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State v. Sirjue


April 8, 2008


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, No. 05-05-00561-I.

Per curiam.


Submitted February 14, 2008

Before Judges Wefing, R. B. Coleman, and Lyons.

Defendant was indicted for kidnapping, N.J.S.A. 2C:13-1(b); aggravated sexual assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a); murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1),(2); and felony murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(3), all crimes of the first degree. The grand jury returned supplemental findings under N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(c)(4)(f) and N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(c)(4)(g), making the prosecution a capital case under the then-existing law. Defendant filed several pre-trial motions, including a motion to suppress physical evidence that had been obtained during a search of defendant's residence. Defendant moved to disqualify the State's lead attorney from prosecuting the case on the basis that the attorney had been present and had spoken to defendant during that search and thus could be a witness at trial. After hearing argument, the trial court granted defendant's motion to the extent of barring that assistant prosecutor from participating in the pending motion to suppress. We granted the State's motion for leave to appeal from that order. After reviewing the record in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we reverse that order and remand the matter for further proceedings.

The fact that the assistant prosecutor and defendant had engaged in some communication was noted on the record during a hearing preliminary to defendant's suppression motion. On hearing that, the trial court queried whether the fact of that exchange would mean that the attorney would be called as a witness. Defendant then filed his motion, which led to the order on appeal.

The record in the matter is brief. We consider the issue in the following factual context, taken from the proffer made to the court by the assistant prosecutor after the trial court had made its ruling.

The assistant prosecutor was summoned by the police when a woman's body was discovered in an industrial park in Linden. When he arrived at the scene, a number of law enforcement personnel from several different agencies were present, including the Linden Police Department, the Union County Sheriff's Department, and the Union County Prosecutor's Office. The attorney's purpose in being there was to determine that no search warrants were needed as the process of evidence collection proceeded. He did not participate in the collection of evidence or speak to anyone apart from law enforcement personnel.

Investigation revealed that defendant had spoken to the victim by telephone, and the police wanted to speak to defendant about that conversation. Later that evening, the assistant prosecutor received a telephone call informing him that defendant had been located and that he was willing to go to the police department to give a statement. The assistant prosecutor did not go down to the police station but advised the sergeant that if he were going to ask defendant for permission to search his house that he should be sure to obtain a written consent.

During the middle of the night, the assistant prosecutor received another telephone call from a detective who was at defendant's home, conducting a search pursuant to defendant's written consent. The detective asked who should be responsible for taking and cataloguing evidence: the detectives on the scene or the sheriff's identification unit. The assistant prosecutor responded that it should be the identification unit; he also said he was coming to the scene. When he arrived, there were again a number of law enforcement personnel from different agencies present at the scene, as was defendant. The assistant prosecutor thanked defendant for his cooperation, and defendant responded that he understood it was an important case. The assistant prosecutor was never alone with defendant, had no further conversation with him and was not involved in the process of collecting evidence.

As the trial court noted in its oral opinion, the matter is governed by 3.7(a) of the Rules of Professional Conduct, which states in pertinent part:

A lawyer shall not act as advocate at a trial in which the lawyer is likely to be a necessary witness unless:

(1) the testimony relates to an uncontested issue;

(2) the testimony relates to the nature and value of legal services rendered in the case; or

(3) disqualification of the lawyer would work substantial hardship on the client.

In the course of its oral opinion, the trial court did not make a finding that the assistant prosecutor was "likely to be a witness" but did stress the capital nature of the prosecution and the risk that if defendant called the assistant prosecutor as a witness at trial, a significant amount of time and expense and months of work would become wasted effort. During colloquy with counsel after its ruling, the trial court conceded that "[i]f this was a two or three-week trial, I would probably make a different call on this."

While we understand and sympathize with the trial court's concerns about the potential impact on its calendar, and the courts as a whole, its concerns in this regard should not have driven its analysis. And, of course, the Legislature's recent abolition of the death penalty has entirely superseded the court's expressed concerns. See L. 2007, c. 204; N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(b)(4.

Not every application by a defendant to call an assistant prosecutor as a witness must be granted. State v. Saez. 268 N.J. Super. 250, 267 (App. Div. 1993), rev'd on other grds, 139 N.J. 279 (1995). If the rule were otherwise, a defendant would have the ability to control the conduct of his trial. Here, just as in State v. Alfano, 305 N.J. Super. 178, 189 (App. Div. 1997), defendant did not demonstrate a "compelling and legitimate need" to call the assistant prosecutor as a witness.

If, during the motion to suppress or the trial itself, a legitimate question developed as to the nature of any exchange between defendant and the assistant prosecutor, there was an ample number of witnesses available to testify as to what had occurred. The trial court's ruling barring the assistant prosecutor from defending against the motion to suppress was erroneous.

The order under review is reversed, and the matter is remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. We do not retain jurisdiction.


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