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State v. Thomas

August 2, 2006

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
CHRIS THOMAS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(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).

This case involves a challenge to a mandatory extended-term sentence imposed on a repeat drug offender pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6(f).

On July 17, 1997, undercover Newark police officers arrested Chris Thomas after seeing him engage in two illegal drug transactions in an area known for drug dealing. Thomas was indicted for possession of heroin, possession with intent to distribute, and possession within 1000 feet of a school property. After a five-day trial, a jury found Thomas guilty on all three counts of the indictment.

The State moved for the imposition of a mandatory extended term under N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6(f). At the sentencing hearing, the judge found, and the parties agreed, that the statute's requirements for an extended-term sentence had been met by Thomas's seven prior convictions. In sentencing Thomas, the trial court merged the counts and imposed a ten-year sentence, with a five-year parole ineligibility term. The sentence was above the statutory presumptive for the extended-term range.

Thomas appealed. In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division affirmed his conviction and sentence. The Supreme Court granted Thomas's petition for certification, limited solely to the issue of his extended-term sentence.

HELD: A sentencing court's finding of fact in respect of a defendant's prior convictions pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6(f)(mandatory enhanced sentences) does not violate the Sixth Amendment. In accordance with State v. Natale, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice LaVECCHIA

Argued November 30, 2005

This appeal requires us to consider a challenge to a mandatory extended-term sentence imposed on a repeat drug offender pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6(f). Defendant frames the issue as whether his Sixth Amendment rights were violated when the court, and not a jury, made the determination that his prior convictions supported the finding of two recidivism-based aggravating factors, which led to the court's imposition of a sentence above the presumptive for the extended-term range. As part of our consideration of defendant's sentencing claim, we also necessarily address the constitutionality of N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6(f).

I.

A.

On July 17, 1997, police officers from an undercover task force of the Newark Police Department arrested defendant Chris Thomas after observing him engage in two illegal drug transactions in an area known for drug trafficking. Defendant was indicted for third-degree possession of heroin, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(1); third-degree possession of heroin with intent to distribute, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5(b)(3); and third-degree possession of heroin with intent to distribute within 1000 feet of school property, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7. After a five-day trial, a jury found defendant guilty of all three counts of the indictment.

The State moved for imposition of a mandatory extended term under N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6(f), which provides in relevant part:

A person convicted of manufacturing, distributing, dispensing or possessing with intent to distribute any dangerous substance . . . or of distributing, dispensing or possessing with intent to distribute on or near school property or buses under section 1 of P.L.1987, c. 101 (C. 2C:35-7), who has been previously convicted of manufacturing, distributing, dispensing or possessing with intent to distribute a controlled dangerous substance or controlled substance analog, shall upon application of the prosecuting attorney be sentenced by the court to an extended term as authorized by subsection c. of N.J.S. 2C:43-7, notwithstanding that extended terms are ordinarily discretionary with the court.

At the sentencing hearing the court found, and the parties agreed, that the statutory requirements for extended-term sentencing were satisfied because defendant had seven prior convictions predominantly involving drug offenses. The court merged the counts and sentenced defendant above the statutory presumptive for the extended-term range, imposing a sentence of ten years of incarceration with a five-year period of parole-ineligibility. N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6(f), 2C:24-7(c), 2C:43-7(a)(4), 2C:44-1f(1). In determining defendant's sentence, the court found the presence of aggravating factor three, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a)(3) ("[t]he risk that the defendant will commit another offense"), and aggravating factor nine, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a)(9) ("[t]he need for deterring the defendant and others from violating the law."). The court did not find that any mitigating factors were applicable.

Defendant appealed and, in an unpublished, per curiam decision, the Appellate Division affirmed the conviction and sentence. As to the latter, the panel rejected defendant's argument that his rights to due process and to a jury trial were violated when the sentencing court made factual findings in support of its determination to sentence defendant above the statutory presumptive sentence within the extended term range. Defendant petitioned this Court for ...


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