New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney Blog

Covering New Jersey and Federal Criminal Law and Procedure

An inventory search is a narrow exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.  This search occurs after a defendant is arrest, but before incarceration.  Briefly, the police are allowed to search the defendant/arrestee without a warrant and inventory the property in their possession.  The goals of this search are to protect the defendant’s property while s/he is being held; to protect law enforcement from false property claims; and to safeguard the police from danger.  These searches are administrative in nature, and frequently do not receive significant attention.  In State v. Hummel, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently provided guidance on what qualifies as a proper inventory search.

Thomas Corbin was killed on December 5, 2010.  Two days later, law enforcement informed Lori Hummel that they wanted to take her to a police station for two outstanding traffic-related bench warrants.  She was then taken to the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office, where she was met by several detectives and placed in an interrogation room.  She had her purse on the table in front of her.  Detectives entered the room to begin questioning her, and sat down at the table without frisking her or removing her purse.  Soon after questioning started, she reached into her purse to get her cell phone.  She checked the time, and told the detectives that she had to pick up her daughter by a certain time.  The detectives did not comment on that but instead asked her to be sworn in, and then questioned her without first advising her of her Miranda rights.  When asked about her cell phone, she began looking through her purse for the receipt from its purchase.  The detectives continued questioning her about her relationship with Corbin.

The detectives then left the room.  After returning her possessions to her purse, she left the room and asked the detectives if she could leave to get her daughter.  They did not allow her to leave and she asked if she was under arrest.  One of the detectives said “technically” because of the traffic warrants, and that they still had questions for her.  She indicated that she thought she should get an attorney.  After questioning her about her decision to obtain counsel, the detectives left the room.  One of the detectives then came back in, cuffed her leg to a bar on the floor and told her she had an outstanding traffic warrant.  She asked repeatedly if she could call her lawyer.  The detective who cuffed her took her purse from the table, and the defendant objected.  Another detective then told her she was in custody.  As the detective with the purse left the room, the defendant said “Hopefully that $500 ain’t missing out of there.”   Continue reading

A state trooper stopped a vehicle on I-295 in Burlington County.  The basis for the stop was a damaged tail light.  The vehicle, which also changed lanes without signaling, had three occupants – the driver, a front-seat passenger, and a six-year-old child in the back seat.  The trooper smelled burnt marijuana upon approaching the passenger side of the vehicle, and then asked the front passenger, the defendant Hagans, to step out of the vehicle.  He arrested, handcuffed, and Mirandized him, and called for backup.  He then asked the driver, Shonsheray Chandler, to step out of the vehicle.  He Mirandized her and asked her about the presence of Marijuana in the car.  She denied both knowing the defendant possessed marijuana, and that she had been smoking it in the car.  He handcuffed Chandler and placed her in the back seat of the police car.

The trooper asked Chandler to consent to a vehicle search.  Prior to reading her the consent form, he stated “it would be a lot easier if you would just make things easy.”  He read her the form, told her that she could refuse to consent, and that she could leave absent some other reason to hold her.  He also told her that she could be present during the search if she consented, and could withdraw consent at any time.  At first, Chandler refused to consent to the search.  The trooper responded by saying that he was going to apply for a search warrant which would just prolong the inevitable, and that he just wanted to make things easier.  Chandler then consented to the search.  In fact, the record indicated that she repeatedly consented to the search after her initial denial.  The trooper then re-read the consent form in its entirety and again asked Chandler if she consented to the search, and she responded in the affirmative.  The trooper also repeated for the mobile video recorder (“MVR”) that Chandler initially denied consent, but then changed her mind.  The vehicle search yielded a bag of marijuana and a handgun.

The defendant admitted that the marijuana and gun were his, and was charged accordingly.  During a suppression hearing, the trial court found that based upon the totality of the circumstances, the consent to search was valid and not coerced.  The Appellate division affirmed. Continue reading

At some point in the development of the American criminal justice system, somebody decided that it was a good idea to provide defendants with library resource materials so they could either defend themselves or assist their trained criminal defense attorneys in defending them.  Without putting too fine a point on it, it is my personal opinion that this has turned out to be one of the stupidest things any attorney or judge ever thought of, for the following reasons.

No Legal Training – Let’s start with the most obvious points.  Most criminal defendants have no formal legal training.  Understanding the contents of a statute, case, or legal treatise is simply beyond their ability.  Most defendants who spend their days in the prison library refuse to acknowledge that it is virtually impossible to read and understand legal materials without formal legal training.  My experience with clients who perform their own research and write their own briefs has revealed repeatedly that a defendant will, for example, latch onto an isolated phrase in a particular source because the few words at issue seem to advance their cause; however, they almost invariably take the isolated quote out of its larger context.  When read as part of the larger case or statute, it becomes clear that the phrase lacks the meaning contemplated by the defendant, and therefore does little – if anything – to improve their position.

