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State v. Lisa

April 22, 2008

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
MICHAEL LISA, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 391 N.J. Super. 556 (2007).

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).

In June 2005, defendant Michael Lisa was indicted for reckless manslaughter and other crimes in connection with the death of A.R., a teenage girl who was with him at his home during the evening prior to her death. A medical examiner concluded that the cause of death was multi-organ system failure due to ingestion of ethanol and drugs including methadone, methamphetamine, amphetamine, and benzodiazepine. The State based its theory of criminal liability against Lisa for the manslaughter charge on the application of N.J.S.A. 2C:2-1(b)(2), which precludes the State from prosecuting a defendant for "an omission unaccompanied by action unless . . . [a] duty to perform the omitted act is . . . imposed by law." In this matter, the State borrowed language from the Restatement (Second) of Torts when instructing the grand jury on the nature of the duty "imposed by law" that Lisa allegedly failed to perform.

On Lisa's motion, the trial court dismissed the reckless manslaughter charge and, on appeal, a split panel of the Appellate Division affirmed. State v. Lisa, 391 N.J. Super. 556 (2007). The Appellate Division majority concluded that the Restatement of Torts did not provide sufficient notice of a duty to which a theory of criminal omission liability may attach. As Judge Weissbard noted, the "duty charged to the grand jury was based on amorphous concepts of the Restatement, as reflected in some civil cases, and thereby failed the fundamental test of due process notice."

The Supreme Court granted the State's motion for leave to appeal.

HELD: The grand jury instructions incorporating duty principles from the Restatement of Torts suffered from a fatal flaw that could have been the substantial motivation for the return of the reckless manslaughter charge, and dismissal was the only correct course of action under the circumstances.

1. There is no reason why this case cannot be presented to the grand jury on a charge of reckless manslaughter based on the totality of Lisa's conduct. If the State seeks such a charge, the grand jury should be instructed on the standard for recklessness, which will require consideration of whether Lisa acted with a conscious disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk. (pp. 4-5)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO has filed a separate, DISSENTING opinion, expressing the view that the indictment against Lisa charging him with the second-degree reckless manslaughter of a seventeen-year-old girl should be reinstated substantially for the reasons Judge Lihotz persuasively set forth in her dissent in the Appellate Division.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, WALLACE, and HOENS join in this opinion. JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO filed a separate, DISSENTING opinion.

Per curiam.

Argued February 19, 2008

In June 2005, defendant Michael Lisa was indicted for reckless manslaughter in connection with the death of A.R., a teenage girl who was with him at his home during the evening prior to her death. A medical examiner concluded that the cause of death was multi-organ system failure due to ingestion of ethanol and drugs, including methadone, methamphetamine, amphetamine, and benzodiazepine.*fn1 The State based its theory of criminal liability against defendant on the application of N.J.S.A. 2C:2-1(b)(2). That statute precludes the State from prosecuting a defendant for "an omission unaccompanied by action unless . . . [a] duty to perform the omitted act is . . . imposed by law." N.J.S.A. 2C:2-1(b)(2). In this matter, the State borrowed language from the Restatement (Second) of Torts when instructing the grand jury on the nature of the duty "imposed by law" that defendant allegedly failed to perform in the circumstances surrounding A.R.'s death.*fn2 Specifically, the prosecutor charged that

[a] person has a duty to act where he has voluntarily assumed the care of another and so secluded the helpless person as to prevent others from rendering aid. For example, a duty to act may be triggered where the defendant takes the victim from a place where others might have taken care to prevent injury to her to a private place where the defendant alone is to provide such care. A duty to act may be triggered where the ...


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