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State v. Garcia

June 18, 2008

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
LUIS GARCIA, 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).

In this appeal, the primary issues are whether the trial court erred in refusing to enforce a court order requiring a county jail to produce an inmate to testify for the defense in a criminal trial, and if so, whether defendant was denied his constitutional right to present a defense.

Defendant was charged with second-degree conspiracy to commit armed burglary, second-degree attempted armed burglary, and various weapons offenses. At his trial, the State's witnesses gave the following account. On January 9, 2003, Sergeant Edward Byrnes of the Bernards Township Police Department stopped a motor vehicle in which defendant and Carlos arquinez were passengers. Sergeant Byrnes took the driver into custody on an unrelated matter and then directed the passengers to exit the car. Upon opening the rear door, Sergeant Byrnes saw a handgun on the floor by defendant's feet. Defendant volunteered that it was his weapon. The car's occupants were placed under arrest and transported to police headquarters. There, defendant confessed that he and the others planned to break into homes to steal cash and jewelry. Defendant admitted that the gun was his, but emphasized that Marquinez was the ringleader.

When the State concluded its case on the first day of trial, defense counsel reminded the court that he intended to call Marquinez -- then an inmate in the Hudson County jail -- as a witness and that a transport order had been issued for his attendance. Marquinez already had pled guilty and had agreed to give truthful testimony against co-defendants. The court made it clear that it would not tolerate delay and laid the burden on defense counsel to produce the witness. Defense counsel assured the court that he had done everything in his power to arrange for Marquinez's appearance and that the only question was whether the Hudson County authorities would comply with the transport order.

The next morning, Marquinez had not been produced from the jail. Defense counsel explained to the court that he had subpoenaed Marquinez to appear on the first day of trial. A week earlier, counsel had secured a transport order, signed by another Somerset County judge, and sent it to the Hudson County authorities. Those authorities mistakenly told counsel's secretary that Marquinez had been transported to Somerset County earlier in the week. Defense counsel explained his powerlessness over the situation because Hudson County's noncompliance with the transport order was not defendant's or Marquinez's fault. The court insisted that it was counsel's responsibility to ensure that Marquinez would be there for trial, as if he were any other witness, inside or outside of jail. The court also noted that Hudson County had advised Somerset County that it was up to defense counsel to pay the costs of transporting Marquinez. Counsel stated that Hudson County had never told him about his responsibility for those costs.

With those final words, the trial judge decided to proceed with the trial despite Marquinez's absence. On the heels of that decision, the defense rested without calling any witnesses. The jury convicted defendant of all charges. The court imposed an aggregate sentence of seven years imprisonment.

In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division found nothing in the record suggesting that Marquinez's testimony would be part of defendant's viable defense strategy. The appellate panel concluded that the trial court was not required to grant an adjournment until Marquinez was produced. The panel noted that defense counsel never gave a proffer of Marquinez's expected testimony, and that if his testimony as a defense witness deviated from the factual basis he gave in support of his guilty plea, the State could charge him with perjury. On that basis, the Appellate Division affirmed defendant's convictions. It also rejected defendant's argument that his sentence was excessive.

The Supreme Court granted defendant's petition for certification. 190 N.J. 395 (2007).

HELD: The trial court abused its discretion in not granting an adjournment to enforce the order to produce the defense witness from a prison. The Court remands the matter to the trial court for a hearing at which defendant will be given the opportunity to call the witness. At that hearing, if the witness gives testimony that would have been favorable to defendant at his trial, then defendant will have shown that his constitutional right to compulsory process was violated. In that case, the trial court must vacate defendant's convictions and order a new trial.

