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State v. Mondell


October 18, 2007


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, Indictment No. 02-08-1073.

Per curiam.


Submitted October 1, 2007

Before Judges Lintner and Graves.

Defendant Jeffrey Mondell appeals from an order entered on January 18, 2007, denying his motion to withdraw his guilty pleas. After reviewing the record and the applicable law in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we affirm.

This is the second time we have considered this matter. In an unpublished opinion dated February 14, 2005, we noted:

On August 14, 2002, an Ocean County Grand Jury returned an indictment charging defendant, Jeffrey Mondell, and his wife, co-defendant Anne-Marie Mondell, with one count of second-degree conspiracy, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 (Count One) and four counts of first-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1 (Counts Two, Four, Six, and Eight). Defendant was also charged with three counts of second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4a (Counts Three, Five, Seven, and Nine), one count of third-degree unlawful possession of an assault firearm, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5f (Count Ten), and three counts of first-degree attempted murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-1 and N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3 (Counts Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen).

On January 13, 2003, defendant pled guilty to four counts of first-degree robbery, three counts of first-degree attempted murder, and one count of third-degree possession of an assault firearm. On February 28, 2003, defendant was sentenced pursuant to the plea agreement to an aggregate term of thirty-eight years subject to an eighty-five percent period of parole ineligibility. Defendant appeals and we affirm, without prejudice to defendant's right to move before the Law Division to withdraw his plea upon presentation of proofs that his guilty plea was not entered voluntarily or knowingly as a result of being under the influence of mind altering drugs.

Defendant's guilty plea arises from a series of robberies that took place on March 13, May 8, June 3, and June 11, 2002, in Ocean County. On June 11, 2002, Little Egg Harbor police officers were dispatched to Mystic Pharmacy on Radio Road in Mystic Island in response to a report of an armed robbery. By the time the officers arrived at the scene, the suspects had already fled. Various witnesses at the scene described the suspects as a white female and male, in a black Ford Taurus. Shortly thereafter, Officers Steve Bogart and Michael Pritch observed a vehicle that matched the description of the suspects' vehicle. The vehicle was being driven by co-defendant and defendant was lying in the back seat. After pulling the vehicle over, the officers exited the patrol car, drew their weapons, positioned themselves behind the car doors, and ordered the occupants to turn off the ignition and throw the keys out the window. Meanwhile, backup units arrived.

As co-defendant exited the vehicle, she was ordered to get down on the ground. Instead of exiting the vehicle, defendant started firing gunshots at the officers from the driver's side rear window. The officers returned fire. After several rounds were fired, defendant stopped shooting. Co-defendant then ran to the vehicle and shouted, "I think he's hurt." The officers approached the vehicle, and saw defendant lying on the seat bleeding from his shoulder. Defendant and co-defendant were taken into custody and the officers searched the vehicle and found a fully loaded Colt AR-15 assault rifle, along with a .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun.

At his plea hearing, defendant admitted to committing the robberies on March 13, May 8, June 3, and June 11, 2002. He also admitted that on all four occasions he was masked, armed with a handgun, and, at gunpoint, demanded prescription drugs from the employees. He agreed that after the employees filled a bag with pills he fled the scene in a car driven by his wife. Defendant also agreed that when stopped by the police on June 11, 2002, he was armed with a handgun and fired three shots at the police officers. Defendant conceded that it was his intention to fire at the police officers and he was aware at the time that his action constituted a substantial step towards killing the police officers. Finally, defendant admitted that the assault rifle found in the car was acquired by him in Ohio, and that he brought it with the intention of possibly using it during the robbery on June 11, 2002.

[State v. Mondell, No. A-4587-02T1 (App. Div. Feb. 14, 2005) (slip op. at 1-5).]

We also noted in our earlier opinion that defendant had claimed, "for the first time on appeal, that his plea was not voluntarily and knowingly entered" because he was under the influence of Trazodone, an antidepressant, while confined to the Ocean County jail awaiting trial. Id. at 6. We found no evidence to support defendant's claims; nevertheless, because his allegations had not been presented to the Law Division judge, we affirmed defendant's convictions and sentence, without prejudice to his right to move before the Law Division to withdraw his guilty pleas. Id. at 8.

Defendant's subsequent motion to withdraw his guilty pleas based on the claim they were not knowing and voluntary because he was under the influence of Trazodone, was heard by the trial court on January 12, 2007. At the hearing, Dr. Kenneth J. Weiss, a psychiatrist, testified as an expert witness for defendant, and Dr. Surinder Sandhu, also a psychiatrist, testified for the State. There were no other witnesses.

Following the hearing, the court rendered an oral decision that included the following:

The only thing that [defendant] can reach out and grasp at is the fact that he was taking a medication known as Trazodone, which is an antidepressant that has as a side-effect, in some patients, a sedating effect.

I believe that Dr. Weiss's opinion is attenuated and bootstrapped and without foundation, and relies on facts that are not established on this record; and therefore, that opinion cannot be relied on by this [c]court and is rejected.

I believe that the evidence shows, more importantly, that his treating physician, Dr. Sandhu, did not recognize in his visits with Mr. Mondell, prior to and after the increase, that he was in any fog or any other state that would lead him to want to adjust Mr. Mondell's medication.

I find as a fact that despite the 100-milligram dosage at 9:00 AM on January 13th and the 100-milligram dosage the night before, of Trazodone, that . . . administ[ration] of those drugs did not rise to the level of impairing Mr. Mondell's ability to knowingly and voluntarily waive his right to trial and enter into the plea agreement; that he fully understood the consequences of the plea, [and] the parameters of the sentence. I found it then, and I find it now.

The [d]efense has the burden to prove by clear and convincing evidence that there's been a manifest injustice because he did not act voluntarily. There has not been a manifest injustice. He did act voluntarily. He was not so under the influence of Trazodone that he didn't understand the nature and consequences of what he was doing.

In his present appeal, defendant contends his motion to withdraw his guilty pleas should have been granted because they were "not entered knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently."

After reviewing the record and the applicable law, we find insufficient merit in defendant's argument to warrant extended discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(2). We affirm with only these brief comments.

"All plea-bargain jurisprudence recognizes the important interest of finality to pleas." State v. Smullen, 118 N.J. 408, 416 (1990). Moreover, when the plea is entered pursuant to a plea bargain, "defendant's burden of presenting a plausible basis for his request to withdraw his guilty plea is heavier." State v. Huntley, 129 N.J. Super. 13, 18 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 66 N.J. 312 (1974); see also R. 3:21-1 ("A motion to withdraw a plea of guilty . . . shall be made before sentencing, but the court may permit it to be made thereafter to correct a manifest injustice.").

In the present matter, we are satisfied that Judge Citta's findings are firmly supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole, and his decision to deny defendant's motion to withdraw his guilty pleas is legally sound. Accordingly we affirm the order under appeal substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Citta in his comprehensive oral decision rendered on February 28, 2003.



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