May 1, 2012
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
ALONZO HILL, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Indictment No. 95-03-1221.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted April 24, 2012
Before Judges Baxter and Nugent.
Defendant Alonzo Hill appeals from the March 30, 2009 order that denied his petition for post-conviction relief (PCR) without a hearing. The judge who denied defendant's PCR petition gave no reasons for his decision; he made no findings of fact or conclusions of law. Consequently, we reverse and remand.
In 1996, a jury convicted defendant of fourteen offenses emanating from the carjacking and murder of Sandra McKnight, and the attempted murder of her husband. On appeal, we affirmed the conviction but remanded for resentencing. State v. Hill, No. A- 6583-95 (App. Div. March 23, 1999), certif. denied, 161 N.J. 147 (1999). On remand, defendant was sentenced to four consecutive sentences of life imprisonment for murder, two counts of attempted murder, and kidnapping; and to lesser, concurrent prison terms on other charges.
Defendant filed a PCR petition in July 1999. For reasons not relevant to this appeal, defense counsel did not pursue the petition.*fn1 Defendant re-filed the petition on April 1, 2008.
The court scheduled a hearing for August 7, 2008. At defendant's request, the court adjourned the hearing and permitted defendant to supplement his brief and appendix. On December 12, 2008, counsel, but not defendant, appeared for the PCR hearing. The court denied defense counsel's request for another adjournment to further supplement the record, but did not render a decision. Instead, the court stated that it would "provide a written decision in this case concerning the records that were made in court, as well as the submissions and the additional submissions that were provided to the Court. I anticipate you should have that by the beginning of the year." On March 30, 2009, the court issued an order denying defendant's PCR petition. The order was unaccompanied by any statement of reasons or explanation for the court's decision. According to his certification, defense counsel had, since "mid-January," periodically stopped by the court's chambers "to inquire about the status of the matter." He was told by the court's staff that the court would issue an opinion. Having received the March 2009 order, unaccompanied by such opinion, counsel continued to "inquire about a written opinion because . . . the order is devoid of any findings of fact." In September 2009, the judge who denied defendant's petition was reassigned.
Counsel contacted the judge's chambers and was told by his staff that the judge would not write an opinion.
In this appeal, defendant raises the following points:
POINT I THE LOWER COURT ORDER MUST BE REVERSED SINCE DEFENDANT RECEIVED INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF TRIAL COUNSEL.
A. Trial counsel was ineffective in failing to file a motion to suppress other crimes evidence.
B. Trial counsel was ineffective in failing to file a motion to suppress prejudicial and inflammatory photographs of the decedent.
C. Trial counsel was ineffective since he failed to submit proposed jury instructions.
D. Trial counsel failed to conduct an adequate investigation and failed to interview and call witnesses.
E. Trial counsel failed to consult with defendant in a meaningful manner.
POINT II THE LOWER COURT ORDER MUST BE
REVERSED SINCE THE FIVE-YEAR TIME BAR OF R. 3:22-12 SHOULD NOT BE APPLIED TO BAR DEFENDANT'S CLAIMS.
A. The time bar should be relaxed on the grounds of excusable neglect.
B. The time bar should be relaxed in the interest of justice.
POINT III THE LOWER COURT ORDER MUST BE
REVERSED SINCE THE LOWER COURT FAILED TO MAKE SPECIFIC FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW AS REQUIRED BY R. 3:22-11. (NOT PRESENTED BELOW)
POINT IV THE LOWER COURT ORDER MUST BE REVERSED IN LIGHT OF ADDITIONAL ERRORS.
POINT V THE LOWER COURT ORDER DENYING THE PETITION MUST BE REVERSED SINCE DEFENDANT'S CLAIMS ARE NOT PROCEDURALLY BARRED UNDER R. 3:22-5.
POINT VI THE LOWER COURT ORDER DENYING THE PETITION MUST BE REVERSED SINCE DEFENDANT'S CLAIMS ARE NOT
PROCEDURALLY BARRED UNDER R. 3:22-4.
POINT VII THE LOWER COURT ERRED IN NOT
GRANTING DEFENDANT'S REQUEST FOR AN EVIDENTIARY HEARING AND THE LOWER COURT ORDER MUST THEREFORE BE REVERSED.
POINT VIII-THE LOWER COURT ORDER DENYING THE
PETITION MUST BE REVERSED SINCE DEFENDANT RECEIVED INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF PCR COUNSEL. (PARTIALLY PRESENTED BELOW)
In his pro se supplemental brief, defendant raises the following additional points:
POINT I PCR COUNSEL WAS INEFFECTIVE FOR
FAILING TO ADEQUATELY PRESENT APPELLANT'S CLAIMS.
POINT II THE PCR JUDGE ERRED BY NOT
GRANTING AN ADJOURNMENT AND BY NOT CONDUCTING AN EVIDENTIARY HEARING ON ALL THE ISSUES SUBMITTED.
POINT III PCR COUNSEL WAS INEFFECTIVE FOR
FAILING TO ADEQUATELY PRESENT APPELLANT'S CLAIMS VIOLATING APPELLANT'S VI AMEND. RIGHT TO EFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL.
We agree that the order denying defendant's petition must
be reversed because the trial court provided no explanation for
Rule 3:22-11 explicitly requires that the trial court, "[i]n making final determination upon a [PCR] petition, . . .
state separately its findings of fact and conclusions of law[.]"*fn2 . . decided by a written order that is appealable as of right[.]"
Additionally, Rule 1:7-4(a) requires that the court, "by an opinion or memorandum decision, either written or oral, find the facts and state its conclusions of law thereon in all actions .
PCR petitions "cannot be disposed of out of hand." State v. Odom, 113 N.J. Super. 186, 189 (1971). "Failure to [make findings and conclusions] 'constitutes a disservice to the litigants, the attorneys and the appellate court.'" Curtis v. Finneran, 83 N.J. 563, 569-70 (1980) (quoting Kenwood Assocs. v. Bd. of Adjustment, 141 N.J. Super. 1, 4 (App. Div. 1976)).
"Meaningful appellate review is inhibited unless the judge sets forth the reasons for his or her opinion." Salch v. Salch, 240 N.J. Super. 441, 443 (App. Div. 1990).
Relying upon State v. Flores, 228 N.J. Super. 586 (App. Div. 1988), certif. denied, 115 N.J. 78 (1989), the State argues that the court's failure to state the reason for its decision is harmless error. In Flores, we stated:
[W]e . . . note our displeasure with the trial court's summary treatment of the questions raised by defendant in his petition. While we agree with the ultimate conclusion reached by the court, we would have preferred a more detailed statement of reasons supporting its determination that the arguments advanced are not reviewable on a petition for post-conviction relief. The letter-opinion issued by the court contained nothing but naked conclusions. Although we are not insensitive to the pressures placed upon trial judges to dispose of criminal cases in an expeditious manner, fairness to the parties and effective appellate review required greater elucidation by the court of its reasons for denying the petition. However, we find no basis requiring us to reverse on the procedural arguments advanced by defendant here.
[Id. at 590.]
Unlike Flores, here the judge did not even articulate "naked conclusions." He gave no explanation whatsoever for his decision. Consequently, we reverse and remand this matter to the trial court to determine whether an evidentiary hearing is required, and to state separately its findings of fact and conclusions of law as required by Rules 1:7-4 and 3:22-11.
Reversed and remanded. We do not retain jurisdiction.