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State v. Gandhi

February 23, 2010

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
FAREED M. GANDHI, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



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).

The Court interprets New Jersey's anti-stalking statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-10, to determine whether the jury charge in this matter was insufficient because it did not explicitly require the jury to find that a defendant had the conscious object to induce, or awareness that his conduct would cause, a reasonable victim to fear bodily injury or death.

Defendant Fareed M. Gandhi and the victim in this matter, M.G., never had a romantic relationship; theirs was a social friendship only. When Gandhi was driving M.G. home one evening in January 2002, he began driving erratically, professed his love for her, and asserted that if he could not have her no one would. That incident began a course of conduct that devolved into sexually graphic and threatening computer messages. After Gandhi disregarded M.G.'s repeated requests that he stay away from her, she used his messages to support a harassment complaint. On July 11, 2002, Gandhi agreed in court never to contact M.G. again in exchange the withdrawal of the complaint. Judge Himelman accepted the agreement and dismissed the complaint, but issued an oral restraining order directing no contact by Gandhi with M.G., directly or indirectly, and warned that Gandhi would go to jail if he did not comply.

On October 23, 2002, Gandhi showed up at the house where M.G. resided with her parents. He left when M.G.'s father threatened to call the police. M.G. filed another harassment complaint. After being read his Miranda rights at the police station, Gandhi threatened to kill M.G.'s family, impregnate her and then kill himself. A few days later, Gandhi telephoned M.G.'s home several times. On November 18, 2002, Gandhi returned to M.G.'s house. After police officers arrived, Gandhi informed them that he would continue to come to M.G.'s house and if he was jailed he would return when he was released. He was arrested and charged with stalking. On November 19, 2002, Judge Blum set bail with a condition of no contact with M.G. and no returning to M.G.'s house. Gandhi was indicted on March 12, 2003, on one count of third-degree stalking between May 2002 and January 2003, in violation of a pre-existing court order.

In June 2003, Gandhi resumed sending sexually explicit and threatening messages to M.G., this time through the mail. His bail was revoked and he was incarcerated. At a bail hearing before Judge DeStefano, the court increased the amount of bail and continued and expanded the existing no-contact order to prohibit any contact with M.G. and her family. Although he remained incarcerated, Gandhi continued to send disturbing mail to M.G.'s residence. A grand jury returned a second indictment against Gandhi on April 28, 2004, charging him with one count of third-degree stalking between July 3, 2003 and February 11, 2004, in violation of an existing court order, and with multiple counts of contempt of court citing specific instances in which he was alleged to have purposely or knowingly disobeyed Judge Blum's and/or Judge DeStefano's orders, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-9.

The two indictments were tried in a bifurcated jury trial. During the first portion of the trial, which was dedicated to proving the stalking charges, all references to prior proceedings between the parties and to Gandhi's incarceration were sanitized. In his jury instructions, the trial judge explained that the State must prove first that "the defendant purposefully or knowingly engaged in a course of conduct directed at a specific person; and, second, that the defendant's conduct was such that it would cause a reasonable person to fear bodily injury or death to herself or to a member of her immediate family." The trial court rejected the arguments of Gandhi's counsel that the State must also prove Gandhi had a conscious object to produce, or was otherwise aware of, the effect his conduct would have on M.G. The jury convicted Gandhi of two counts of fourth-degree stalking. In the second portion of the trial, the jury learned about the no-contact orders for purposes of considering the elevation of the stalking convictions to the third-degree, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:12-10(c), and to evaluate the contempt-of-court charges. Gandhi was convicted of two counts of third-degree stalking in violation of a court order and eleven counts of fourth-degree contempt of court. He was sentenced to two consecutive five-year terms of imprisonment.

In an unpublished decision, the Appellate Division affirmed. The panel agreed with Gandhi's argument that a stalking conviction requires a showing of a defendant's purpose or knowledge of the impact of his behavior on his victim and further requires a showing that the conduct was repeated. However, the panel held that the trial court's jury instructions, which tracked the model jury charge for stalking, satisfactorily expressed those requirements. The panel also rejected Gandhi's challenges to the content of the verdict sheet, the admissibility of a statement made by Gandhi to police, and the purported insufficiency of the no-contact orders as a basis on which to elevate the convictions to the third degree. A remand was directed to permit resentencing for an error conceded by the State.

