On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County.
Michels, Gaulkin and Stern. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Michels, P.J.A.D.
The important issue posed by this appeal is whether the 30 year minimum sentence without parole eligibility mandated by N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3b is constitutional.
Following plea negotiations, defendant Nathaniel Johnson pleaded guilty to an accusation charging him with committing an act of felony-murder, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(3), by causing the death of Sylvesta Coleman by stabbing her in the course of a robbery. For its part of the plea agreement, the State agreed to recommend that (1) the mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years without parole eligibility, required by N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3b, be imposed and (2) the underlying municipal court complaint be dismissed. In accordance with the plea agreement, defendant was committed to the custody of the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections for a term of 30 years without parole eligibility and was assessed a penalty of $25, payable to the Violent Crimes Compensation Board. Defendant appeals.
N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3b, the section of the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice under which defendant was sentenced, provides:
Murder is a crime of the first degree but a person convicted of murder may be sentenced, except as provided in subsection c. of this section [capital punishment provisions], by the court to a term of 30 years, during which the person shall not be eligible for parole or to a specific term of years which shall be between 30 years and life imprisonment of which the person shall serve 30 years before being eligible for parole. [ N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3b].
Defendant contends that this statute is unconstitutional on its face because it mandates a 30 year minimum sentence without parole eligibility. Specifically, defendant asserts that the statute's mandatory minimum sentence is violative of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments' safeguard against the infliction of "cruel and unusual punishment", since a sentencing court can not consider any individualized factors, such as the circumstances surrounding the offense or the prior record and character of the defendant, in mitigation of the mandated sentence. We disagree.
It is firmly settled that the broad power to declare what shall constitute criminal conduct and to fix both the maximum and minimum terms of imprisonment for such conduct has been committed by the people of this State to the legislative, rather than to the judicial branch of government. State v. Hampton, 61 N.J. 250, 273 (1972). See also State v. Smith, 58 N.J. 202, 211 (1971). The fact that our Legislature has provided a more severe punishment for criminal acts than the courts approve is no grounds for judicial interference, unless a constitutional or other prohibition against such punishment has been violated. In making this determination, our Supreme Court in State v. Hampton, supra, expressed the view that "courts consider whether the nature of the criticized punishment is such as to shock the general conscience and to violate principles of fundamental fairness; whether comparison shows the punishment to be grossly disproportionate to the offense, and whether the punishment goes beyond what is necessary to accomplish any legitimate penal aim." 61 N.J. at 273-274. Thus, "[a]bsent such a showing the judiciary must respect the legislative will." Id. at 274.
Furthermore, in State v. Smith, supra, the Supreme Court emphasized that "courts will not interfere with the prescribed form of penalty unless it is so clearly arbitrary and without rational relation to the offense or so disproportionate to the offense as to transgress the Federal and State constitutional prohibitions against excessive fines or cruel and unusual punishment." 58 N.J. at 211 (citing U.S. Const., Amend VIII; N.J. Const., (1947), Art. I, § XII). Additionally, in assessing the constitutionality of a punishment which has been legislatively fixed, a court must presume validity. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 175, 96 S. Ct. 2909, 2926, 49 L. Ed. 2d 859, 876 (1976).
The amendments to N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3b, which became effective on August 6, 1982, provide three alternative sentences for murder: (1) death; (2) a sentence of 30 years without parole eligibility; and (3) a sentence between 30 years and life, with a mandatory minimum 30 year term of parole ineligibility. State v. Biegenwald, 96 N.J. 630, 635 (1984) (citing N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3b). Here, defendant was sentenced by the trial judge in accordance with the second alternative which, as the Supreme Court has noted, provides for "a minimum sentence of thirty years without parole eligibility." State v. Rodriguez, 97 N.J. 263, 274 n. 4 (1984) (citing N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3b (as amended August 6, 1982)). Consequently, pursuant to the provisions of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3b, a term of at least 30 years must be imposed in noncapital murder cases, without consideration of any extraneous factors such as defendant's prior record or character.
Defendant argues, however, that the rationale applied by the United States Supreme Court in striking down both the North Carolina and Louisiana mandatory death penalty statutes in Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 303, 96 S. Ct. 2978, 2990, 49 L. Ed. 2d 944, 960-961 (1976) and Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325, 333, 96 S. Ct. 3001, 3006, 49 L. Ed. 2d 974, 981 (1976) respectively, should be equally applicable to the sentencing provisions of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3b of our new Code. ...