No Knowledge of Court Rules – But the problems go far beyond this.  Defendants also do not understand that in addition to statutes and cases, there are procedural rules that affect virtually every aspect of a criminal case.  They refuse to see that legal arguments may stem from a given source, but must then be brought before the court in a manner consistent with all applicable procedural rules.  This means that arguments cannot typically be raised when and how the defendant wants to raise them.  The procedural rules act as an overlay to substantive sources, and govern the manner in which the latter can be used.  This point is simply lost on jailhouse lawyers. Continue reading

Most defendants who are facing jail time are very satisfied with a probationary sentence in lieu of incarceration.  However, defendants sentenced to probation do not always realize that the sentence comes with a list of terms and conditions with which they must comply during their period of supervision.  Some terms and conditions are fairly standard.  These typically include remaining arrest-free, maintaining employment, going to school, and remaining drug and alcohol free.  The sentencing judge can also impose more case-specific or defendant-specific terms and conditions that can be very creative, and are designed to meet the unique needs of the matter at hand.

The failure to comply with the terms and conditions can result in the filing of a violation by the probation officer responsible for the case.  The Court will then schedule a hearing on the violation.  If the violation is sustained, the Court could impose penalties that range from a lengthening of the probationary term to a sentence in state prison.  Under current law, the maximum term of probation in New Jersey is 60 months, or five years.  Certain defendants may be eligible for early termination if they can show compliance with all conditions and requirements.  Defendants must always remember that being on probation is not always easy, and the likelihood of a violation typically increases with the length of the probationary term.  Put somewhat differently, defendants who are placed on probation for long periods of time are at greater risk of facing a violation.

State v. Mosley, decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court on March 6, 2017, reminds us that probation violation hearings are not criminal trials.  The State bears the burden of proving the violation, but the standard of proof is much lower than what is required at trial.  This is largely because probation violation hearings are not viewed as part of a criminal prosecution, but as part of the corrections process. Continue reading

We recently passed the first anniversary of criminal justice reform in New Jersey.  As discussed regularly on this blog, these far-reaching changes to criminal practice and procedure in the State affect the handling of all criminal cases in the Superior Court.  The primary areas that these changes impact upon are bail reform and the speed with which criminal cases progress through the system.

As discussed in previous posts, the new procedures assume those charged with criminal offenses will not be incarcerated pending trial or other case disposition.  Prosecutors can, however, seek to detain a defendant while their case is pending before the court.  This is accomplished by means of a detention motion filed by the State, which is followed by a detention hearing.  After considering, among other things the arguments of counsel and the Public Safety Assessment (the “PSA” – a sort of score sheet that rates the defendant for risk of failure to appear in court in the future and likelihood of committing new offenses), the court decides whether to release the defendant with or without conditions, require the posting of a bail, or detain the defendant without bail.  The defendant can appeal an adverse detention decision.

SN was charged with sex offenses.  The PSA gave him the lowest possible scores for risk of committing additional offenses and risk of failure to appear, but still recommended detention regardless of the low scores.  The State sought pretrial detention, arguing that there was a serious risk that defendant would fail to appear in court, that he was a danger to the community, that he would intimidate the victim, her mother and other witnesses to obstruct justice, and that he was a flight risk because he had relatives living in another country. Continue reading

Generally speaking, there are two broad categories of searches.  Either a search can be made with a search warrant, or it can be warrantless.  Our law prefers searches that are made pursuant to a warrant.  A warrantless search will be valid only if the search and seizure activities fall within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement, each of which has its own detailed requirements.

Evidence seized pursuant to a search conducted with a warrant is, as a general rule, harder to suppress than evidence seized without a warrant.  Defense counsel must carefully review the warrant paperwork, which consists of an application submitted in support of the warrant, the warrant itself, and the return on the warrant, so as to locate defects in the application process that can serve as the basis for a suppression motion.  The identification of such defects was the basis for the recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision in State v. Boone, which was decided on December 18, 2017.

Boone faced a series of narcotics and weapons charges stemming from contraband that the police located in his Hackensack apartment in August, 2012.  The search of his apartment was conducted pursuant to a warrant.  Boone moved for an order suppressing the evidence since the warrant application lacked any information as to why his specific unit should be searched. Continue reading

Discovery rules in criminal cases can vary greatly between jurisdictions.  New Jersey has some of the most liberal discovery rules in the nation.  It is common for discovery to be produced well before an indictment.  Further, under current rules, all discovery must ordinarily be produced at or just prior to indictment.  This relatively early discovery production enables defense counsel to quickly come up to speed on the case, identify witnesses, perform any necessary investigations, and identify any areas where expert testimony may be required.

