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State v. Bieniek

January 21, 2010



(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).

On December 29, 2006, twenty-one-year-old Samar Seliem was killed when she backed her car out of her driveway and was struck by a vehicle driven by nineteen-year-old defendant Corey Bieniek. At the time of the collision, defendant was driving over one hundred miles per hour on a street with a posted speed limit of twenty-five miles per hour. In addition to killing Seliem in the crash, defendant's passenger suffered multiple leg fractures that required surgery. Prior to the collision, defendant had consumed alcoholic beverages and smoked marijuana. His blood alcohol level one hour after the crash was .17 percent, well in excess of the legal limit.

Defendant was indicted for first-degree manslaughter (count one), first-degree vehicular manslaughter on or near school property (count two), second-degree aggravated assault (count three), and second-degree assault by an automobile on or near school property (count four). On August 6, 2007, defendant pled guilty to counts one and three, as well as to a summons charging him with driving while intoxicated. In exchange for the guilty pleas, the State dismissed counts two and four and agreed to recommend an eighteen-year sentence in state prison for count one, subject to the No Early Release Act (NERA). The State also agreed to recommend that the sentences on counts one and three run concurrently.

At the sentencing hearing on November 27, 2008, the court considered a letter written by defendant, a psychiatric and addiction evaluation of defendant, and letters from the victim's relatives and friends. The court also heard from defendant's father, grandmother, and aunt. Defendant's father and aunt both indicated that defendant grew up in an alcoholic household and witnessed his father's fight against alcohol and drug addiction. This testimony corroborated the report by Hugo Franco, M.D., who identified defendant as an alcoholic and a drug addict with addictions likely attributable to familial predisposition. In addition, defendant expressed remorse for causing the victim's death and pledged to be a better person.

The court also considered a sentencing memorandum submitted prior to the hearing by defendant's attorney. The memorandum set forth four mitigating factors: defendant did not contemplate that his conduct would cause or threaten serious harm (factor 2); defendant suffers from severe alcoholism, which fails to establish a defense, but tends to excuse his conduct (factor 4); defendant has no significant criminal history (factor 7); and defendant's character and attitude indicate that he is unlikely to commit another offense (factor 9). Defendant's counsel also argued for an additional mitigating factor, number thirteen, that defendant qualified as a "youthful offender [who] was substantially influenced by another person more mature than the defendant." In support of this argument, counsel pointed to defendant's upbringing and the influence of his alcoholic father. Defense counsel also urged the court to assign additional weight to the mitigating factors, taking into account the NERA impact on the amount of time defendant actually would spend in custody and, further, to consider that an eighteen-year sentence would be disproportionate compared to other similarly situated defendants.

The sentencing judge, in explaining his decision, first found the presence of aggravating factors (3) the risk that defendant will commit another offense, (6) defendant's prior criminal record and seriousness of the offenses, and (9) the need for deterrence. Specifically, the court pointed to defendant's juvenile record and uncontrolled substance abuse problem. As to mitigating factors, the court only alluded to mitigating factor eleven, that defendant would likely respond to probationary treatment. The court sentenced defendant to an eighteen-year term -- the sentence recommended by the State pursuant to the plea agreement -- and a subsequent five-year period of parole supervision on count one, with a concurrent five-year term and subsequent three-year period of parole supervision on count three, both subject to an eighty-five percent parole disqualifier. The court dismissed counts two and four.

On appeal, defendant challenged his sentence as excessive. The Appellate Division heard oral argument on May 29, 2008, and a two-judge part of the Appellate Division issued a next-day order, remanding the case to the sentencing court to reconsider defendant's sentence and, specifically, to allow defense counsel to argue for a reduced sentence. The State petitioned the Supreme Court for certification and, on October 20, 2008, the Court granted that petition and remanded the matter to the Appellate Division for a Statement of Reasons to provide a more full explanation for the remand order.

Responding by letter, the remanding panel explained that the trial court had failed to clarify why the five mitigating factors argued by defense counsel were inapplicable, held little weight, or were unworthy of express mention. The panel also commented on the trial court's finding of factor eleven, which was not presented by defense counsel and was inapplicable to a first-degree offense. The panel also added that it could not be certain whether the sentence was based on the plea agreement or the sentencing court's own discretion. The panel believed a remand was necessary to permit the trial court to flesh out a comprehensive record detailing its consideration of the stated mitigating factors and to ensure the trial court recognized the controlling nature of its discretion.

The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification from the Appellate Division's Statement of Reasons.

HELD: The sentence imposed on defendant Cory Bieniek by the trial court is valid and must be affirmed.

1. The goal of improved consistency of sentencing is promoted in New Jersey's Code of Criminal Justice (Code), which provides the courts with a system for "structured discretion" in sentencing. When trial judges exercise their discretion in accordance with principles set forth in the Code and as defined by the Court, they need not fear second-guessing. Under the Code, a sentencing court must first determine whether aggravating and mitigating factors apply. After balancing those factors, the trial court may impose a term within the permissible range for the offense. The court, pursuant to court rule, must explain the reasons behind its findings. Such an explanation is important for meaningful appellate review of any excessiveness challenge to a sentence. (Pp. 7-8)

2. When an appellate court determines that the trial court has found aggravating and mitigating factors unsupported by the record, the appellate court can intervene and remand for resentencing. Although not required by case law, judges are encouraged to address each factor raised, even if only briefly to ensure consideration of every factor and to demonstrate to defendants and the public that all arguments have been evaluated fairly. (Pp. 8-9)

3. The court's explanation at sentencing, read in its entirety, clearly indicates that the court considered the arguments in favor of the mitigating factors urged by the defense and rejected the applicability of those factors as well as defendant's disproportionality argument. (Pp. 9-12)

4. There is no basis for questioning the trial court's understanding of its authority in this case. The judge unequivocally expressed his recognition that although defendant entered into a negotiated plea agreement, the court, and the court alone, had the exclusive authority to accept or reject the plea agreement. Under the circumstances presented, the sentence imposed was clearly one the court chose to impose. The court adhered to the outlined sentencing principles in the Code and case law and, therefore, is entitled to deference. (Pp. 12-13)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the sentence imposed by the trial court is REINSTATED.

JUSTICE LONG, DISSENTING, in which JUSTICES ALBIN and WALLACE join, is of the view that certification in this case was improvidently granted.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, RIVERA-SOTO, AND HOENS join in this PER CURIAM opinion. JUSTICE LONG filed a separate, dissenting opinion in which JUSTICES ALBIN and WALLACE join.

Per curiam.

Argued November ...

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