On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
(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).
The issue in this appeal is whether a trial court may set aside a plea agreement solely because the prosecutor failed to notify the victims prior to entering into the plea agreement.
In August 2001, defendant Raheem Means saw I.P., a thirteen-year-old girl he knew, in a park. I.P. told him that she had run ran away from home. Means tried to convince I.P. to return home, but she refused. Means then suggested that they go to a motel, and I.P. agreed. They went to a motel and engaged in consensual sex. I.P. went home the next morning and revealed her encounter with Means. She also gave a statement to police about what had happened. Police apprehended Means on December 31, 2001. In April 2002, Means was indicted for kidnapping, sexual assault, and endangering the welfare of a child. At some point, I.P.'s father told the authorities that he wanted to be present when Means was sentenced.
In May 2002, Means was indicted for separate charges relating to his conduct at a New Year's Eve party on December 31, 2001. Means and Cedric Lewis entered the apartment where the party was held. Holding a gun, Means ordered eight people to line up against the wall while Lewis took their valuables. Means also forced the victims to remove their clothes to see if they had weapons. Means was arrested when he tried to leave the building. He was indicted for five counts of robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, burglary, two counts of aggravated assault, and several weapons offenses.
In August 2002, an assistant prosecutor offered a plea agreement to Means relating to the indictments: Means would plead guilty to child endangerment, five counts of robbery, and two weapons offenses in exchange for a recommendation of a thirteen-year sentenceand dismissal of the remaining charges. After the plea hearing, the trial court accepted Means's pleas, executed a plea form confirming that it had informed Means it would impose a ten-year sentence, and scheduled sentencing for October 2002. The sentencing hearing was postponed until November 2002. At that time, a supervisor in the Prosecutor's Office moved to vacate Means's pleas, stating that the assistant prosecutor had failed to consult with the victims before making the plea offer. The trial court granted the motion.
Six months later, Means entered into a second plea agreement, pursuant to which the prosecutor recommended a fifteen-year sentence. The court accepted the plea and denied a subsequent motion by Means's to withdraw his plea. In February 2004, Means was sentenced to a term of fifteen years.
The Appellate Division affirmed Means's sentence. The Supreme Court granted Means's petition for certification.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Wallace, Jr.
A plea agreement between defendant Raheem Means and the State was set aside after the prosecutor notified the court that the victims had not been informed of the plea agreement. Thereafter, defendant entered into a second plea agreement with the State that was not as favorable as the initial agreement. Defendant appealed and the Appellate Division affirmed. This appeal addresses the issue of whether a trial court may set aside a plea agreement solely because the prosecutor failed to give notice to the victims prior to entering into the plea agreement. We conclude that it was error to grant the State's motion to set aside the plea agreement and we now reverse.
We relate the facts and procedural history from the record below. In August 2001, defendant escaped from a halfway house in Newark. Subsequently, around midnight on August 12, 2001, I.P., a thirteen-year-old girl, ran away from her grandmother's home. At some point, I.P. saw defendant in a park. Defendant, who was then twenty-three years of age, knew I.P. and talked to her. When she told defendant she had run away, defendant tried to convince her to return home. I.P. refused because she feared the police were at her house. Defendant then suggested that they go to a motel, and I.P. agreed. The two then went to a motel in Irvington where defendant and I.P. engaged in consensual sex.
I.P. returned home in the morning and revealed her encounter with defendant. I.P. was then taken to Beth Israel Hospital for evaluation. She also gave a statement to the police outlining what transpired with defendant. The police apprehended defendant on December 31, 2001. On April 30, 2002, the Essex County Grand Jury indicted defendant for second-degree kidnapping, N.J.S.A. 2C:13-1b(1); second-degree sexual assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2c(4); and third-degree endangering the welfare of a child, N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4a (first indictment). At some point, I.P.'s father indicated to the authorities that he wanted to be present at sentencing.
A second group of charges against defendant arose from his conduct at a New Year's Eve party in Montclair on December 31, 2001. Defendant and Cedric Lewis entered the apartment where the party was held. Holding a handgun in his hand, defendant ordered eight people to line up against the wall and instructed Lewis to remove any valuables from the victims. Defendant then forced the victims to disrobe to ensure that no one had a weapon. Defendant was apprehended as he attempted to leave the building. A search of defendant revealed an unlicensed handgun and five live rounds of ammunition. A search of Lewis revealed $325 in cash.