1. The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 10 of the New Jersey Constitution guarantee to the accused the right to the government's assistance in compelling the attendance of favorable witnesses at trial. That right is not absolute, however, and must be exercised in accordance with the reasonable case management prerogatives of our trial courts. For example, a defendant may not issue a subpoena, for a witness long known to him, so late in a trial that a significant delay in the proceedings will result. Courts must strike a fair balance between honoring the constitutional right to compulsory process and the interest in the effective administration of a criminal trial. (pp. 10-13)

2. Here, defendant did not unexpectedly threaten to delay the trial through the belated exercise of his right to compulsory process. In advance of trial, defendant issued a subpoena for the attendance of Marquinez. A week before trial, defense counsel secured a transport order to produce Marquinez from the Hudson County jail. He served it on the appropriate Hudson County authorities. Marquinez was due to be delivered to the Somerset County courthouse on the first day of trial. Hudson County officials mistakenly told counsel's secretary that Marquinez in fact had been transported to Somerset County. No one had told defense counsel that he was obliged to pay the costs to transport Marquinez in advance, and he undoubtedly was prepared to pay the minimal statutory fee. Also, defense counsel promptly brought the problem to the court's attention at the end of the first day of the two-day trial. (pp. 13-15)

3. The Court cannot find fault with the diligent efforts of defense counsel. The Hudson County authorities were obliged to obey the court's order to produce Marquinez. The court is responsible for ensuring that its orders are honored. Instead of blaming defense counsel, who was powerless to overcome official intransigence, the court should have compelled the Hudson County jailers to produce Marquinez at trial in accordance with the court order. The trial court abused its discretion by not briefly adjourning the trial until it enforced its order for the production of the defense witness. (pp. 15-16)

4. Whether the court's failure to compel Marquinez's attendance violated defendant's constitutional rights, or whether the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, depends on the testimony that Marquinez would have given had he been called to the stand. Marquinez was arrested with defendant and pled guilty to criminal offenses related to the planned burglaries in Bernards Township. Marquinez had relevant testimony to offer. He may have been able to shed light on defendant's claim that he had abandoned the plan to break into homes in Bernards Township. The key question is whether Marquinez's testimony would have proven favorable to defendant. (pp. 16-17)

5. The Court will not speculate that Marquinez's testimony would have been favorable. Because defendant failed to outline Marquinez's expected testimony in a proffer, the Court must remand to the trial court for a hearing at which defendant will be given the opportunity to call Marquinez as a witness. If the trial court determines that Marquinez's testimony would have been favorable to defendant, then defendant will have shown that his constitutional right to compulsory process was violated. In that case, the court must vacate his convictions and order a new trial. On the other hand, if the court determines that Marquinez's testimony would not have advanced any viable defense, then the court may find that his absence from trial was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt and allow his convictions to stand. (pp. 17-20)

The matter is REMANDED to the trial court for proceedings consistent with the Court's opinion.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO and HOENS join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin

Argued February 19, 2008

In this appeal, the primary issues are whether the trial court erred in refusing to enforce a court order requiring a county correctional facility to produce an inmate to testify for the defense in a criminal trial, and whether defendant was denied his constitutional right to present a defense.

A week before the start of defendant Luis Garcia's criminal trial, a Superior Court judge granted his request for the issuance of an order to secure the presence of an inmate to testify at his trial. On the first day of the two-day trial, defense counsel brought to the court's attention that the correctional facility had not transported the inmate-witness to the courthouse. The trial judge was not the same judge who signed the transport order for the prisoner. The trial judge disclaimed responsibility for securing the inmate, laying the burden on defendant to produce the witness. The next day, when defendant was to present his case, the trial judge refused to grant an adjournment to allow defendant to arrange to have the inmate brought to court. Defendant rested without calling any witnesses, and the jury returned a guilty verdict on all charges. The Appellate Division affirmed his conviction and sentence.

We now hold that the trial court abused its discretion in not granting an adjournment for the purpose of enforcing the order for the production of the defense witness from a correctional facility. We remand to the trial court for a hearing at which defendant will be given the opportunity to call the witness. At that hearing, if the witness gives testimony that would have been ...


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