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State v. Brown


January 9, 2009


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Indictment Nos. 05-09-2301 and 05-09-2302.

Per curiam.


Submitted December 9, 2008

Before Judges Skillman and Graves.

Defendant was indicted for second-degree burglary, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:18-2, and second-degree aggravated assault, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(1). A jury found him guilty of burglary and the lesser-included offense of third-degree aggravated assault, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(7). The trial court sentenced defendant to a nine-year term of imprisonment for the burglary, subject to the 85% period of parole ineligibility mandated by the No Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2, and merged defendant's conviction for aggravated assault into his conviction for burglary.

The burglary and assault were committed on July 1, 2005. The victim was defendant's former girlfriend, Tonya Peterson, with whom he had two children, aged one and two. The parties were not living together at the time of the offenses.

According to Peterson, around 8 a.m., as she was getting ready to go to school and take the children to day care, defendant broke into her apartment, using a butter knife to pry loose the lock to the front door. Defendant then attacked her, punching and kicking, stomping on her face and chest, putting his fingers in her throat and trying to strangle her. This assault took approximately five minutes. After defendant left the apartment, Peterson called 9-1-1. The police came to her apartment and brought her to the hospital, where she was treated for about an hour and a half. Peterson did not suffer serious injuries as a result of the assault.

Peterson was also allowed to testify about another assault defendant allegedly committed upon her on June 28, 2005, three days before the July 1st burglary and assault. In that prior incident, which also occurred in the early morning when Peterson was going to school, defendant was standing outside her apartment when she left with the children to walk to a bus stop a block away. Defendant walked alongside Peterson and when they arrived at the bus stop, he started threatening her and gesturing as if he was going to punch her. He allegedly said: "Next time you try to leave that apartment I'm going to have those doors jammed up, and I'll set that whole house on fire." Peterson then called the police on her cell phone. At this point defendant struck her, knocking her and her infant daughter, who was strapped to the front of her body, to the ground. Defendant also allegedly smashed Peterson's cell phone. The police responded to the scene, but no criminal charges were filed as a result of this incident.

The police apprehended defendant on July 3, 2005, two days after the burglary and assault, as he was walking back and forth on the street on the same block where Peterson's apartment is located.

Defendant did not testify or present any other evidence at his trial.

On appeal, defendant presents the following arguments:





(Partially Raised Below).



(Not Raised Below).


We reject these arguments and affirm defendant's conviction and sentence.


Defendant's first argument is based on a question the jury asked during deliberations. In its instructions, the trial court submitted third-degree aggravated assault and simple assault to the jury as lesser-included offenses of second-degree aggravated assault. The court did not give the jury any lesser-included offense instruction with respect to the burglary charge. Defendant did not object to the court's omission of such an instruction.

Shortly after the beginning of its deliberations, the jury asked the following questions:

One, what are the definitions of second and third degree burglary? Does second degree burglary imply any of the three levels of assault that the jury must choose between?... Secondly, is it an option for the jury to find the defendant guilty of third degree burglary.

At this point, for the first time, defense counsel requested the court to instruct the jury with respect to criminal trespass, as a lesser included offense of second-degree burglary. Defense counsel did not argue that there was any basis for instructing the jury with respect to third-degree burglary. His only argument was that the jury could find that defendant had made an unprivileged entry into Peterson's apartment without an intent to commit an assault or other offense, which would constitute trespass, not burglary.

The trial court denied defendant's request, stating:

I don't see criminal trespass as an alternative in this particular case, because there is just no evidence that [defendant] was simply there and then left the premises.... [D]efendant asserts in his defense, he neither entered or assaulted in any way, shape, manner or form.... I'm not going to charge [criminal trespass] where the request is tendered at the 13th hour, and only after the jury has broached a question as whether or not there's a possibility of third degree burglary.

Because defendant did not request submission to the jury of trespass as a lesser-included offense of burglary before summations and the court's instructions, the trial court was not obligated to "on its own meticulously to sift through the entire record" to determine if a criminal trespass charge might be appropriate. State v. Choice, 98 N.J. 295, 299 (1985). Absent a timely request by defendant, the trial court is only required to instruct the jury with respect to a lesser-included offense if it is "clearly indicated" by the evidence. Ibid.

Moreover, even if defendant had made a timely request for this instruction, there was no rational basis for the jury to acquit defendant of burglary but find him guilty of criminal trespass. Peterson testified that defendant broke into her apartment and immediately began viciously assaulting her. Her testimony was the only direct evidence concerning the offense presented at trial. The jury could of course have concluded that her testimony was not credible. In that event, the jury would have been required to acquit defendant. However, we perceive no basis upon which the jury could have found from Peterson's testimony and the other evidence in this case that defendant made an unprivileged entry into her apartment without any purpose to assault her.