On May 10, 2002, defendant was indicted for second-degree conspiracy to commit robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 and N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1; second-degree burglary, N.J.S.A. 2C:18-2; five counts of first-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1; third-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(2); fourth-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(4); third-degree possession of a handgun without a permit, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5b; second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4a; and fourth-degree possession of hollow point bullets, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-3f(1) (second indictment). In a separate indictment, also issued on May 10, 2002, defendant was charged with second-degree possession of a weapon by a convicted felon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-7b (third indictment).
On August 16, 2002, an assistant prosecutor tendered a plea offer to defendant. The offer provided that defendant would plead guilty to the following charges in the first and second indictments: third-degree child endangerment, five counts of first-degree robbery, third-degree possession of a weapon without a license, and second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. The plea was made in exchange for a recommended sentence of thirteen years with eighty-five percent parole ineligibility to run concurrent to the sentence then being served. The prosecutor further agreed to recommend for dismissal the remaining charges in those two indictments. There was no reference to the third indictment that contained the sole charge of possession of a weapon by a felon.
After explaining the essential terms of the plea agreement, the trial court indicated to defendant at the plea hearing that it would impose a sentence of ten years with eighty-five percent parole ineligibility and not the thirteen-year sentence in the agreement. Defendant was subsequently sworn in and gave a factual basis for his guilty pleas. The trial court explained that if, after reviewing the pre-sentence report, he concluded that a ten-year sentence was not appropriate, defendant would then have the right to withdraw his guilty pleas. The trial court ultimately accepted defendant's pleas, executed the supplemental plea form confirming that the court had represented to defendant that it would impose a ten-year sentence, and scheduled sentencing for October 18, 2002.
The sentencing hearing was continued to November 16, 2002. At that time, a supervisor in the Prosecutor's Office sought to vacate defendant's pleas because the plea offer had been made to defendant without consulting the victims. The State's motion was oral, and no brief or certification was filed in support of the motion. The trial court granted the motion and vacated the pleas.
Almost six months later, before a different trial judge, defendant entered into a second plea agreement. Defendant agreed to plead guilty to the same number of charges, but not all of the individual charges were the same as in the first plea agreement. The prosecutor agreed to recommend a fifteen-year sentence with eighty-five percent parole ineligibility and to dismiss the remaining counts in the two indictments and the single charge in the third indictment. Defendant again gave a factual statement and the court accepted the plea. Defendant subsequently sought to withdraw his plea, but that motion was denied. On February 5, 2004, the trial court sentenced defendant to a concurrent term of fifteen years with eighty-five percent parole ineligibility. Thus, defendant actually received a custodial sentence five years greater than he would have under the first plea agreement.
Defendant appealed. After transcripts of the hearing on the State's motion to vacate the plea agreement could not be found, defendant sought a limited remand for the trial court to reconstruct the record. The Appellate Division granted the motion. On May 18, 2005, the first trial court wrote to the Appellate Division explaining that:
On November 16, 2002[,] Eileen Cosgrove, Esq.[,] who was a supervisor in the Prosecutor's Office, requested that the plea offer be withdrawn before sentencing. The basis of her request was that [the assistant prosecutor] had made his offer without talking to the victims (or in the case of endangering the welfare of a child, speaking with the victim's father). She indicated that the Prosecutor's Office required prior consultation with the victims. [The assistant prosecutor] confirmed, for the first time, that this had not been done in this case.
Since the plea offer had been made without consulting with the victims, and since [defendant] had not yet been sentenced, I signed an order vacating the pleas and reinstating the not guilty pleas.
Defendant's appeal was subsequently scheduled for argument on the Excessive Sentencing Oral Argument Calendar. Following argument, the panel affirmed defendant's sentence. We granted defendant's petition for certification. 188 N.J. 219 (2006). We also granted the motions of the Attorney General and the New Jersey Crime Victim's Law Center to appear as amici curiae.
Defendant argues that neither the Victim's Rights Amendment nor any other statutory enactments require or authorize the State to withdraw a guilty plea that defendant agreed to as part of a plea agreement. Defendant asserts that his rights to due process and fundamental fairness ...