HELD: The jury charge in this case was not erroneous because New Jersey's anti-stalking statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-10, reaches and punishes one who purposefully or knowingly engages in a course of stalking conduct that would cause a reasonable victim to fear bodily injury or death. The statutory offense applies even if the defendant is operating under the motivation of an obsessed and disturbed love that purportedly obscures appreciation of the terror that his or her conduct would reasonably cause to the victim.

1. A reviewing court is not bound by the legal conclusions of a trial or intermediate appellate court. The Court applies, therefore, the rules of construction for statutory interpretation and reviews de novo the legal question whether the offense of stalking under N.J.S.A. 2C:12-10(b) requires a showing that the defendant had to purposely intend or know that his behavior would cause a reasonable victim to fear bodily injury or death. At the time of defendant's indictment and conviction, the anti-stalking statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-10(b), stated that a person is "guilty of stalking, a crime of the fourth degree, if he purposefully or knowingly engages in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear bodily injury to himself or a member of his immediate family or to fear the death of himself or a member of his immediate family." After considering the grammatical structure of this provision and the use of the reasonable-person standard, the Court finds in the statute's plain language no intent by the Legislature to require that the State prove a defendant had a conscious object to inflict, or an awareness that his conduct would inflect, fear of bodily injury or death in his victim. (Pp. 12-21)

2. Next, the Court considers the legislative history of the anti-stalking statute, noting Gandhi's argument that he is in love with M.G., had no desire or intention to frighten or harm her, and cannot be convicted of stalking because he did not purposefully or knowingly place her in fear of bodily injury or death. The Court explains that after the statute was enacted in 1992, subsequent revisions increased protections for victims by deleting a specific intent requirement, adopting a reasonable-person standard, extending protections to the victim's family, and broadening the behavior that may constitute a course of conduct. Recognizing that a statute's culpability requirement generally applies to all elements of a crime unless a contrary intent is discerned, the Court finds such a contrary intent after reviewing the legislative history and plain language of the statute and relevant case law. The Court holds that the statute reaches and punishes one who engages in a course of stalking conduct even if that person is operating under the motivation of an obsessed and disturbed love that purportedly obscures appreciation of the terror that his or her conduct would reasonably cause to the victimized person. As a result, the Court rejects Gandhi's claim that the jury charge was erroneous for failing to instruct the jury that the State must prove he intended or knew that his behavior would cause a reasonable victim to fear bodily injury or death. (Pp. 21-31)

3. The Court also rejects Gandhi's argument that the no-contact orders, entered in conjunction with the withdrawal of M.G.'s initial harassment complaint and at subsequent bail hearings, were an insufficient basis on which to find that he engaged in stalking in violation of a court order and to elevate his offenses from fourth degree to third degree. Restraining orders are entered for purposes of shielding a victim who needs protection and who is compelled to seek judicial assistance to obtain that security; thus full compliance with restraining orders is required no matter the flaws a defendant may discern in their entry or form. As the Court has previously stated, failure to meet the technical and substantive requirements for a restraining order may result in an invalid order, but the order nonetheless has a legal effect until vacated. Even when a court lacks jurisdiction over a matter at the time an order is issued, a defendant is bound to obey the court's order until it is vacated through a judicial proceeding. Similarly, a mere procedural deficiency does not permit a defendant to intentionally ignore a court order. So long as a court order exists and a defendant has knowledge of it, he or she may be prosecuted for a violation thereof. Here, Gandhi was well aware of Judge Himelman's order, which the State told the jury was in effect during the time of the first stalking indictment, and Gandhi concedes that the order was never revoked. As such, the jury could have relied on it to elevate both of Gandhi's stalking convictions to the third degree had the State chosen to advance that argument. Instead, for the second stalking indictment, the State relied on the bail orders' no-contact provisions, which did not lose their character merely because bail consequences could attach for their violation. As judicial no-contact orders, Gandhi was obligated to strictly comply with them and his violations provided a sufficient basis to elevate his second fourth-degree stalking charge to an offense of the third degree, and for the multiple contempt charges. (Pp. 31-36)

