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State v. Lefkowitz

December 06, 2000


Before Judges Stern, Collester and Fall.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stern, P.J.A.D.


Argued October 11, 2000

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Somerset County.

Tried to a jury defendant was convicted of possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute (cocaine), N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5a(1) -5b(2) (count one) and possession of cocaine, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10a(1) (count two). After the jury initially returned a verdict, indicating that defendant possessed "one-half (1/2) ounce or more" of cocaine with intent to distribute, the trial judge, at the request of the defendant and over the State's objection, again instructed the jury to consider whether defendant intended to distribute at least 1/2 ounce of cocaine and to "focus on the amount that he intended to distribute, was that one-half ounce or more." *fn1 The jury answered in the negative. As a result, the judge concluded that defendant had been convicted of the third degree crime of possession with intent to distribute, and sentenced him thereon to four years in the custody of the Commissioner of Corrections. Count two was merged therein, and defendant was also sentenced to 30 days on a disorderly persons conviction, as found by the trial judge, for possession of marijuana.

The State appeals, arguing that "defendant's conviction for second degree possession of cocaine with intent to distribute must be reinstated." *fn2 Defendant cross-appeals and challenges the sentence imposed. Following initial oral argument, by letter to counsel, dated July 11, 2000, the parties were requested "to file briefs on the issue of double jeopardy as it relates to the State's appeal." The parties did so. At the second argument, we further questioned counsel about the State's right to appeal independent of any jeopardy preclusion. Neither counsel requested a further opportunity to brief that question. We now dismiss the State's appeal and reject the defendant's cross-appeal, thereby affirming the judgment as entered.

Rule 2:3-1 governs the right of the State to appeal. It provides:

2:3-1. Appeal by the State in Criminal Actions In any criminal action the State may appeal or where appropriate, seek leave to appeal pursuant to R. 2:5-6(a):

(b) to the appropriate appellate court from:

(1) a judgment of the trial court dismissing an indictment, accusation or complaint, where not precluded by the constitution of the United States or of New Jersey; (2) an order of the trial court entered before trial in accordance with R. 3:5 (search warrants); (3) a judgment of acquittal entered in accordance with R. 3:18-2 (judgment n.o.v.) following a jury verdict of guilty; (4) a judgment in a post-conviction proceeding collaterally attacking a conviction or sentence; (5) an interlocutory order entered before, during or after trial, or, (6) as otherwise provided by law.

Contrary to the contention of the State, the sentence which was imposed was not "illegal" for a third degree crime and, therefore, cognizable under R. 2:3-1(b)(6) or the common law notion that an illegal sentence can be corrected at any time. See, e.g., State v. Murray, 162 N.J. 240, 245-48 (2000); State v. Mercadante, 299 N.J. Super. 522, 527- 28 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 150 N.J. 26 (1997); State v. Tavares, 286 N.J. Super. 610, 618-19 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 144 N.J. 376 (1996). Nor, because defendant was deemed convicted of a third degree crime, are we here concerned with a sentence which the Legislature indicated could be appealed by the State, see N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1f(2), and, therefore, cognizable on the State's appeal pursuant to R. 2:3-1(b)(6). See also, e.g., State v. Veney, 327 N.J. Super. 458, 460-62 (App. Div. 2000).

The 1979 amendments to R. 2:3-1 enlarged the State's right to appeal following a series of United States Supreme Court opinions on the subject and adoption of the Code of Criminal Justice. In Part II of its 1979 Report, the Criminal Practice Committee recommended the amendment permitting an appeal from a dismissal of charges, even during trial, "where not precluded by the State or Federal Constitution." See Report of the Supreme Court's Committee on Criminal Practice, reprinted in 103 N.J.L.J. 413, 415-16 (May 3, 1979). In Part III of its 1979 Report, the Committee recommended the adoption of R. 2:3-1(b)(6) to authorize appeals by the State where permitted by law, such as under the N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1f(2) effective September 1, 1979. See id. at 417. However, the Committee did not ask the Court to adopt, and the Court did not adopt, a rule which authorized an appeal by the State for any circumstance not precluded by the State or Federal Constitution. See "Separate Statement" to Criminal Practice Committee Reports, 103 N.J.L.J. 418 (May 3, 1979). R. 2:3-1 limits appeals "coextensively with new trial preclusions due to the federal and state Double Jeopardy Clauses." State v. Barnes, 84 N.J. 362, 367 n.4 (1980). *fn3

Rule 2:3-1(b) does not authorize this appeal because it is barred by the Double Jeopardy clauses of the State and Federal Constitutions. The appeal does not involve the "dismissal" of the indictment at trial or the equivalent disposition other than on the merits. See, e.g., United States v. Scott, 437 U.S. 82, 98 S. Ct. 2187, 57 L. Ed. 2d 65 (1978), reh'g denied, 439 U.S. 883, 99 S. Ct. 226, 58 L. Ed. 2d 197 (1978). It involves the disposition of a matter following jury verdict on a lesser-included offense, which precludes entry of judgment on the greater offense, see, e.g., Sanabria v. United States, 437 U.S. 54, 98 S. Ct. 2170, 57 L. Ed. 2d 43 (1978); Price v. Georgia, 398 U.S. 323, 90 S. Ct. 1757, 26 L. Ed. 2d 300 (1970); State v. Wolf, 46 N.J. 301, 303 (1966); State v. Costello, 224 N.J. Super. 157, 162-63 (App. Div), certif. denied, 111 N.J. 596 (1988); see also N.J.S.A. 2C:1-8d, -8e, 2C:1-9, even though the State argues that acceptance of the State's position would require no new trial and mere reinstatement of the original verdict. See United States v. Wilson, 420 U.S. 332, 95 S. Ct. 1013, 43 L. Ed. 2d 332 (1975). See, generally, e.g., State v. Widmaier, 157 N.J. 475, 491-92 (1999). As a result, the appeal must be dismissed.

In Wilson the Supreme Court of the United States held that the government could appeal where reversal would not require "a second prosecution . . . for the same offense" and said that "the constitutional protection against Government appeals attaches only where there is a danger of subjecting the defendant to a second trial for the same offense." 420 U.S. at 336, 43 L. Ed. 2d at 237. But Wilson involved "a post verdict ruling of law," and dismissal by the trial judge on ...

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