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State v. Lee

New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division

Decided: August 10, 1989.


On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Bergen County.

Dreier and Stern. The opinion of the court was delivered by Stern, J.A.D.


[235 NJSuper Page 411]

This sentence appeal is again before this court by virtue of the Supreme Court's remand for reconsideration "in light of an apparent confusion in the record in respect of this defendant's background and that of his co-defendant." 117 N.J. 38 (April 19, 1989). Defendant argues that his sentence is excessive primarily because it is harsher than that imposed on a co-defendant for the same crimes.

Defendant and Daniel Brown were jointly indicted for two burglaries, N.J.S.A. 2C:18-2, embodied in Bergen County indictments S-708-86 and S-1010-86.*fn1 Brown was also indicted in S-1010-86 with theft over $500.00, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-3, and criminal mischief, N.J.S.A. 2C:17-3. He was also charged with possession of stolen property, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7 (accusation 1253-86) and with possession and possession with intent to

[235 NJSuper Page 412]

distribute C.D.S., N.J.S.A. 24:21-19(a)(1), 24:21-20(a)(1), and resisting arrest, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2a(1) (indictment S-579-86).

In addition to the burglary offenses, defendant was charged in indictment S-1010-86 with theft, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-3, criminal mischief, N.J.S.A. 2C:17-3, and aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(5). In other words, in addition to the charges returned against Brown on that indictment, defendant was charged with an aggravated assault.

On September 22, 1986 Brown pled guilty to the burglaries embodied in indictments S-708-86 and S-1010-86, the receiving charge embodied in the accusation, and the possession with intent to distribute C.D.S. and resisting arrest charges embodied in S-579-86. In exchange for the plea the State agreed to recommend dismissal of the other charges and two pending disorderly persons offenses and to recommend a maximum 10 year sentence. On October 31, 1986 Brown was sentenced to 10 years in the custody of the Commissioner of Corrections with 5 years before parole eligibility on the C.D.S. conviction. He received concurrent sentences on the other convictions, including concurrent 5 year sentences with 2 1/2 years before parole eligibility on the burglaries.*fn2

On May 4, 1987 defendant pled guilty to the burglary and aggravated assault charges embodied in indictment S-1010-86*fn3

[235 NJSuper Page 413]

and to the burglary embodied in S-708-86. In exchange, the State recommended dismissal of the other charges and a pending disorderly complaint, and agreed to waive an extended term application and to recommend a maximum 10 year sentence. On June 12, 1987 defendant was sentenced to concurrent 5 year sentences, with 2 1/2 years before parole eligibility, on the crimes embodied in indictment S-1010-86 and to a consecutive similar sentence for the burglary embodied in indictment S-708-86. Thus defendant received an aggregate 10 year sentence with 5 years parole ineligibility on the burglaries, while his co-defendant received but a 5 year sentence with 2 1/2 years parole ineligibility for the same offenses.

We agree with defendant's primary assertion that the Code of Criminal Justice endeavored to limit judicial discretion, promote uniformity and reduce undue disparity in sentencing. See N.J.S.A. 2C:1-2b(4), (6). We further agree that our Judiciary is committed to the concept of uniformity and reduction of undue disparity. See, e.g., State v. Pillot, 115 N.J. 558 (1989); State v. Yarbough, 100 N.J. 627, 635, 647 (1985), certif. denied, sub nom. Yarbough v. New Jersey, 475 U.S. 1014, 106 S. Ct. 1193, 89 L. Ed. 2d 308 (1986); State v. Hodge, 95 N.J. 369, 379-380 (1984); State v. Roth, 95 N.J. 334, 345-369 (1984); State v. Pillot recently discussed the issue in terms of multiple sentences involving the same defendant imposed in separate proceedings in different counties. The problem is potentially of even greater concern when two defendants with similar records are charged with similar offenses or two co-defendants with similar backgrounds are sentenced by different judges for the same crime or offenses. This case involves the problem in the context of co-defendants, although each was convicted of a crime (or two in the case of Brown) in addition to the two burglaries in common.

