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State v. Finklea

December 30, 1996

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
KIM FINKLEA, A/K/A RONALD HICKMAN, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by Coleman, J. Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi, and Stein join in Justice COLEMAN's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Coleman

(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. Kim Finklea, a/k/a Ronald Hickman (A-26-95)

Argued October 8, 1996 -- Decided December 30, 1996

COLEMAN, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

Kim Finklea was indicted by an Essex County grand jury on September 29, 1993, for second-degree robbery. When Finklea rejected a plea offer at a pre-trial conference on December 6, 1993, the trial court notified Finklea and his attorney that the trial would begin on January 10, 1994. The court also told Finklea that if he failed to appear for the trial, the case would proceed without him.

On January 10, 1994, Finklea failed to appear. The trial court adjourned the case until January 24, 1994, to give defense counsel the opportunity to locate Finklea. When Finklea failed to appear on January 24, defense counsel argued that the trial should not proceed because Finklea had not received actual notice of the rescheduled trial date. The trial court rejected counsel's argument, but adjourned the case for one more day. When Finklea failed to appear on January 25, 1994, the trial proceeded without him.

The jury convicted Finklea of second-degree robbery. Finklea's bail was vacated and a bench warrant for his arrest issued. Finklea was arrested pursuant to the warrant and was produced for sentencing. He received an eighteen-year sentence with a nine-year parole ineligibility term.

Finklea appealed. The Appellate Division reversed, holding that it was error for the trial court to go forward on the rescheduled trial date without evidence that Finklea had actual notice of that date. In addition, the Appellate Division held that the trial Judge should have issued a bench warrant instead of trying the absent Finklea.

The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification.

HELD: A defendant's failure to appear on the original trial date, after being notified of that date and the consequences of his absence, constituted a waiver of his right to appear at the trial. The adjournment of the trial at the request of defense counsel does not vitiate a defendant's knowing and voluntary waiver of his right to be present at the trial.

1. A defendant's constitutional right to be present at all stages of a criminal trial does not preclude a trial from proceeding in the defendant's absence. The Rules of Court provide that a defendant may waive his or her right to be present at the trial by "conduct evidencing a knowing, voluntary, and unjustified absence" after the defendant has received "actual notice in court of the trial date." (pp. 5-9)

2. Defendant argues that the trial court should have been required to give him actual notice of the revised trial date. Such a requirement would vest in a defendant the power to prevent the trial from proceedings until the defendant is willing to appear. Neither constitutional law nor the Court's Rules require such extreme measures. Further, to adopt defendant's argument would be to punish the trial court for being considerate enough to grant defendant's two adjournment requests. (pp. 9-11)

3. The trial court was not obliged to conduct a hearing before determining that defendant's absence constituted a waiver of his right to appear at his trial. (p. 12)

4. The trial court was not required to issue a bench warrant rather than proceed with the trial in defendant's absence. Although that is an available option, mandating such a procedure would be impractical because it would magnify the overcrowding problems in county correctional facilities. (p. 13)

5. The federal court practice in this area is governed by rule language that is different from Rule 3:16. In the absence of any constitutional mandate limiting trials with absent defendants to cases in which a defendant is present when the trial begins, Rule 3:16 controls. (pp. 13-14)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI, and STEIN join in ...


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