Anyone who has been following the news over the past few months understands that serious instances of police misconduct have occurred (and continue to occur) throughout the country.  The manner in which the police have handled George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and the protesters in Washington DC and Portland, Oregon, to name some of the more obvious incidents, have all raised serious questions concerning encounters between law enforcement representatives and ordinary citizens.  There is talk in Congress and the state legislatures about reforms ranging from defunding the police to clamping down on the influence of police unions on the disciplinary process to making that process more transparent.

The New Jersey Senate Committee on Law and Public Safety held hearings on police reform in June.  One of the bills that was debated was S2656, which would make public police internal affairs and disciplinary records.  Numerous civil rights and other organizations are supporting the bill.

The bill would remove the Open Public Records Act exception to police internal affairs records and grant the public access to complaints, allegations and charges filed against individual police officers; transcripts and exhibits from disciplinary trials and hearings; dispositions of proceedings; final written opinions and/or memoranda on the disposition and the discipline ultimately imposed, including the agency’s factual findings and analysis of the conduct of the officer(s) that was/were the subject(s) of the hearing; internal affairs records; and video recordings of the incidents underlying the complaint(s), charges, or internal affairs investigation.

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We frequently handle cases where the discovery states that law enforcement has identified our client as being gang-affiliated.  Police agencies frequently collect information on individuals who they think are gang-involved and enter it into a database, which is then used to investigate criminal activity.  Recent experiences in California, however, demonstrate that these databases should not be trusted.

California has long maintained a database called CalGang.  The database, which is not open to civilians and is therefore largely secretive, contains the names and personal information of approximately 80,000 individuals.  Most of the people identified in CalGang are not white, and are suspected of being gang-affiliated.    CalGang has been a source of problems and complaints for years, and there have been calls to reform it or shut it down.

CalGang plainly illustrates the fact that a database is only as good as the information that is entered into it.  A 2016 audit revealed that it contained numerous inaccurate entries, including identifying information for one-year-old children.  People were also entered into the database based upon overly subjective criteria including, without limitation, the neighborhood where law enforcement encountered them or the color of their clothing.  According to the people who run CalGang, wearing a red hat, shirt or sneakers is enough to make you a gang member. Continue reading ›

Formal criminal proceedings in indictable (felony) matters begin with a prosecutor’s presentation of the State’s case to a grand jury.  A grand jury consists of a body of 23 citizens who listen to the State’s witnesses and review any documents or other materials the State wishes to display, and then decides whether the State has shown that there is probable cause to conclude that the defendant committed a crime.  Probable cause is a “baseline” showing that a crime was committed and the defendant committed it.  This standard is far lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” burden of proof standard that the State must satisfy at trial.  If the standard is met, the grand jury votes an indictment, which lays out formal charges.  The 1947 Constitution provides that “[n]o person shall be held to answer for a criminal offense, unless on the presentment or indictment of a grand jury[.]”  Thus, the institution of the grand jury has a Constitutional basis, and the fair and procedurally correct operation of the grand jury has Constitutional significance.

The first instance of a grand jury can be traced back to the Assize of Clarendon in 1166, an Act of Henry II of England.  Thus, the roots of the grand jury as an institution of Anglo jurisprudence can be traced back almost a thousand years in our legal history.

There are certain rules that have always been viewed as fundamental to the proper functioning of a grand jury, and secrecy is probably the most important one.  The grand jury operates in secrecy for good reason.  Secrecy protects defendants.  If the defendant is “no-billed” (the panel fails to vote an indictment and formally charge the defendant with an offense), their reputation will hopefully remain intact.  Further, the identities of witnesses who testify for the State (which may include undercover officers or confidential informants) are shielded from disclosure.  Thus, the fact that the grand jury operates in secrecy benefits both defendants and the State. Continue reading ›

Last week, the New Jersey Supreme Court handed down its decision in Matter of Registrant HD/Matter of Registrant JM.  This decision is important for anyone seeking relief from their Megan’s Law and/or CSL/PSL obligations.