[235 NJSuper Page 414]

Our present scope of review in a sentencing appeal, although not developed in the context of a disparity issue involving co-defendants, is quite limited, see State v. Ghertler, 114 N.J. 383 (1989); State v. Roth, supra, 95 N.J. at 363-64; see also, e.g., State v. Jarbath, 114 N.J. 394 (1989); State v. Gardner, 113 N.J. 510, 516 (1989), and does not appear to be different when disparity is alleged. Cf. State v. Pillot, 115 N.J. at 563-565 (matter remanded to permit consolidated sentencing of all matters; no change in scope of review).*fn4

While the defendant in his petition for certification indicated that co-defendant Brown "is serving five years with two and one half years parole ineligibility on the same indictments," and that "there is nothing in the record to support the imposition of a sentence twice as long as Mr. Lee's co-defendant's," the fact is that co-defendant Brown is serving a sentence simultaneously imposed for another offense, aggregating the same sentence as defendant. While it is true that defendant received more time than Brown on the two burglaries alone, Brown received an aggregate ten year term, with five years parole ineligibility. Thus, the aggregate sentences were the same. It is simply inappropriate to note only that defendant received a longer sentence for the burglaries committed by the two. While there are no "free crimes," it must be noted that both defendants received multiple sentences simultaneously imposed, see State v. Yarbough, supra, and each defendant received exactly what he bargained for, see State v. Sainz, 107 N.J. 283 (1987). We generally cannot upset negotiated dispositions which result in

[235 NJSuper Page 415]

legal sentences consistent with the Code's guidelines, see State v. Sainz, supra; see also State v. Warren, 115 N.J. 433, 447-450 (1989); State v. Guzman, 199 N.J. Super. 346, 352-353 (Law Div.1985); compare State v. Nemeth, 214 N.J. Super. 324 (App.Div.1986), and we cannot upset a legal sentence imposed consistent with the Code guidelines when based on substantial evidence, see State v. Ghertler, 114 N.J. at 387-388; State v. Roth, supra.

As the Supreme Court recently said in Ghertler:

[W]e do well to remind ourselves that "we will exercise that reserve of judicial power to modify sentences when the application of the facts to the law is such a clear error of judgment that it shocks the judicial conscience. We anticipate that we will not be required to invoke this judicial power frequently." Roth, supra, 95 N.J. at 364 (citation omitted). The test, then, is not whether a reviewing court would have reached a different conclusion on what an appropriate sentence should be; it is rather whether, on the basis of the evidence, no reasonable sentencing court could have imposed the sentence under review. Id. at 365. [114 N.J. at 388].

It may be that in a given case disparity can effect the evaluation of whether the correct sentencing guidelines were followed, as an effort to eliminate disparity was embodied into the Code. It may also be that disparity among co-defendants could impact on whether one sentence is "shocking," under the Roth scope of review. But there are cases involving co-defendants which may involve sentences which are arguably disparate -- particularly when imposed by different judges -- although each sentence is consistent with Code guidelines, is based on findings of aggravating or mitigating factors supportable by the record and is not shocking to the judicial conscience. The fact that one defendant may have received a lenient sentence unappealable by the State, because it is not of the first or second degree resulting in a downgrade for sentence purposes or in a non-custodial or probationary sentence, see N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1f(2), or because it is not inconsistent with a negotiated plea in such a case, State v. Partusch, 214 N.J. Super. 473, 476 (App.Div.1987), does not mean that a co-defendant's appropriate

[235 NJSuper Page 416]

sentence becomes assailable or subject to modification by this court on appeal.

On the motion for reconsideration here, the judge noted that "[d]uring the burglary they assaulted a police officer in the course of his duties" whereas defendant was not charged with an assault during a burglary. Further, while the trial judge was indeed correct that defendant had a poor prior record, stating "this defendant has a record of seven arrests, six convictions, a juvenile record dating back to 1977 and numerous violations of probation," the judge neglected to respond to defendant's disparity argument or refer to Brown's record. Defendant makes a presentable argument that his "prior record is simply unacceptable as justification for the imposition of a longer term on defendant because co-defendant's Daniel Brown's record is worse than Mr. Lee's." However, while Brown had more convictions, he had only two indictable convictions, and defendant had more.*fn5 Nevertheless, defendant's principal argument on the motion for reconsideration, that Brown, who "had a worse record than Mr. Lee," got "half" the sentence defendant received for the same offenses, should have been considered and addressed by the sentencing judge in deciding the motion. See R. 3:29.*fn6 Accordingly, without objection from the State at the argument before us, we remand for further reconsideration of defendant's sentence so that defendant's arguments can be addressed by the sentencing judge.

Remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.

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