On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
The opinion of the Court was delivered by Garibaldi, J. Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Stein and Coleman join in Justice Garibaldi's 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. Shawn Crawley, 149 N.J. 310, 693 A.2d 859 (A-92-96)
Argued February 4, 1997 -- Decided May 15, 1997
Garibaldi, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
The questions raised on this appeal are (1) whether defendants, as part of plea agreements, can waive their right to merge offenses; (2) if such waivers are allowed, did Shawn Crawley voluntarily and intelligently waive his right to merger; and (3) if Crawley did knowingly waive his right to merger, is he now prohibited from challenging that waiver?
On August 4, 1991, Ronald Lightcap asked Crawley to sell him drugs. Crawley told Lightcap that he did not have the drugs with him and that Lightcap would have to drive them to get the drugs. Crawley's intent was not to obtain drugs but to steal Lightcap's van. When the van came to a stop, Crawley pointed a gun at Lightcap and ordered him out of the van. Lightcap grabbed the gun and a struggle ensued. After Lightcap was pushed outside the door of the van, the gun, with Crawley's finger on the trigger, went off and Lightcap was shot. Crawley left Lightcap in the street and drove away in the van. Lightcap later died.
Prior to the Lightcap shooting, Crawley had been placed on probation for possessing and intending to distribute cocaine in 1990. Crawley violated probation in April 1991 by, among other things, being arrested and indicted for receiving stolen property under an assumed name. Crawley was detained at a satellite residence for those incarcerated at Jamesburg Training School. Shortly after his arrival at there, Crawley left the premises without permission and never returned. In May 1991, he was arrested under a different assumed name. Those indictments were pending when Crawley killed Lightcap.
During the pre-indictment stage of the criminal proceedings, Crawley entered a plea of guilty with the Camden County Prosecutor's Office on the charge of killing Lightcap. As part of that agreement, Crawley waived his right to have the charges arising from Lightcap's death presented to the Grand Jury. In lieu of a formal indictment, the prosecutor filed an accusation, which charged Crawley with aggravated manslaughter, armed robbery and escape. In exchange for pleading guilty to those three offenses and to the charge of violating his probation, the prosecutor agreed to recommend the dismissal of the complaint charging Crawley with felony murder in connection with the robbery and murder of Lightcap and to dismiss the indictment for the two previous property offenses. In addition, the prosecutor agreed to recommend a sentence of thirty years with a fifteen-year period of parole ineligibility for aggravated manslaughter; a consecutive term of ten years with a five-year parole disqualifier for armed robbery; a concurrent term of five years for escape; and a concurrent term of four years for violating probation.
Crawley filled out and signed a three-page plea agreement form. He responded affirmatively to Question 18, which asks if he had discussed the doctrine of merger with his attorney. Question 20 of the plea asked Crawley to list any other promises he, his attorney, or the prosecutor made. He answered, "waiver of appeal; waiver of merger."
At the plea hearing, the trial court heard from the prosecutor regarding the sentencing agreement and from defense counsel that Crawley was voluntarily and knowingly entering his plea. The Judge then questioned Crawley about his plea. Crawley told the Judge that he was entering into the plea agreement voluntarily and knowingly and that counsel had explained the rights that he was waiving by entering into the agreement. The court thereafter accepted Crawley's factual basis in support of his plea to each of the charges in the accusation and to violating probation. At the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor reiterated that the State would have sought an indictment for felony murder if the plea agreement had not provided for consecutive sentences. The trial court imposed the recommended sentence.
In an unpublished order, the Appellate Division held that Crawley could not agree to waive his right to merger. The panel remanded the matter to the trial court to determine whether the charges of aggravated manslaughter and armed robbery should merge. The panel ordered that if the trial court determined that the offenses should merge, Crawley should be resentenced. If the offenses were determined not to merge, it was ordered that the sentence be sustained.
The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification on the issue of merger, and denied Crawley's cross-petition for certification that challenged the consecutive nature of his sentences.
Defendants can waive their right to merger in plea agreements. Shawn Crawley voluntarily and intelligently waived his right to merger and is now prohibited from challenging that waiver on appeal.
1. Generally, a defendant who pleads guilty is prohibited from raising, on appeal, the contention that the State violated his or her constitutional rights prior to the plea. Where the ultimate resolution of the merger issue is uncertain, the guilty plea does not necessarily have to be overturned when the trial ...