One of the requirements for relief from Megan’s and CSL/PSL is that the defendant must have remained offense-free for fifteen years from the date of their conviction (typically the date of their sentence), or from the date that they were released from custody, whichever is later.  The question before the Court was whether HD and JM, each of whom committed new offenses during their fifteen-year period but then remained offense free for fifteen years from then, could be taken off Megan’s.  Put somewhat differently, the Court was asked to determine whether the new offense(s) causes the fifteen-year clock to start to run again, or if it bars these defendants from seeking relief because they each committed a new offense within the initial fifteen-year period.  The Appellate Division had found that the new offense had started the fifteen-year period to commence again and that the defendants were therefore eligible for relief because they remained offense-free for another fifteen years following the subsequent offense.  In light of a thorough analysis of the relevant statutes, the Supreme Court reversed.  Thus, an offense committed within the fifteen-year period will bar relief.

We firmly believe that these statutes are onerous, needlessly burdensome, and counterproductive insofar as they actually prevent defendants from starting life again as positive and productive citizens.  Additionally, and so far as we know, there is no empirical date which demonstrates that anyone actually benefits from Megan’s Law and CSL/PSL.  There is no proof that it really makes communities safer.  However, and given the number of people who consult with and retain us on these issues, and in light of this new decision, we believe this is a good time to review the basic criteria for removal. Continue reading ›

Juveniles who have been taken into custody in connection with a criminal charge present special procedural issues.  Ideally, a parent or guardian has to be present before the police can question them.  Alternatively, the police have to show that they used their best efforts to contact a parent or guardian before any questioning can occur.  The purpose of this is so that the parent or guardian can assist the juvenile in making an intelligent and informed decision concerning whether to waive their Miranda rights and respond to questions asked by law enforcement.  State v. AA, which our Supreme Court decided in January, 2020, expands the protections afforded juveniles concerning this very sensitive issue.

The two questions before the Court were as follows: Whether law enforcement engaged in the functional equivalent of interrogation when they permitted the juvenile’s mother, who had been called to the police station, to speak with her 15-year-old son who was in custody before the police had read the juvenile his Miranda rights; and Did the fact that AA and his mother had no privacy during their conversation necessitate the adoption of a “private consultation” rule requiring the police to give the juvenile and the adult a meaningful opportunity to speak privately before asking the juvenile whether they wish to waive their Miranda rights?

The Court held that the actions of law enforcement in this case constituted the functional equivalent of interrogation; accordingly, the unwarned statements that AA made to his mother should have been suppressed.  Further, the Court expanded the protections afforded juveniles by now requiring the police to advise a juvenile in custody of their Miranda rights in the presence of a parent or guardian before the police ask the juvenile any questions, or before the parent or guardian speaks with the juvenile.  The police must then give the parent or guardian and the juvenile a meaningful opportunity to speak privately concerning whether or not the rights will be waived and questioning may proceed.

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Two issues regarding the right to privacy, and its potential impact on criminal cases, appeared in the news recently.  These issues have no relationship to each other, but can both be highly relevant to criminal cases.

The first involves a your man who was living alone in a South American country.  He was extremely poor and his family was basically gone.  Having absolutely no personal resources for even necessities, he became involved with a local gang.  To be clear, he was not one of the leaders, or even a major participant in gang activities, acting instead as the occasional lookout.  Significantly, he really did not want any part of the gang lifestyle.  He eventually fled his home country and sought asylum in the United States.  He was afraid to return to his country after leaving, because of his well-founded belief that the gang he was previously involved with may kill him.

Part of the admission process here involved meeting with a mental health therapist whose position was government-related.  The therapist took notes of their meetings, which included discussions of his gang-related activities.  Without any prior knowledge or consent of the young man or the therapist, these notes came to light in connection with a hearing that was held to determine whether he could be admitted to the United States.  The notes supported the conclusion that he was gang-involved in his home country, which will probably end his quest for admission to the United States and force his deportation back to his home country. Continue reading ›

We receive many inquiries from defendants who are currently required to register pursuant to Megan’s Law, and are on Community Supervision for Life or Parole Supervision for Life, about termination of their overly burdensome and needlessly restrictive obligations. In light of a recent New Jersey Supreme Court case, we believe that this may be a good time to review some of the basics of a successful termination motion.