The argument presented under Point II(A) of defendant's brief is directed at the trial court's pretrial ruling allowing Peterson to testify about the alleged assault defendant committed upon her on June 28, 2005, three days before the burglary and aggravated assault that were the subject of the indictment.

The admissibility of such evidence is governed by N.J.R.E. 404(b), which bars evidence that defendant committed "other crimes" in order to prove he has a criminal disposition, but allows such evidence "for other purposes, such as proof of motive,... [and] intent... when such matters are relevant to a material issue in dispute." Before admitting evidence under N.J.R.E. 404(b), a trial court must find:

1. The evidence of the other crime [is] relevant to a material issue;

2. It [is] similar in kind and reasonably close in time to the offense charged;

3. The evidence of the other crime [is] clear and convincing; and

4. The probative value of the evidence [is] not be outweighed by its apparent prejudice. [State v. Cofield, 127 N.J. 328, 338 (1992).]

See also State v. Barden, 195 N.J. 375, 389 (2008).

In determining that Peterson's proposed testimony regarding the alleged June 28th assault satisfied the four-part Cofield test, the trial court stated:

[T]he state of mind of the defendant on July 1, 2005 is at issue. And a prior assault by a defendant upon the very victim, that's the subject of [the] indictment, would go to state of mind.

The evidence is also relevant to the issue of motive. That's the first Cofield test. Relevant to a material issue in dispute. State of mind of the defendant and motive.

Secondly, is it similar in kind and reasonably close in time.... Three, evidence of the prior bad act is clear and convincing.... I find that [Tonya Peterson's] testimony was consistent, and I found that she appeared to me to be a credible witness. I think that it would have been easy for her if she were making up a story to make up all of the detailed facts would make her story appear to be similar and here she was very clear on the details.

She was clear that the assault took place after she called the police. She was clear that the defendant was angry when she called the police. She was clear over the fact that the defendant had threatened to burn down her house and gestured in a threatening way to her.... I find that her testimony is clear and convincing.... Lastly, I find that the probative value is not outweighed by its apparent prejudice.

Clearly, the evidence of this type is prejudicial to Barry Brown. However, I'm going to ameliorate that prejudice by giving a jury a cautionary instruction when they hear this evidence. I will also give them a cautionary instruction at the conclusion of this case in my final instructions.

The trial court gave the jury limiting instructions regarding its use of this evidence both after Peterson's testimony about the alleged June 28th assault and at the end of the trial. Defendant does not challenge the adequacy of those instructions.

We affirm the trial court's admission of evidence of the alleged June 28th assault substantially for the reasons stated by the court. An appellate court is required to extend "great deference" to a trial court's decision admitting evidence under N.J.R.E. 404(b). Cofield, supra, 127 N.J. at 340. We cannot find an abuse of that discretion in this case.

Defendant was charged with second-degree aggravated assault, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(1), which required the State to show that defendant "attempt[ed] to cause serious bodily injury to [Peterson], or cause[d] such injury purposely or knowingly or under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life recklessly cause[d] such injury." The evidence was insufficient to show that defendant actually caused serious bodily injury to Peterson. Thus, the State was required to show that he attempted to cause such injury. Evidence of the June 28th assault, during which defendant threatened to burn down Peterson's apartment with her in it, was supportive of the State's allegation that defendant's "intent" was to cause Peterson serious bodily injury in the July 1st assault even though she did not actually suffer such injury.

The alleged June 28th assault upon Peterson also provided evidence that defendant had a "motive" to commit another assault upon her. Our courts have long-recognized that a prior assault upon the victim by a person accused of murder or assault is admissible to show motive. See, e.g., State v. Angoy, 329 N.J. Super. 79, 87 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 165 N.J. 138 (2000); State v. Engel, 249 N.J. Super. 336, 373-74 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 130 N.J. 393 (1991).


Defendant argues under Point II(B) of his brief that the State presented evidence that impugned his character and was so prejudicial that he is entitled to a new trial. Because defendant did not object to this evidence, its admission is grounds for a new trial only if it was "clearly capable of producing an unjust result." R. 2:10-2; State v. Macon, 57 N.J. 325, 336 (1971).

The first part of the State's case to which this argument is directed is the following testimony by Peterson:

Q: Tonya, I'm going to ask you about your apartment.

How long [did] you live in that apartment?

A: For three years.

