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State v. Sainz

Decided: June 18, 1987.


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 210 N.J. Super. 17 (1986).

For Affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J.


[107 NJ Page 285] This appeal raises several issues regarding sentencing for defendants who plead guilty to drug-related offenses. In particular,

we must determine whether explicit consideration of aggravating and mitigating factors must be undertaken when a court sentences a defendant for violation of the Controlled Dangerous Substances Act. We also consider the appropriate standards for appellate review of sentences imposed on defendants who plead guilty pursuant to a negotiated plea agreement.

In a search conducted pursuant to a warrant, the police discovered 108.6 grams of cocaine, of which 38 grams were pure free base, at the home of Carlos Rafael Sainz. Sainz and his wife were indicted for possession of one or more ounces of cocaine, including at least 3.5 grams pure free base, N.J.S.A. 24:21-10c(2), and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, N.J.S.A. 24:21-19b(2).

Sainz agreed to a plea bargain, according to which he would plead guilty to the charge of possession with intent to distribute, the State would move to dismiss the other count against him and both counts against his wife, and the State would recommend a maximum custodial sentence of ten years. Sainz was sentenced to a term of ten years with three years of parole ineligibility, and a $25.00 penalty payable to the Victims Crime Compensation Board. Sainz appealed to the Appellate Division, challenging the validity of the search warrant and the trial court's failure to consider aggravating and mitigating factors in its sentencing decision. The Appellate Division in a reported decision upheld the validity of the search warrant but vacated Sainz's sentence and remanded the case for resentencing. State v. Sainz, 210 N.J. Super. 17 (1986). The State's petition for certification presenting the sentencing issues was granted, and Sainz's cross-petition for certification seeking review of the validity of the search was denied. 104 N.J. 453 (1986).


The sentencing provisions of the Code of Criminal Justice (Code), N.J.S.A. 2C:1-1 to 98-4, are generally applicable to Controlled Dangerous Substances Act (CDS) violations, N.J.S.A.

24:21-1 to -53. The only exceptions are the provisions relating to the degree of a crime. State v. Sobel, 183 N.J. Super. 473 (App.Div.1982); State v. Tremblay, 185 N.J. Super. 137 (Law Div.1982). The following language appears in the subsection of the Code dealing with degrees of crimes:

The provisions of this subsection shall not, however, apply to the sentences authorized by the "New Jersey Controlled Dangerous Substances Act," P.L. 1970, c. 226, which shall be continued in effect. A sentence imposed upon violation of the "New Jersey Controlled Dangerous Substances Act" shall be governed by this subtitle [Subtitle 3: Sentencing] but shall be subject to the maximum sentence authorized for the relevant offenses under said act. . . . [ N.J.S.A. 2C:43-1(b).]

Under the Code, the degree of crime has direct relevance to sentencing. An elaborate and integrated scheme correlates crimes to sentencing options. The degree of crime defines its gravity and is the most influential factor in dictating the appropriate sentence. N.J.S.A. 2C:43-1; State v. Roth, 95 N.J. 334 (1984); State v. Hodge, 95 N.J. 369 (1984). The Code has fairly specific standards for determining permissible sentences. For example, a crime of the first degree carries a presumptive term of 15 years and may, depending upon other factors, result in a maximum term of life imprisonment. N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6, 44-1, 44-2. The Code provides further that, in the application of its sentencing scheme, judicial discretion be expressly guided and limited by the determination and weighing of aggravating and mitigating factors. N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1 to -6. It is this process by which the sentencing court determines whether to follow or depart from the presumptive term that is a function of the degree of crime. Thus sentencing discretion under the Code involves an interplay between the degree of crime on the one hand and application of aggravating and mitigating factors on the other. See State v. Roth, supra.

The CDS had different provisions for determining a sentence. The CDS provided for terms of sentences ...

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