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State v. Blacknall

New Jersey Supreme Court


February 28, 1996

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
MICHAEL BLACKNALL, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.

On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at N.J. Super. (1994).

Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi, Stein and Coleman join in this opinion.

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

STATE OF NEW JERSEY v. MICHAEL BLACKNALL (A-122)

(NOTE: The Court wrote no full opinion in this case. Rather, the Court's affirmance is based substantially for the reasons expressed in Judge Wallace's opinion below.)

Argued February 13, 1996 -- Decided February 28, 1996

PER CURIAM

The issue on appeal is whether, after the defendant has testified, a trial Judge can reinstate a first-degree kidnapping charge once he has ruled at the close of the State's case that he would not charge first-degree kidnapping because the State failed to present sufficient evidence to warrant such a charge.

The underlying facts leading to the State's indictment against Michael Blacknall occurred on October 14, 1989, when Blacknall drove V.B. to a secluded area, forced her to have intercourse with him and to perform oral sex on him. Blacknall claimed at trial that V.B. consented to these sexual acts.

At the close of the State's case, Blacknall moved to dismiss all counts of the indictment. The trial court denied that motion. The court did rule, however, that it would not charge the jury with first-degree kidnapping because the State had failed to present evidence sufficient to warrant such a charge. The court decided to charge the jury on second-degree kidnapping. The trial Judge then directed Blacknall to proceed with his case. Blacknall took the witness stand and offered his version of the events. Thereafter, the trial Judge reconsidered his earlier ruling, concluding that the State had presented sufficient evidence to support first-degree kidnapping. The trial Judge then submitted the first-degree kidnapping charge to the jury.

The jury found Blacknall guilty of first-degree kidnapping; second-degree sexual assault; and fourth-degree criminal sexual contact. The trial court denied Blacknall's motion for acquittal on the kidnapping count, for a new trial, or for the court to interrogate the jurors. Blacknall was sentenced to a term of eighteen years on the kidnapping charge, a concurrent eight years on the second-degree sexual assault charge and a concurrent fourteen months on the fourth degree criminal sexual contact charge.

Blacknall appealed his convictions to the Appellate Division. A majority of the Appellate Division found Blacknall's contentions without merit, except for his argument that the trial court's reinstatement of the first-degree kidnapping charge constituted reversible error based on both the State and federal Double Jeopardy Clauses.

The majority held that the federal and State Double Jeopardy Clauses mandate reversal of the first-degree kidnapping conviction and a remand for resentencing for second-degree kidnapping. Although the majority recognized that there is federal authority to support the State's argument that the trial Judge made an interlocutory decision that could be changed during the trial without violating double jeopardy principles, the panel concluded that the case was controlled by the principles espoused in Lynch, Ortiz and Portok. Accordingly, once the trial Judge stated at the Conclusion of the State's case that he would not charge first-degree kidnapping and Blacknall took the stand to testify in his defense, the trial Judge's decision constituted an acquittal of first-degree kidnapping. Although the trial Judge may have mistakenly dismissed the first-degree kidnapping charge, double jeopardy had attached and the dismissal was a bar to later reinstatement of the first-degree charge.

The Appellate Division affirmed the balance of Blacknall's convictions. The court also vacated the sentence imposed on Blacknall for sexual assault and sexual contact in order to give the trial court the opportunity to consider resentencing Blacknall for these offenses in light of the reversal of the first-degree kidnapping conviction.

Judge Shebell Dissented, finding the majority erred in not recognizing that the trial Judge's ruling was not an acquittal based on the facts. Judge Shebell believed that the trial Judge's ruling was an absurd misapplication of the law that the trial Judge was able to correct during trial.

HELD: Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED substantially for the reasons expressed in Judge Wallace's opinion below. Once the trial Judge stated at the Conclusion of the State's case that he would not charge first-degree kidnapping and Blacknall took the stand to testify in his own defense, the trial Judge's decision acted as an acquittal of first-degree kidnapping. Therefore, double jeopardy attached and the dismissal was a bar to later reinstatement of the first-degree kidnapping charge.

CHIEF JUSTICE WILENTZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI, STEIN and COLEMAN join in this opinion.

PER CURIAM

The judgment is affirmed, substantially for the reasons expressed in Judge Wallace's opinion of the Appellate Division, reported at N.J. Super. (1995).

19960228


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