4. The Court rejects further Gandhi's argument that the verdict to support elevation of the stalking conviction to the third degree could not have been unanimous because the verdict sheet did not require the jury to specify that it reached unanimous agreement as to which particular no-contact order justified elevation of each of defendant's convictions. First, the Court finds that this argument was not advanced by Gandhi below and was improperly raised here. Second, the Court notes after reviewing the record that there never was a break in time when Gandhi was not subject to a no-contact order, he did not request specific unanimity instructions pertaining to the no-contact orders, each no-contact order expressed generally the same no-contact provisions, the specific orders supporting the elevations were described to the jury by the State, defense counsel, and the judge, and there is nothing in the record to suggest that the jury may have been confused about which no-contact order was violated to support the elevation to the third degree. In the absence of a request at trial for a more specific unanimity instruction on the orders being relied on to elevate the two stalking offenses, the Court does not find that the verdict sheet as worded, and as this case was presented, had the capacity to cause an unjust result. (Pp. 36-42)

5. With regard to Gandhi's additional challenges to the verdict sheet for failing to include the elements of the lesser-included offense of harassment and to require a finding that the prohibited conduct took place "repeatedly," the Court finds that the trial court's oral instructions sufficiently conveyed the elements of stalking and harassment to the jury and informed it of the prohibited course of conduct, including the requirement for repetition. The Court notes also the trial judge's emphasis to the jury on the importance of his oral instructions over the content of the verdict sheet. A verdict sheet is intended for recordation of the jury's verdict and is not designed to supplement oral jury instructions. Finding nothing in the record to suggest that the jury did not understand the instructions, the Court concludes that the verdict sheet's failure to use the word "repeatedly" with reference to the course of stalking conduct, and its failure to list the elements of harassment did not constitute reversible error. (Pp. 42-46)

6. Finally, the Court affirms the denial of Gandhi's motion to suppress a statement that he made to police prior to receiving Miranda warnings because the statement occurred during a field inquiry when Gandhi was neither in custody nor subject to interrogation, and it rejects Gandhi's arguments based on a typographical error on the verdict sheet. (Pp. 46-51)

The judgment of the Appellate Division upholding Gandhi's convictions is AFFIRMED, as modified, and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for resentencing as ordered by the Appellate Division.

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

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice LaVECCHIA

Argued October 26, 2009

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

Stalking victims live in a nightmarish world of fear, never knowing when and where they are being watched, are being followed, or will be confronted by the unwelcome presence of their stalker. Victims often are forced to seek protection through the courts. The security that a stalking victim may derive from a judicial no-contact order is dependent, however, on the perpetrator's incentive to comply with the order. Incentive is provided, in part, from the Legislature's determination to make a stalker's repeated violation of such orders an offense of the third degree, which carries the prospect of a significant period of imprisonment. In this matter, we review an appeal of a defendant who refused to comply with sequential no-contact orders.

Defendant Fareed M. Gandhi was convicted of two counts of fourth-degree stalking, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-10(b),*fn1 and, in the second portion of his bifurcated trial, of having stalked his victim in violation of no-contact orders, which elevated his stalking convictions to offenses of the third degree, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-10(c). Defendant also was convicted of eleven counts charging fourth-degree contempt of court for disobeying judicial orders, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-9(a).

The no-contact orders and the subsequent convictions stemmed from defendant's obsessive attachment to M.G., a young woman who did not return his affection. During the eighteen months that preceded his conviction, defendant manifested a deep-seated, troubling infatuation with M.G. The infatuation permeated his interactions with her and her family and motivated him to send insistent and alarming unilateral communications directed at her. When M.G. could not convince him to leave her alone, she turned to the courts and law enforcement for assistance and protection. As a result of defendant's persistent behavior in repeated violation of judicial no-contact orders designed to shield M.G. from his unwanted advances, a grand jury returned the two indictments that led to his convictions.

