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State of New Jersey v. J.C


August 21, 2012


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County, Municipal Appeal No. 09-021.

Per curiam.


Argued April 17, 2012

Before Judges Payne and Hayden.

Defendant, J.C., appeals from the August 10, 2010 Law Division order affirming her municipal court conviction for resisting arrest and two counts of simple assault. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

The record reveals that defendant was charged with two counts of simple assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1a, and one count of resisting arrest, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2a(1). At the municipal court trial, the State presented the following evidence. On December 6, 2008, pursuant to a temporary restraining order that defendant's brother obtained against defendant, his sixty-year-old sister, Police Officer Meade accompanied the brother to defendant's residence to retrieve a computer and suitcase. When the officer explained his purpose, defendant led him to the computer, then refused to turn it over, claiming it belonged to her. After searching ten minutes for the receipt to prove ownership, she began to disconnect the computer wires, then picked up the computer and smashed it on the floor. When Officer Meade walked toward defendant, she lunged at him, pushed him, and said, "try and get it." The officer told defendant that she was under arrest and tried to handcuff her by placing her face down on the bed. His partner, Officer Blanford, came into the room to help. Defendant was flailing her arms, screaming and shouting incoherently.

During the ensuing struggle, defendant bit Officer Meade on the left thumb, which left a mark still present at the time of the hearing, eight months after the event. Additionally, defendant bit Officer Blanford's left pinkie finger, causing him pain. After she was handcuffed, defendant complained of shortness of breath, and she was taken to the hospital.

According to defendant's testimony, when the police and her estranged brother came to her home, she became very upset because her brother was present and because the police did not come to her home the previous day after she had reported a robbery. Nevertheless, she tried, unsuccessfully, to find the receipt for the money she had given to her brother for the computer. Then she said, "take the computer." When she reached over to unplug it, the computer fell onto the floor. The officer grabbed her from behind, injuring her throat. She did not struggle at all but she was thrown face down on the bed. Next, she was thrown to the floor and someone broke her foot. She was taken to the hospital by ambulance. There, her foot was x-rayed, and no sign of a break was reported. She was placed on psychiatric hold and evaluated by three mental health experts, then released and returned home.

The municipal court trial was adjourned several times, including once to allow defense counsel to obtain medical records concerning the event and defendant's past psychiatric and medical history. Defendant refused to sign the necessary releases because she told her attorney she was "the victim." At the start of the trial, defense counsel informed the municipal court judge that she thought defendant was not competent to stand trial, based upon her refusal to sign the releases and the long, rambling emails and phone conversations defendant had with her attorney, and counsel requested a competency hearing. The judge denied the request, finding that the last minute request due to a client being uncooperative and rambling was not sufficient to trigger a such hearing.

During the trial, defendant interrupted the testimony of the police officers several times, generally disagreeing with their statements, and once saying, "you lie, you lie." During her testimony, defendant repeatedly sought to tell the judge about her mistreatment by the police and her brother. Several times the judge had to redirect her to address the charges at hand, and she complied.

At the close of the case, defense counsel renewed her request for a competency hearing, saying that her client's behavior demonstrated her incompetence. The judge did not agree, noting that at the time of the incident she was not found to be committable and in the eight months since the incident, there had been no evidence she had been declared incompetent to stand trial by any mental health expert. He further observed:

[Defendant] does and says, you know, things to me that are, you know, somewhat belligerent and out of -- out of place. Am I to conclude from that that Miss Cunningham has some kind of, you know, problem that would prevent her from understanding what's happening here or appearing in court? I can't say that. She does say some things that don't - - sometimes are not responsive to some of the questions that you ask but she seems to have a purpose in whatever she says in response thereto. My impression is she understands and knows what's been asked of her but wants to - - wants to tell the court things that she wants to tell about . . . and that she feels . . . the court should understand or know of in connection with her case.

The judge found that the evidence showed that defendant resisted arrest and assaulted both police officers. He thus found her guilty of all three charges and fined her $100 and $33 in court costs plus a $75 Safe Street Assessment and a $50 Violent Crimes Assessment for each count. Defendant appealed to the Law Division.

At the Law Division trial de novo, after hearing counsels' arguments, the judge permitted defendant to address him. Defendant again spoke about the mistreatment she had suffered at the hands of her brother and from the police, repeated similar facts about the incident to those she had stated in municipal court, and argued that she was not guilty of the charges. The Law Division judge found that nothing in the record led to the conclusion that defendant did not understand the proceedings and was not competent to stand trial. Based upon his de novo review of the record below, the Law Division judge found defendant guilty of the three charges and imposed the same sentence.

