other religious organization from the definition of youth serving organization. Therefore, the Court reinstated the indictment and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. View "New Jersey v. S.B." on Justia Law

by
This appeal concerns the applicability of qualified immunity to a claim brought under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA), N.J.S.A.10:6-1 to -2, against a police detective named in his individual and official capacity. Plaintiff Denise Brown filed suit claiming her state constitutional rights were violated in 2008 when a State Police officer accompanied her into her apartment, without a warrant and without her consent, in order to secure the premises while awaiting the issuance of a search warrant. Victims claimed two men with handguns forcibly entered a home, stole jewelry and other belongings, and fled in a blue BMW. Plaintiff loaned her blue BMW to her boyfriend, Carlos Thomas. Thomas was ultimately charged in connection with his alleged involvement in the home invasion. A State Police representative notified plaintiff of Thomas’s arrest and that the State Police had her vehicle. They searched plaintiff’s car and found contraband, a gun holster, and other items, including jewelry, linking the car to the home invasion. During the investigation, State Police received a tip that Thomas had given plaintiff a locket reported as stolen during the break-in. As a result, the police determined the investigation should include a search of plaintiff’s home. A detective explained to plaintiff that if she refused consent, he would then proceed to seek a search warrant, securing the premises in the interim by either preventing her from entering the home or allowing her access, accompanied by police, to prevent loss or destruction of evidence. Given the options, plaintiff declined to grant consent and refused to allow the officers to secure the apartment from outside. The parties agreed there was probable cause to believe that plaintiff had evidence in her home and, in fact, a search warrant was obtained later that day. The State moved to dismiss, using qualified immunity as grounds. The New Jersey Supreme Court determined a law enforcement officer, without a warrant and without consent, may not lawfully insist on entering a residence based on an assertion that exigent circumstances require the dwelling to be secured. However, in light of the circumstances of this case, the police did not violate a clearly established right when entering the home to secure it. Qualified immunity applied. View "Brown v. New Jersey" on Justia Law

by
In 2017, officers arrested defendant Amed Ingram after an officer observed him in possession of a defaced .45 caliber handgun loaded with eight rounds. The State charged defendant with second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun, second-degree possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose, second-degree possession of a firearm by certain persons with a prior conviction, and fourth-degree receipt of a defaced firearm. The affidavit of probable cause in support of the complaint generally tracked the language of the statutes under which defendant was charged and, in the space to explain how law enforcement became aware of the stated facts, the officer wrote, officer observations. The officer also prepared a preliminary law enforcement incident report (PLEIR), which, at the time, was incorporated into the affidavit, rating defendant 6 out of 6 the highest level for risk of both failure to appear and new criminal activity. The PSA also noted defendant s criminal history. The State moved for detention and submitted the following documents: the complaint-warrant, the affidavit of probable cause, the PSA, the PLEIR, and defendant s criminal history. Defense counsel objected and argued that the CJRA and court rules required the State to present a live witness to establish probable cause. The trial court rejected defendant's claims. The Appellate Division affirmed. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the trial court and the Appellate Division that neither the statute's plain language nor principles of due process required the State to present testimony from a live witness at every detention hearing. Instead, the State may proceed by proffer to try to satisfy its burden of proof and show that detention is warranted. Trial judges, however, retain discretion to require direct testimony when they are dissatisfied with the State s proffer. View "New Jersey v. Ingram" on Justia Law

by
In an interlocutory appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court determined: (1) what the appropriate standard of appellate review of a trial court's factual findings was based solely on the court's viewing of a video-recorded police interrogation; and (2) whether defendant invoked his right to remain silent during the interrogation. In 2011, defendant S.S. was tried before a jury and convicted of first-degree aggravated sexual assault of his six-year-old daughter, and second-degree endangering the welfare of his child. The trial court sentenced defendant to a fifteen-year prison term on the sexual-assault charge, subject to the No Early Release Act, and to a concurrent five-year term on the endangering charge. The Appellate Division reversed those convictions for reasons unrelated to this appeal and ordered a new trial. The Supreme Court denied the State's petition for certification, and defendant's cross-petition. Relying solely on a review of the video-recorded interrogation, the trial court found that defendant asserted his right to silence when he said, "that's all I got to say. That's it." The trial court suppressed all statements made after that utterance because the investigators failed to honor defendant's invocation of his right to remain silent in violation of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). A panel of the Appellate Division engaged in a de novo review of the video-recorded interrogation and reversed, making its own factual findings based on defendant's tone of voice and the flow of the interview, concluding that defendant did not assert his right to remain silent. The Supreme Court found the trial court's factual determination, based solely on its review of the video-recorded interrogation, was supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record. Although the Appellate Division and trial court drew different inferences from the record, the Supreme Court concluded that the inferences drawn by the trial court were reasonable and that the trial court's ultimate determination was not clearly mistaken. View "New Jersey v. S.S." on Justia Law

by
The New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the scope of a municipality's obligation to disclose electronically stored information in accordance with the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA). Plaintiff John Paff filed a request with Galloway Township's records custodian for specific information in emails sent by the Township's Municipal Clerk and Chief of Police over a two-week period. From those emails, Paff sought only information contained within the following fields: sender, recipient, date, and subject. Paff did not request the contents of the emails. The Township contended that only the emails (not specific information embedded within them) were government records subject to disclosure under OPRA. On that basis, the Township denied the records request. The trial court ordered the production of the fields of information sought by Paff because OPRA defined a government record as information stored or maintained electronically by a municipality. A panel of the Appellate Division reversed, concluding that OPRA required only the production of the emails, not information electronically stored within them. The Supreme Court held the Appellate Division's overly constrictive reading of OPRA "cannot be squared with OPRA s objectives or statutory language." The Appellate Division erred in finding that the government record is the email itself and not the easily accessible fields of information that were maintained electronically. View "Paff v. Galloway Township" on Justia Law