On appeal defendant contends that the trial court's jury charge on stalking, which followed the 2001 model jury charge on stalking then in effect, was insufficient because it did not explicitly require the jury to find that a defendant had the conscious object to induce, or awareness that his conduct would cause, fear of bodily injury or death in his victim. Although the Appellate Division affirmed defendant's conviction, the panel agreed with defendant's argument that the offense's culpability requirement applied both to "the [defendant's] conduct and the result of the conduct."*fn2 We, however, find defendant's position to be unsustainable.

The anti-stalking statute that criminalized defendant's actions provided that a person is guilty of stalking "if he purposefully or knowingly engages in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear bodily injury to himself or a member of his immediate family or to fear the death of himself or a member of his immediate family." N.J.S.A. 2C:12-10(b). Based on that language and the history of this statutory offense, we do not discern a legislative intent to limit the reach of the anti-stalking statute to a stalker-defendant who purposefully intended or knew that his behavior would cause a reasonable person to fear bodily injury or death. Rather, we read the offense to proscribe a defendant from engaging in a course of repeated stalking conduct that would cause such fear in an objectively reasonable person. We view the statute's course-of- conduct focus to be on the accused's conduct and what that conduct would cause a reasonable victim to feel, not on what the accused intended. Indeed, a person accused of stalking conduct very well may have intended to be amorous, but if he or she purposefully or knowingly engages in course of conduct and the effect of that conduct is terrorizing to a reasonable victim, then the anti-stalking statute criminalizes the conduct.

We hold that the statutory offense reaches and punishes a person who engages in a course of stalking conduct even if the person is operating under the motivation of an obsessed and disturbed love that purportedly obscures appreciation of the terror that his or her conduct would reasonably cause to the victimized person. Because we disagree with the statutory interpretation urged by defendant, and because we also find no merit to his other assertions, we affirm defendant's conviction and remand for the resentencing ordered by the Appellate Division.*fn3

I.

Defendant initially met the young woman who would become the victim of his obsession through a mutual friend: the brother of M.G.'s boyfriend. Defendant and M.G. never had a romantic relationship; theirs was only a social friendship. The relationship took an alarming turn in January 2002, however, when defendant was driving M.G. home one evening. Swerving his automobile in an erratic manner, defendant confessed his love, told her that he could care for her better than anyone, and asserted that if he could not have her, no one would. M.G. managed to calm him enough to convince him to take her home.

The incident signaled the beginning of a course of conduct that devolved into sexually graphic and threatening computer messages directed at M.G., which contained the details of defendant's desire to have sex with her.*fn4 After defendant disregarded M.G.'s repeated requests that he stay away from her, she used several of his messages to support a harassment complaint filed against him in May 2002.

At a July 11, 2002, appearance in Red Bank Municipal Court, defendant, while represented by counsel, agreed never to contact M.G. again. In consideration of that promise, M.G. agreed to withdraw her complaint. The municipal judge, Judge Himelman, accepted the agreement between the parties but, in connection with entering his disposition dismissing the complaint, the judge also issued an oral restraining order directing defendant not to have any contact with [M.G. or her boyfriend], either directly or indirectly. . . . That means no letters, things on the window of the car, don't send her flowers, no conversation, nothing. . . . You stay away. If you do, if you violate the order and she signs a complaint, and if I in fact find that in fact you did that, you're going to go to jail.

Notwithstanding the court's order and warning to defendant, and defendant's agreement to the court's terms, on October 23, 2002, he showed up at the door to M.G.'s home where she resided with her mother and father. Her father immediately reminded defendant of the court order, to which defendant replied, "I don't care." He departed, however, when M.G.'s father told a family member to telephone the police. The incident prompted the filing of another harassment complaint against defendant. On November 7, 2002, defendant was served with a criminal complaint and processed at the local police department.

Sergeant Joshua Berbrick administered Miranda*fn5 warnings to defendant. After defendant waived his rights, Berbrick asked defendant what happened. Defendant calmly replied that "he didn't care what happened. He said he was going to kill [M.G.'s] family and then he was going to impregnate her and when the baby was born, he was going to kill himself so he could live on forever." Startled by this non-responsive, unexpected, and disconcerting declaration, Berbrick ended his interview with defendant.

