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State v. Megargel

March 27, 1996

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



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at The opinion of the Court was delivered by Garibaldi, J. Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern and Coleman join in Justice GARIBALDI's opinion. Justice Stein filed a separate Dissenting opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garibaldi

(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 P. MEGARGEL (A-62-95)

Argued November 27, 1995 -- Decided March 27, 1996

GARIBALDI, J., writing for a majority of the Court.

N.J.S.A.2C:44-1f(2) (section 44-1f(2)) provides that where a sentencing court is clearly convinced that the mitigating factors outweigh the aggravating factors and the interest of Justice demands, a court may sentence a defendant who had been convicted of a first or second degree crime to a term appropriate to an offense one degree lower. The issue on this appeal is whether the sentencing court properly applied section 44-1f(2) when it sentenced Michael P. Megargel, convicted of first-degree kidnapping, as if he had been convicted of second-degree kidnapping. Specifically, the Court considers whether the trial court properly found that "the interest of Justice" standard of section 44-1f(2) was met.

Daniel Harris alleged that four men claiming to be police forced him into a car at gunpoint, took him to a vacant lot, and robbed and severely beat him. Harris identified Megargel and co-defendant Lee as participants in the robbery and kidnapping. Megargel and Lee were indicted for first-degree kidnapping; first-degree robbery; possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose; unlawful possession of a handgun; possession of hollow nose bullets; second-degree aggravated assault; unlawful possession of a shotgun; and conspiracy to commit first-degree robbery.

Lee, a Senior Corrections Officer at the Wagner Correctional Facility in Bordentown, asserted an alibi defense at trial. Megargel testified that he had no idea the group he was travelling with was going to engage in criminal activities. Megargel asserted throughout his testimony that although he was present for the attack on Harris, he never got out of the car, never had a shotgun, and never hit or beat Harris. Megargel insisted that he did not participate in the incident and that he wanted to leave but was afraid to because the others carried weapons. Megargel called thirteen character witnesses to testify as to his good character and several witnesses wrote letters on Megargel's behalf.

Megargel was convicted of first-degree kidnapping only. Lee was convicted on all charges not previously dismissed. Pursuant to statute, the trial court conducted a Graves Act hearing and concluded that the Act applied to Megargel. In imposing sentence on Megargel, the court viewed the kidnapping components separately and concluded that only one aggravating factor and several mitigating factors applied to Megargel. The trial court believed that Megargel was neither aware that a kidnapping was going to occur nor did he think that the incident would evolve into what it did. The trial court was clearly convinced that the mitigating factors substantially outweighed the aggravating factor and that, pursuant to section 44-1f(2), the interest of Justice required that Megargel be sentenced as if he were convicted of second-degree kidnapping, a crime one degree lower than that for which he had been convicted. Megargel was sentenced to seven years with a three year parole disqualifier.

The State appealed Megargel's sentence, claiming that the trial court abused its discretion in downgrading to a second-degree offense. Megargel cross-appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in concluding that the Graves Act applied to him. The Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the Graves Act finding; however, only a majority affirmed the sentence as downgraded. Judge Keefe Dissented, concluding that the trial court had misconstrued the meaning of section 44-1f(2); had failed to consider that the severity of the crime is the single most important factor in sentencing; and had failed to identify what led to the Conclusion that the "interest of Justice" demanded downgrading Megargel's sentence.

The State appealed on the basis of the Dissent in the Appellate Division.

HELD: the reasons justifying the downgrading of an offense pursuant to N.J.S.A.2C:44-1f(2) must be "compelling," and something in addition to and separate from, the mitigating factors that substantially outweigh the aggravating factors. Moreover, the Legislature's creation of a lengthier sentence and presumptive term of imprisonment for a conviction of first-degree kidnapping mandates that a trial court exercise special caution before downgrading such a serious offense. In focusing primarily on the gravity of the crime as required by the Code, the facts in this case do not warrant a downgrade of Megargel's sentence from a first-degree offense to a second-degree offense.