In sharp contrast, prosecutors in some other jurisdictions are not required to produce discovery until relatively late in the proceedings, with the result that important discovery which could impact significantly upon a defense case may not arrive until the eve of trial.  New York recently took a very small step toward addressing the problems and issues that result from eleventh-hour discovery production.

New York State’s Chief Judge recently issued an Order requiring district attorneys to review their files for Brady material and produce it at least 30 days before major trials.  The Order takes effect on January 1.  Brady material gets its name from the landmark 1963 United States Supreme Court decision of Brady v. Maryland, and includes exculpatory material and/or material that could be construed as favorable to the defendant. Continue reading

Given the current political climate, protecting the rights of non-citizen criminal defendants is certainly not a popular activity.  However, and as many judges and elected representatives have repeatedly stated, our judicial system (federal and state) is supposed to be a model of fairness for other countries, particularly those where there are no meaningful due process rights or protections.  Our tradition provides that any criminal defendant – even one who is in the United States illegally – is still entitled to due process.

To help ensure this, there is a procedure which really should be utilized in most, if not all, criminal cases where the defendant is not a US citizen.  International treaties provide that a non-citizen criminal defendant must be allowed to speak to a representative of his country’s consulate to seek whatever assistance the consulate can offer.  This was a major issue in the case of Ruben Cardenas, who was executed last night in Texas.

Cardenas was arrested over 20 years ago for the murder of his teenage cousin.  Following hours of questioning by law enforcement, he admitted to sneaking into his cousin’s through a window.  He also confessed to kidnapping, raping and killing her, and leaving her body near a canal.  He was not given an attorney until 11 days after his arrest, and his defense counsel claimed that his confession was coerced and other evidence in the case was problematic for different reasons.  Representatives of the Mexican government and the United Nations all tried to stop the execution, providing this case with international visibility.  The execution was carried out despite numerous appeals that raised the deprivation of consular rights, as well as other issues.

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Prosecutors occupy a central role in our criminal justice system.  In every case, they choose the offenses the defendant will be charged with, present evidence to a grand jury to secure an indictment in a proceeding they control almost exclusively, and then represent the public in the actual criminal case where they make almost all of the decisions concerning many important matters such as plea bargains.  Additionally, their investigatory resources are generally far greater than those available to the defense.  Finally, since many people equate a criminal charge with actual guilt, they can be ahead of the game before the jury is selected and the trial starts.

They may not like to admit it, but prosecutors are not perfect.  They sometimes make mistakes that result in wrongful convictions.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will soon be hearing a case that may further close off the ability of the wrongfully convicted to seek redress for the resulting harm.

Under current law, suing police officers who commit misconduct is relatively simple.  In sharp contrast, federal law protects prosecutors who make mistakes that hurt defendants.  Thus, individual district attorneys in New York State are immune from suits for courtroom mistakes that result in wrongful convictions.  Further, suing New York State is a waste of time unless the plaintiff can demonstrate conclusively that they were innocent of the offense that sent them to prison. Continue reading

In 1984, Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act (“CCCA”).  This law was passed at a time when crime rates, particularly drug-related crimes, were rising nationally.  The CCCA provided, in part, that law enforcement agencies could seize the overwhelming majority of assets of individuals suspected of criminal activity.  In fact, the CCCA allowed law enforcement to seize up to three times what they could seize from criminal suspects under then-existing state laws.  In 2014, the last year for which data is available, local police agencies seized about $4.5 billion in assets.  The majority of these assets were turned over to the federal government; however, the relatively small portion given back to local police departments subsidized about 20% of their budgets.  The CCCA also gave police departments something of a windfall that paid for equipment and the establishment of narcotics task forces.

It was later found that over the decade following its passage, the CCCA resulted in a decline in crime rates of about 17% in jurisdictions where it was applied.  Obviously, this was something that relatively few people would fault, particularly in light of the fact that the law grew from a perception that crime rates were out of control.  However, new information concerning the long-term effects of the CCCA – particularly the manner in which it influences law enforcement priorities – recently became available.  This material should be of interest to anyone who seriously tracks trends in law enforcement activities.

According to a recent study prepared by professors at Florida State University (“FSU”), the asset forfeiture system established by the CCCA has had unintended consequences over time.  First, it has apparently caused law enforcement to heavily target drug-related offenses.  It has also apparently motivated local police to focus their efforts in poorer urban areas where it is easier to make drug-related arrests that frequently result in the seizure of assets.  In some instances, the assets seized may amount only to a few hundred dollars.  It can, however, add up very quickly if enough people are arrested.  Continue reading