A few days later, on November 15, 2002, defendant telephoned M.G.'s family residence three times, asking to speak with her. Her father denied defendant's requests and reported the calls to the police. On November 18, 2002, defendant returned to M.G.'s home. This time, while M.G.'s mother called the police, M.G.'s father allowed defendant into the home because he wanted to ensure that defendant would be present when the police arrived.

Sergeant Berbrick was among the officers who responded. By then, defendant, after cursing at M.G.'s father for thwarting his attempt to see M.G., had stepped outside the house. At the officers' direction, he moved further from the home. Sergeant Berbrick first asked M.G.'s father, who appeared visibly shaken by the incident, what had happened. Berbrick then approached defendant and asked him what happened. Defendant's immediate response was to tell Berbrick, in no uncertain terms, that "he didn't care what the judge said, he was going to come there. He said if we put him in jail, it didn't matter; the day he got out of jail, he was going to come back there anyway."*fn6 Defendant was arrested and charged with stalking.

The next day, on November 19, 2002, Judge Blum, the presiding judge of the municipal court, set bail and included, as a condition, "NO VICTIM CONTACT NO RETURN TO SCENE." Defendant posted bail six days later on November 25, 2002, and was released. Thereafter, on March 12, 2003, a grand jury returned an indictment charging defendant with one count of third-degree stalking between May 2002 and January 2003, in violation of a pre-existing court order. See N.J.S.A. 2C:12-10.

For approximately six months beginning in January 2003, defendant refrained from contacting M.G. until, on June 14, 2003, he resumed sending sexually explicit and physically threatening messages to M.G., now through the mail. As a result, his bail was revoked and he was incarcerated. At a bail hearing conducted by Judge DeStefano, the court increased the amount of bail, and continued and expanded the existing no- contact order to prohibit any contact with the victim and her family. Defendant remained incarcerated following the increase in bail, but he persisted in sending graphic and disturbing mail to M.G.'s family residence. He was prolific: at trial, the State introduced 142 pages of handwritten letters sent by defendant to M.G.

For his most recent letter-writing campaign, a grand jury returned a second indictment against defendant on April 28, 2004, charging one count of third-degree stalking between July 3, 2003 and February 11, 2004, in violation of an existing court order, see N.J.S.A. 2C:12-10, and twelve counts of contempt of court citing specific instances in which defendant was alleged to have purposefully or knowingly disobeyed Judge Blum's "and/or" Judge DeStefano's orders, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-9. Prior to trial, one count of contempt was dismissed.

Both indictments were tried in a bifurcated jury trial. During the first portion of the trial that was dedicated to proving the stalking charges, all references to the prior proceedings between the parties and to defendant's incarceration were sanitized. The jury convicted defendant of two counts of fourth-degree stalking. In the second portion of the trial, the jury learned about the no-contact orders for purposes of considering the elevation of defendant's stalking convictions to the third degree and in order to evaluate the contempt-of-court charges. Defendant was convicted of two counts of third-degree stalking in violation of a court order, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-10(c), and eleven counts of fourth-degree contempt of court, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-9(a). The trial court merged the eleven contempt convictions into one of the stalking convictions and sentenced defendant to two consecutive five-year terms.

Defendant appealed. The Appellate Division, in an unpublished opinion, agreed with defendant's argument that a conviction for stalking requires a showing of defendant's purpose or knowledge of the impact of his behavior on his victim and, further, requires a showing that the conduct was repeated. However, the Appellate Division held that the trial court's instruction to the jury, which tracked the model jury charge for stalking, satisfactorily expressed those requirements. Rejecting defendant's other arguments about certain deficiencies in the verdict sheet, the inadmissibility of a statement made by defendant to police, and the alleged insufficiency of the no-contact orders as a basis on which to elevate the convictions to the third degree, the panel affirmed defendant's conviction. A remand was directed to permit resentencing for an error conceded by the State.*fn7

We granted defendant's petition for certification. 199 N.J. 518 (2009).

II.

...


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