1. The plain language of the statute makes it clear that for a sentence to be downgraded, a two-step test must be satisfied: 1) the sentencing Judge must be clearly convinced that the mitigating factors substantially outweigh the aggravating factors; and 2) the interest of Justice must demand the downgrade. Neither the legislative history nor the plain language of the statute provide any insight into the meaning of the phrase "in the interest of Justice," nor does the language of the statute suggest the circumstances under which a downgraded sentence would be appropriate. Case law offers some guidance. A downgrade of a defendant's sentence under section 44-1f(2) should not occur absent some compelling reason. Moreover, trial courts should exercise caution in imposing downgraded sentences in those cases in which the Legislature has attached an enhanced penalty for a particular offense. (pp. 11-17)

2. The "in the interest of Justice" analysis should not be similar to the "in or out" determination found in State v. Roth under N.J.S.A.2C:44-1(d). The "serious inJustice" standard found in N.J.S.A.2C:44-1(d) is not the same as the "in the interest of Justice" standard found in section 44-1f(2). Section 44-1(d) governs imprisonment versus non-imprisonment, a more serious condition that the downgrading of a sentence governed by section 44-1f(2). (pp. 17-19)

3. In sentencing under section 44-1f(2), a court must apply basic principles applicable to all sentencing decisions under the Code. The sentence must reflect the Legislature's intention that the severity of the crime be the single most important factor in the sentencing process. In evaluating the severity of the crime, the trial court must consider the nature of and the relevant circumstances pertaining to the offense. Courts should consider a defendant's role in the incident to determine the need to deter him from further crimes and the corresponding need to protect the public from him. The trial court must clearly identify the relevant sentencing factors and set forth in the record how it exercised its discretion in balancing these factors. The court must also explain why sentencing defendant to the lowest range of sentencing for the convicted offense is not a more appropriate sentence than a downgraded sentence. (pp. 19-23)

4. Here, the trial court erred in concluding that the interest of Justice demanded a downgraded sentence pursuant to section 44-1f(2). The court failed to identify any reasons, compelling or otherwise, in addition to and separate from the mitigating factors that would explain why the interest of Justice demanded a downgraded sentence. In addition, the court's consideration of the nature of Megargel's crime was cursory, and there was no reference to the Legislature's intent in treating first-degree kidnapping as a serious crime subject to an enhanced penalty. Nothing in this record suggests that a downgrade was appropriate. Moreover, to downgrade Megargel's sentence would frustrate the legislative intent to punish those convicted of first-degree kidnapping severely. (pp 23-25)

5. Although the facts do not warrant a downgrade of his sentence, Megargel should be sentenced to a minimum term for a person convicted of first-degree kidnapping, namely, fifteen years. Because he is subject to the Graves Act, his parole ineligibility would be five years. (pp. 26-27)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and defendant's sentence is VACATED. Rather than remand for resentencing, the Court sentences Megargel to a term of fifteen years with a five year parole disqualifier.

JUSTICE STEIN, Dissenting, is of the view that the majority substitutes its judgment for that of the trial court. The obvious "compelling" reason relied on by the trial court to support the downgrade was the jury's acquittal of Megargel on all other charges, demonstrating persuasively that the jury believed Megargel's version of the incident rather than the victim's. That the Court may not find the trial court's reasons compelling enough to support its downgraded sentence does not constitute legal error, nor a failure to adhere to the Code's sentencing principles. It reflects merely a difference of opinion between the reviewing court and the court that heard the evidence, the very kind of difference of opinion that this Court anticipated in Roth when it pledged not to second-guess trial Judge's who adhere to the Code's sentencing principles.

CHIEF JUSTICE WILENTZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN and COLEMAN join in JUSTICE GARIBALDI's opinion. JUSTICE STEIN filed a separate Dissenting opinion.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by GARIBALDI, J.

