February 16, 2011
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
ISAAC RODRIGUEZ, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Indictment Nos. 07-11-1814 and 07-11-1817.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued January 18, 2011 - Decided Before Judges Grall and C.L. Miniman.
The grand jurors for Hudson County returned two indictments charging defendant Isaac Rodriguez with eight counts. Pursuant to an agreement with the State, defendant pled guilty to one count of each indictment: third-degree distribution of a controlled dangerous substance within one thousand feet of a school, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7; and second-degree possession of a weapon by a person with a prior conviction, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-7b. The crimes were committed on different dates. Due to prior convictions, defendant was subject to a mandatory extended term for distribution pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6f.
In return for defendant's guilty plea, the State agreed to recommend an extended term of seven years for distribution, with a forty-two-month period of parole ineligibility, and a concurrent five-year term with a mandatory five-year term of parole ineligibility for the certain persons offense.*fn1
Defendant entered his guilty plea on June 30, 2008. On July 9, 2008, a substitution of counsel was filed, and on October 21, 2008, defendant moved to retract his guilty plea. He asserted that: he understood that his attorney was negotiating for a mitigation based on defendant's cooperation with the police; his attorney had minimal contact with him prior to the plea; and his attorney had not received discovery demonstrating that the handgun he possessed was operable. Defendant further asserted that he told his attorney that he was not satisfied with the plea agreement when they left the courtroom after entry of his plea. He claimed that due to his cooperation in arranging the surrender of firearms to the police through his lawyer, he believed the State was offering him a sentence that did not include any time in jail.
Judge Callahan scheduled a plenary hearing on defendant's motion to withdraw. Subsequent to testimony presented on June 1 and October 30, 2009, Judge Callahan denied defendant's motion.
Sentencing was scheduled for January 15, 2010. On that date, Judge Callahan issued a written opinion addressing the testimony and setting forth the findings of fact and legal conclusions that led him to deny the motion.
Defendant appeals from the denial of his motion to vacate his guilty plea. He raises two issues:
I. THE TRIAL COURT ABUSED ITS DISCRETION IN DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO WITHDRAW HIS PLEA, WHICH IN THE INTERESTS OF JUSTICE SHOULD HAVE BEEN GRANTED.
II. PURSUANT TO SLATER,[*fn2 ] THE DEFENDANT'S MOTION SHOULD HAVE BEEN GRANTED, AS DEFENDANT DOES SATISFY SLATER WHEN PROPERLY APPLIED.
We have considered the arguments presented in light of the record and determined that they are without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(2). We affirm substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Callahan in his decision of January 15, 2010.
The decision to vacate a guilty plea requires an exercise of the trial judge's discretion. State v. Slater, 198 N.J. 145, 156 (2009). There is a proper exercise of judicial discretion when a judge, guided by the relevant legal principles, has applied his or her reasoning and conscience to reach a result that is just in light of the facts of the case. State v. Madan, 366 N.J. Super. 98, 109 (App. Div. 2004).
Judge Callahan's decision is a model for the proper exercise of judicial discretion. Recognizing the obligation to grant this pre-sentence motion if the balance of factors identified in Slater indicated it was in the "interest of justice," R. 3:9-3(e), the judge accepted testimony relevant to his claim that the plea offer he accepted did not meet his reasonable expectations. The judge evaluated the evidence and the credibility of the witness, and he found facts pertinent to the legal criteria that are supported by the record. There is no basis for this court to disturb the judge's determination; "[l]iberality in exercising discretion does not mean an abdication of all discretion." Slater, supra, 198 N.J. at 157.