August 27, 2008
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
DARION FIELDS AKA WEINER FIELDS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Indictment No. 01-02-0475 and 01-04-0760.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted May 12, 2008
Before Judges A. A. Rodríguez and Collester.
Petitioner Darion Fields, also known as "Weiner Fields," appeals from the denial of his petition for post-conviction relief (PCR). We reverse and remand for procedural reasons.
Petitioner entered a negotiated plea of guilty to a charge of first-degree aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a(1). In exchange, the State agreed to recommend: (1) that the base term not exceed twelve years; and (2) the dismissal of the remaining counts of the indictment. Pursuant to a separate agreement, petitioner pled guilty to first-degree armed robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1. The State agreed to recommend: (1) that petitioner be treated as a second-degree offender; (2) that the base term not exceed ten years concurrent to the aggravated manslaughter sentence; and (3) the dismissal of the remaining counts of this indictment. Consistent with the agreements, the judge imposed a twelve-year term with a NERA*fn1 parole disqualifier on the aggravated manslaughter conviction and a concurrent ten-year term with a NERA parole disqualifier on the armed robbery conviction.
Petitioner did not appeal. He filed pro se a PCR petition. Petitioner's arguments were:
My sentence is illegal because I was not provided my "gap time" jail credits; therefore, my sentence should be corrected.
Even if my sentence is not illegal, I still want to pursue post-conviction relief because I accepted the present plea-agreement with the understanding that I would receive all of my "gap time" jail credits. Had I known that I would not receive my credits, I would not have accepted the plea agreement; thus, I request a trial.
A different judge assigned the Office of the Public Defender's Post-Conviction Relief Unit to represent petitioner. In-grid Yurchenco, a Deputy Public Defender with the PCR Unit referred the matter to the Hudson Trial Region. She added the following:
After our review of the file and other documents, this is not a PCR but rather [it] is a Motion to Correct an Illegal Sentence.
The matter was heard by the trial judge, who denied the petition. In a two-page letter, addressed to the petitioner only, the judge treated the matter as a motion to correct an illegal sentence. On the record presented to us, it does not appear that petitioner had the benefit of counsel. However, the Prosecutor's brief asserted that petitioner was represented by Kathleen M. Boyle, a very experienced Deputy Public Defender in the Hudson Region. Defendant denies this. The Assistant Prosecutor concedes that Boyle did not file a brief.
Petitioner appeals to us, contending:
DEFENDANT WAS DEPRIVED OF HIS RIGHT TO COUNSEL WHEN THE TRIAL COURT DENIED HIS FIRST PETITION FOR POST-CONVICTION RELIEF WITHOUT ASSIGNING AN ATTORNEY TO REPRESENT HIM. U.S. CONST. AMEND. VI.
We agree and are compelled to reverse and remand.
First, we conclude that petitioner's application was a PCR petition, not just a motion to correct an illegal sentence. Read broadly, the petition seeks the withdrawal of the guilty plea based on an alleged miscommunication regarding gap time credits. Such relief, along with an application to correct an illegal sentence can be raised by PCR petition. R. 33:22-2(c). Second, in New Jersey, the right to counsel on a first PCR petition is mandatory. R. 3:22-6(a). The judge must refer the matter for representation even if, on its face, the petition appears to lack merit. State v. Ellis, 116 N.J. Super. 930 ( App. Div. 1971), State v. King, 117 N.J. Super. 109, 111 (App. Div. 1971). This is so because:
It is of advantage to the judicial system to have a first post-conviction relief petition raise all possible issues in existence at the time the petition is heard. Our courts have expressed disapproval of a piecemeal approach to litigation whereby only one of a number of existing issue is determined. Cf. State v. Loray, 46 N.J. 179, 184 (1965) (footnote 1); State v. Jenkins, 32 N.J. 109 (1960). [Ibid.]
Because defendant may articulate his arguments poorly or present the issues piecemeal or inadequately, an attorney is required to "make a complete investigation and file any amended petition . . . that may be necessary to raise all possible issues upon which defendant might be entitled to relief." Id. at 112. Such a safeguard was inadvertently by passed here.
Accordingly, the denial of the petition is reversed and remanded to the Law Division for disposition. In the event that, in fact, petitioner was represented on the PCR petition by counsel, the judge should prepare an amended order and opinion, stating the facts of such representation and serve a copy of same on petitioner, PCR counsel, the Prosecutor's Office and four copies on the Clerk of the Appellate Division.
Reversed and remanded.