N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1f(2) (section 44-1f(2)) provides that where a sentencing court is clearly convinced that the mitigating factors outweigh the aggravating factors and the interest of Justice demands, a court may sentence a defendant who had been convicted of a first or second degree crime to a term appropriate to an offense one degree lower. In this appeal, we must determine whether the court properly applied section 44-1f(2) when it sentenced defendant, convicted of first-degree kidnapping, as if he had been convicted of second-degree kidnapping. Most particularly, we must consider whether the court properly found that the second statutory requirement of section 44-1f(2), that "the interest of Justice" demands a downgrade, was met.

I

Around 1:00 a.m., Daniel Harris, the victim, was walking to his girlfriend's house in Camden, when a white four-door Dodge stopped him in the middle of the street. Harris testified that four men exited the vehicle, shouting "Freeze, Police!" Harris explained that three of the men approached him, but that a white male with blond hair, later identified as defendant, Michael P. Megargel, stayed by the car. Megargel was the only Caucasian in the group. All of the men, except Megargel, wore hoods. According to Harris, three of the men carried police-type badges, a man later identified as co-defendant Lamont Lee carried a silver-colored .357 magnum and Megargel carried a laser-sighted 12-gauge pump action shotgun.

Harris provided the following account of the incident: After being stopped by the four men, an altercation ensued in which Lee struck Harris in the head with the .357 magnum, and Megargel struck Harris with the shotgun. The four men handcuffed Harris and told him he was under arrest. The group then placed Harris in the white four-door Dodge, all the while continuing to beat him. Following the directions of Lee, Megargel drove the car to a vacant lot near the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. The men dragged Harris out of the car and threw him to the ground. Megargel shined a laser sight from the shotgun in Harris' eyes. Lee then removed the victim's handcuffs and fired two shots near Harris' head. The men removed his clothing and continued to beat him. The assailants finally left after Harris feigned unconsciousness.

Harris was able to identify the license plate number of the white four-door Dodge and reported this information to the authorities immediately following the incident. Merchantville police spotted the car and stopped it. Megargel was driving and Lee was the passenger. They were the only occupants. The police found that Lee was carrying a .357 magnum revolver with hollow-nose bullets. Also in Lee's possession were two Department of Corrections badges, a Department of Corrections identification card, a handgun purchaser's permit, handguns and two live 12-gauge shotgun shells. In the car's trunk, the police uncovered a fully loaded 12-gauge pump action shotgun with laser sight and two winter coats. On Megargel, the police found a set of keys, including a handcuffing key and a $20.00 bill. Harris identified the two as participants in the robbery and kidnapping. He also identified the car as the one used by the robbers and kidnappers and identified one of the winter coats in the car's trunk as his.

On July 31, 1991, Lee and Megargel were indicted for first degree kidnapping, N.J.S.A. 2C:13-1b(1); first-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1; possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4a; unlawful possession of a handgun, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5b; possession of hollow nose bullets, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-3f; second-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(1); unlawful possession of a shotgun, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5c(1); and conspiracy to commit first-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 and 2C:15-1.

At the commencement of the jury trial, the trial court granted the State's motion to dismiss count four (possession of hollow nose bullets) as to Megargel, and counts four and six (unlawful possession of a shotgun) as to Lee. The trial court also granted the state's motion to amend count one, robbery with a handgun, to "and/or a shotgun."

At trial, several facts became known. First, the .357 magnum and shotgun had been purchased by Lee before the robbery and kidnapping. Second, Lee was employed at the Wagner Correctional Facility at Bordentown as a Senior Corrections Officer. Lieutenant George Price testified that the badges were assigned to Lee and that the identification and weapons card also belonged to Lee. The Lieutenant added that Lee was not qualified to carry firearms. An employee of defendant's father testified that on the night of the incident, he saw Megargel at about 10:00 p.m. at the Mobil Station where Megargel was employed. The employee testified that Megargel was showing off a police badge and then got into a white car. A former friend of Megargel, Gary Meyer, testified, pursuant to a plea bargain, that Megargel had told him about his involvement in the incident of assault and robbery on Harris.