This appeal followed.

On appeal, defendant raises the following contentions for our consideration.




Initially, we observe that in an appeal such as this our role is limited. We "consider only the action of the Law Division and not that of the municipal court." State v. Oliveri, 336 N.J. Super. 244, 251 (App. Div. 2001). In making his or her determination "de novo on the record from the municipal court," the Law Division judge must give "due, although not necessarily controlling, regard to the opportunity of the magistrate to judge the credibility of the witnesses." State v. Adubato, 420 N.J. Super. 167, 176 (App. Div. 2011) (citing State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 157 (1964)), certif. denied, 209 N.J. 430 (2012). Our role is to determine whether the Law Division's de novo finding could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record. Ibid. Nevertheless, our review of purely legal issues is plenary. Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).

Next, we review the applicable legal principles. "The test for competency to stand trial arises from basic concepts of due process." State v. Purnell, 394 N.J. Super. 28, 47 (App. Div. 2007); State v. M.J.K., 369 N.J. Super. 532, 547 (App. Div. 2004), certif. granted, 181 N.J. 549, appeal dismissed, 187 N.J. 74 (2005). When a defendant is tried while incompetent to stand trial, that defendant has been deprived of his due process right to a fair trial. State v. Cecil, 260 N.J. Super. 475, 480 (App. Div. 1992), certif. denied, 133 N.J. 431 (1993). At a minimum, the defendant must have sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him. Purnell, supra, 394 N.J. Super at 47 (citing Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402, 402, 80 S. Ct. 788, 789, 4 L. Ed. 2d 824, 825 (1960)).

The test for competency to stand trial in New Jersey is codified in N.J.S.A. 2C:4-4, which provides in part: "No person who lacks capacity to understand the proceedings against him or to assist in his own defense shall be tried, convicted or sentenced for the commission of an offense so long as such incapacity endures." N.J.S.A. 2C:4-4a. The defendant must understand his presence in a courtroom facing criminal charges; the roles of the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney; his rights and the consequences of waiver of the same; and his ability to participate in his own defense. N.J.S.A. 2C:4-4b.

The threshold determination as to competency must be made by the trial judge, and our review of a judge's decision not to order such a hearing is a "strict one." State v. Harris, 181 N.J. 391, 458 (2004). As the Court said in Harris,

"[W]hile the court has the power to order an inquiry in the defendant's mental qualifications to stand trial, failure to exercise the powers will not be reviewed on appeal, unless it clearly and convincingly appears that the defendant was incapable of standing trial." [[State v.] Lucas, [] 30 N.J. [37], 73-74 [(1959)](emphasis added).]

To meet the clear and convincing standard on appeal, a defendant must show a "'bona fide doubt' as to [his] competence to stand trial." [State v.] Spivey, [] 65 N.J. [21], 37 [(1974)] (citing Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375, 385, 86 S. Ct. 836, 842, 15 L. Ed. 2d 815, 822 (1966)). [Harris, supra, 181 N.J. at 458.]

Accordingly, our review of a trial court's competency determination must be "'typically, and properly, highly deferential.'" M.J.K., supra, 369 N.J. Super. at 548 (quoting State v. Moya, 329 N.J. Super. 499, 506 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 165 N.J. 529 (2000)). Moreover, a trial court's determination on the subject of competency will be sustained if there is sufficient supporting evidence in the record. Purnell, supra, 394 N.J. Super. at 50.

We are satisfied that the Law Division judge's finding that defendant was competent to stand trial is adequately supported by the record. Here, the municipal judge determined, based upon all the evidence before him, including the opportunity to observe the witnesses, that defendant understood the process she was involved in and was able to participate. The Law Division judge, based upon his fresh look at the entire record, found that defendant understood the proceeding and was competent to participate at the hearing.

The record demonstrates that defendant at times was belligerent and tangential in her responses, but she recognized at all times that she was in a court, before a judge, with charges that she did not think were just. Her interruptions and ramblings were always aimed at telling the judge her side of the story. The fact that a defendant may be quarrelsome and uncooperative, standing alone, is not enough to raise a "bona fide doubt" as to competency. Contrary to defendant's assertion, there is no indication that the Law Division judge relied solely or even principally upon the fact that defendant was not involuntarily committed on the day of the incident. Rather, he determined, based upon all the evidence before him, and having heard her statement explaining her view of the case, that defendant was competent, i.e., able to comprehend the process and aid in her own defense. See N.J.S.A. 2C:4-4. Based upon our deferential standard, we concur.



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