The issue before this court involves the standards to be applied in determining whether to reject a plea agreement as not serving "the interests of justice."
R. 3:9-3(e) of the rules governing criminal practice empowers a court to vacate a plea agreement "if at the time of sentencing the court determines that the interests of justice would not be served by effectuating the agreement reached between prosecutor and defense counsel. . . ."
There is no New Jersey case which explicitly sets forth the criteria to be employed by a court to justify rejecting a plea agreement for this reason.
Defendants are the mother, stepfather and two brothers of the victim and were indicted for various criminal offenses, including attempted murder, aggravated assault in the second and third degrees and burglary.
These charges stemmed from a violent altercation between the victim and his defendant-relatives, which took place inside the victim's home. (The victim claimed he was tied up by defendants, who then proceeded to beat him with their fists and feet and stabbed at him with a screwdriver.)
None of defendants has ever had any prior contact with the criminal justice system, except for one who committed a simple assault six years ago.
A plea agreement was finalized between the State and the defense attorneys, wherein defendants pled guilty to aggravated assault in the third degree. Under the terms of the plea agreement, the remaining charges contained in the indictment would be dismissed and defendants would receive noncustodial sentences.
The prosecutor entered into the plea agreement with full knowledge of the victim's strenuous objections to the terms of the plea agreement.
At the time of sentencing, the victim had apprised this court, both in writing and verbally in open court, of his strenuous objections to the plea agreement.
This court must either approve the plea agreements and sentence defendants according to their terms or reject the plea agreements as not serving "the interests of justice."
Plea bargaining has long been recognized as a necessary and pragmatic tool to effectuate the efficient and fair administration of justice. State v. Taylor, 80 N.J. 353, 403 A.2d 889 (1979); Santobello v. N.Y., 404 U.S. 257, 92 S. Ct. 495, 30 L. Ed. 2d 427 (1971). Plea bargaining "is widely viewed as an appropriate accommodation of the conflicting interests of society and persons accused of crimes and as a needed response to an ever-burgeoning case load." State v. Barboza, 115 N.J. 415, 420, 558 A.2d 1303 (1989).
There are basically two types of plea bargaining: a "sentence bargain," where defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a recommendation by the State that defendant will not receive a more severe sentence than agreed upon; and a "bargain," wherein defendant will plead guilty to one or more charges contained in the indictment or to a "lesser-included" charge on condition that the other charges pending against defendant will be dismissed. There are, of course, numerous variations and combinations of these two general types of plea agreements. See generally 31 N.J. Practice (Arnold, Criminal Practice and Procedure) (2 ed. 1976) § 404 at 418-419; R. 3:9-3(b).
Implementation and finalization of any plea bargain involves a two-step procedure: (a) entry of a plea of guilty pursuant to a
plea agreement; and (b) sentencing in accordance with the plea agreement or vacation ...