Both defendants testified at trial. Lee asserted an alibi defense. He alleged that he had been dropped off at an old girlfriend's house in Camden and was not in the car when Harris was attacked. After the incident, he was picked up at his friend's house around 2:05 a.m. Megargel was driving. They dropped off Lee's brother and were heading back to the Mobil Station when they were suddenly pulled over by the police.

Defendant, Megargel, testified that he was working at the Mobil station on February 24, 1992 from five in the afternoon until midnight. While Megargel was working, Lee came to visit another Mobil station employee, Bruce Black. After spending some time at the station, Lee announced that he was going to Camden and Megargel asked if he could accompany him. Megargel testified that he believed that Lee was a police officer and thought it would be "cool" to go for a ride with him. The two borrowed Black's car and drove to Camden where they were later joined by some of Lee's friends.

Megargel testified that the group drove through Camden, stopping people on the street and stealing their money. Megargel maintained that he had no idea that the group was going to engage in such activities. However, because all of the men had guns, he claimed he was afraid to attempt to leave the group. Megargel further asserted, throughout his testimony, that although he was present for the attack on Harris, he never got out of the car, never had a shotgun and never hit or beat Harris. He insisted that he did not participate in the incident and that he wanted to leave but was afraid to because all of the men carried weapons. Megargel called thirteen character witnesses who testified to his good character. At the time of sentencing, several of these witnesses, as well as others, wrote letters on Megargel's behalf.

The jury convicted Lee of all charges. However, the jury convicted Megargel of only first-degree kidnapping, acquitting him of all other charges. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6d, the trial court conducted a Graves Act Hearing and concluded that the Act applied to both defendants. The trial court concluded that the Graves Act applied to Megargel for first-degree kidnapping and to Lee, for first-degree robbery, possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose and aggravated assault.

The trial court sentenced Lee to twenty-seven years, nine without parole for the first-degree kidnapping and a consecutive five year sentence for unlawful possession of a handgun. He also was sentenced on the armed robbery conviction to an eighteen year prison term, with a six year parole disqualifier to run concurrent with the other sentences imposed. The trial court merged all of Lee's other convictions into his conviction for first-degree robbery. Lee received an aggregate sentence of thirty-two years, nine without parole.

In imposing sentence on defendant, the court observed that Megargel had been acquitted on all charges except first-degree kidnapping. The court further observed that, although Megargel could be vicariously liable for crimes of an accomplice, he could not be liable for aggravating factors not personal to him. (citing State v. Rogers, 236 N.J. Super. 378, 565 A.2d 1128 (App. Div. 1989) aff'd, 124 N.J. 113, 590 A.2d 234 (1991)).

The trial court remarked that the jury accepted a different view of Megargel's role in the incident than the victim, Daniel Harris, portrayed in his testimony. Consequently, the trial court concluded that it could not weigh the factors as if defendant had been convicted of all the offenses for which he was, in fact, found not guilty.

Viewing the kidnapping component separately, the trial court concluded that aggravating factor (1) (nature and circumstances of the offense) did not apply to Megargel. The court explained that this factor applied to Lee, because the armed robbery and assault were conducted in an "especially cruel, depraved manner." Acknowledging that the Legislature views kidnapping as an especially serious first-degree offense, the court nonetheless found only aggravating factor (9) (the need to deter) applicable to defendant.

The court, however, found that the following mitigating factors applied to defendant: (1) he had no prior history/criminal record; (2) his conduct was the result of circumstances unlikely to recur; (3) his character and attitude indicated that he is unlikely to commit another offense (the sentencing court also found that defendant had an "impressive array of letters" written on his behalf which all characterized him as "young, impressionable, trusting and naive"); (4) he would respond favorably to probationary treatment; (5) his ...


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