Q: Three years. Was it rented to you?

A: Yes.

Q: Was Mr. Brown ever on that lease for that apartment?

A: No.

Q: Did he ever give you money for rent?

A: No.

Q: Did he ever give you money for your children?

A: No.

Q: His children?

A: No.

In addition, defendant argues that the prosecutor made improper use of this testimony in summation, when she argued to the jury:

You heard the victim Miss Peterson. She got up there, and said June 28, 2005, she was getting her children ready for day care. Getting ready to go to school learn a trade get a job. Because as you heard her say, Mr. Brown doesn't contribute one time [sic, presumably "dime"] to any of his two children, so she had to take it upon herself to do all these things.....

[S]he was just going about her business trying to get dressed. Trying to go to school and provide for her kids. He certainly doesn't.

The State was entitled to show that defendant did not pay any of the rent for Peterson's apartment as evidence that he was not privileged to be in the apartment, which is an essential element of N.J.S.A. 2C:18-2(a). However, we question the relevancy of evidence that defendant did not pay any child support and the prosecutor's comments about that fact in summation were clearly improper. Nevertheless, we conclude that those comments were not sufficiently prejudicial to require a new trial.

The other evidence during the State's case that defendant claims impugned his character was presented during the testimony of Detective Spatola, who arrested defendant near Peterson's apartment on the morning of July 3, 2005. Spatola gave the following testimony concerning the reason he was patrolling the area around Peterson's apartment:

Q: Did you have any specific assignments for that date?

A: Well, that particular day I was normally on patrol. I was advised by my Sgt. of an incident that had occurred and we did periodic checks down in a certain area of Bloomfield.

Q: Give us a brief description about the incident?

A: Domestic dispute, it was involving--all I know involving serious injuries, and the actor was still at-large, and he was periodically coming back and forth by the house.

In addition, Spatola gave the following description of his arrest of defendant:

Q: So, you saw the defendant. What happened next?

A: When I had stopped him, I got out to check his identification, and asked him where he was going, you know, if he lived in the area? He said he lived on Franklin Street in Bloomfield. I asked a specific address on Franklin Street. When he gave the address, it doesn't--I asked him what area of Franklin Street that was, me knowing what area that was, he didn't know exactly where on Franklin Street the address came back to. I asked stores in that area, and he had no idea what stores were in the area of Franklin Street.

Q: Are you saying you're familiar with Franklin Street?

A: Yes.

Q: Go ahead. What happened next?

A: So, at that time I asked him for identification, hard copy of identification who he was. He was giving me a different names and address at the time. When I--when I asked him to produce a hard copy of his I.D., he said, listen, I'm Barry Brown, and at that time I notified Central, and I Mirandised him, and placed him in the back of the car. Handcuffed him and placed him in back of my police car.

The prosecutor then asked Spatola what defendant had in his possession when he was arrested, in response to which Spatola testified:

He had a pair of scissors in his possession. He had a box cutter, and a knife, razor knife. He had some credit cards, Social Security Cards. I believe it was a County I.D. he had. I believe that was all.

Q: Were they all issued to him, those cards, or credit cards, Social Security Cards?

A: I believe in a couple different names.

Defendant argues that Detective Spatola's testimony placed before the jury was evidence that "he was armed with three weapons that could serve no purpose other than to potentially inflict harm upon the victim, that he was lying about where he lived,... and that he was carrying and intending to use false identifications and presumably stolen credit cards." However, defendant did not object to any of Detective Spatola's testimony, which deprived the trial court of the opportunity to take curative action. Moreover, Spatola's testimony was a fleeting part of the State's case, presented at the beginning of the trial, and the prosecutor did not make any reference to it in her summation. Therefore, we conclude that this evidence was not sufficiently prejudicial to require a new trial.


Finally, defendant's argument, presented under Point III of his brief, that his sentence was excessive is clearly without merit and requires only brief discussion. R. 2:11-3(e)(2). Before his assault upon Peterson and burglary of her apartment, defendant had been arrested forty-two times, had four convictions for indictable offenses and nine disorderly persons convictions. This lengthy criminal record provided a more than adequate foundation for the trial court to find as aggravating sentencing factors that there is a risk defendant will commit other offenses, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a)(3), and the extent of defendant's prior criminal record, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a)(6). In light of his multiple violations of probation, the court also properly found the need for deterring defendant as an aggravating sentencing factor, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a)(9). In addition, the court correctly found that there were no mitigating factors applicable to defendant's sentence. Under these circumstances, the nine-year term of imprisonment imposed upon defendant did not constitute an abuse of discretion.



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