Briefly, people who are saddled with Megan’s and lifetime supervision requirements can apply for relief under the following circumstances, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:7-2(f). First, the application may not be made for at least 15 years from the date of conviction or release from custody, whichever is later. Next, the applicant must be able to show that they were offense-free during that time period. Finally, the applicant must be able to show that they are not a threat to the safety of others. This last requirement is typically satisfied by submitting a written evaluation from a forensic psychologist along with the motion papers.

However, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:7-2(g), certain defendants are not eligible for relief. These include defendants with more than one sex offense, or defendants convicted of aggravated sexual assault or sexual assault as defined in the State’s criminal code.

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Anyone who has ever sat through a jury trial knows the level of attention received by the jury. Tremendous care goes into selecting the jury, as is evident by the nature and extent of the questioning of whole panels and individual jurors, and the related decisions that the parties make concerning peremptory challenges.  But what happens after the jury is selected? How should the court deal with issues of juror misconduct? As the recently decided case of State v. Isakova illustrates, any inappropriate conduct by jurors that comes to a court’s attention must be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated.

Defendant was a former corrections officer who was indicted for participating in a scheme to smuggle tobacco into a jail. His conviction was reversed on appeal for various reasons. Among them was a finding by the Appellate Division that the trial court erred in failing to investigate allegations that a juror introduced extraneous information during jury deliberations.

During deliberations, Juror Number Seven sent a note to the trial judge asking him to remove Juror Number Nine because she had family that were cops, her husband was in jail, and her husband used to get things when he was in jail. The court questioned Juror Number Seven after the jury had indicated that it had reached a unanimous verdict. During that colloquy, the juror stated that Juror Number Nine was biased in her opinions and was making several jurors uncomfortable. The trial court refused to interview Juror Number Nine because it believed that there was nothing in Juror Number Seven’s note that triggered a concern about Juror Number Nine’s ability to deliberate with the other jurors. Continue reading ›

A criminal case can end in a variety of ways including a verdict at trial, a plea, a dismissal, or admission to a diversionary program. Two diversionary programs that may be available to New Jersey criminal defendants are Drug Court and Pre-Trial Intervention, or PTI. This post focuses on some of the basics of PTI.

Generally speaking, defendants seeking admission to PTI must satisfy two criteria. First, the defendant’s current case must be their first and only encounter with the criminal justice system. Further, the charge can be no greater than third degree.

Defendants who do not satisfy these criteria may still be able to gain admission to the program if their attorney submits a statement of compelling reasons in support of their application. This statement acknowledges that the defendant does not meet the basic criteria for admission, but should be admitted to the program anyway because of the facts and circumstances surrounding their case and personal situation.

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Have you been charged with illegal possession of a firearm? Surprised to learn that your plea offer calls for a State prison sentence (typically, five years with a 42-month parole disqualifier), and that the prosecutor is not willing to even discuss it? This scenario has been playing out in courts all over New Jersey for several years now. Here’s why, and what you may be able to do about it.

Years ago, the New Jersey criminal code included a third degree offense for unlawful possession of a weapon. Depending upon the facts of the case, it was frequently possible for those charged under this section of the Code to plead to the possession charge in exchange for a term of non-custodial probation. But the gun laws changed, and the third degree offense was no longer available. Offenses in these cases are charged under the Graves Act, with the result that a State prison sentence is frequently a given.

It is, however, possible to apply for something known as a “Graves Act Waiver”. If successful, the defendant will be placed on non-custodial probation with appropriate terms and conditions. In order to qualify for a waiver, the typical defendant must have little to no criminal record. They should also be able to document a life style punctuated by things that demonstrate the ability to live a successful, law-abiding and productive life in the community. The application for the waiver is prepared by the defendant’s lawyer, and is typically supported by documentation such as letters of reference from employers and community leaders, documentation showing achievement in employment and/or education, records of military service, and the like. The application will be ruled upon the county assignment judge, or that judge’s designee.

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