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State v. Benjamin

Supreme Court of New Jersey

April 5, 2017

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
KASSEY BENJAMIN, Defendant-Respondent.

          Argued November 7, 2016

         On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 442 N.J.Super. 258 (App. Div. 2015)

          Carol M. Henderson, Assistant Attorney General, argued the cause for appellant (Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney General of New Jersey, attorney).

          Daniel S. Rockoff, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for respondent (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney).

          Alexander R. Shalom argued the cause for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (Edward L. Barocas, Legal Director, attorney; Mr. Shalom, Mr. Barocas, and Jeanne M. LoCicero, on the letter brief).

         SOLOMON, J., writing for a majority of the Court.

         In this appeal, the Court determines whether a defendant seeking a waiver of the mandatory minimum sentence under the Graves Act is entitled to discovery of the prosecutor's files from cases in which other defendants were granted waivers of the mandatory minimum penalty.

         In July 2011, defendant and a few friends stood in the "drive-thru" lane of a McDonald's restaurant, blocking cars from passing. A vehicle approached, and one of its occupants yelled for the men to move. A verbal altercation ensued, and defendant brandished a firearm. Although defendant did not point the handgun at anyone, he threatened to fire it. Defendant was subsequently arrested and charged with various firearm-related offenses, including second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a), which is subject to the mandatory minimum sentence under the Graves Act.

         The Graves Act provides that, for some first-time offenders, the assignment judge, upon motion of the prosecutor or request of the sentencing judge with the prosecutor's approval, may waive the mandatory minimum sentence and impose either probation or a reduced mandatory custodial term. N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6.2 (section 6.2). As a first-time offender, defendant filed a motion asking the trial court to refer his case to the assignment judge. The prosecutor opposed the motion as procedurally improper because under section 6.2 a sentencing court, not the trial court, is authorized to refer the case to the assignment judge-and only with the prosecutor's approval. The prosecutor did not provide a written statement of reasons for his refusal to seek a waiver; the prosecutor only stated that the State did not believe that the interests of justice dictated a waiver in defendant's case.

         Around this time, defendant filed a request under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), N.J.S.A. 47:1 A-l to -13, for various documents, including police reports, indictments, and plea forms for all Graves Act cases between 2010 and 2012 in which waivers were granted. According to defendant, the only way to prove that the prosecutor abused his discretion in denying a waiver was to compare the facts of his case to the facts of other similar cases in which waivers were granted. The Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office denied his request.

         Ultimately, defendant pled guilty to possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, and the State agreed to recommend that he be sentenced as a third-degree offender. The court instructed the prosecutor to state on the record the reasons for refusing to move for a waiver. The prosecutor responded that defendant's actions went beyond mere possession of a firearm and were exactly the type of conduct the Graves Act seeks to deter.

         Defendant appealed. The Appellate Division vacated defendant's guilty plea in the interest of "fundamental fairness, " 442 N.J.Super. 258, 260 (App. Div. 2015), and remanded the case for proceedings consistent with State v. Alvarez, 246 N.J.Super. 137, 146-49 (App. Div. 1991), which allows defendants to appeal the denial of a waiver to the assignment judge upon a showing of patent and gross abuse of discretion by the prosecutor. Additionally, the panel interpreted the Attorney General's Directive to Ensure Uniform Enforcement of the "Graves Act" (Oct. 23, 2008, as corrected Nov. 25, 2008) (Directive) as requiring prosecutors to memorialize their reasons for denying a Graves Act waiver to ensure that waiver decisions are not disparate. The panel instructed the prosecutor on remand to give defendant a written statement of reasons for the denial and allowed defendant to renew his request for discovery of files related to Graves Act waiver decisions by the prosecutor.

         The Court granted the State's petition for certification limited to the issue of "whether a defendant seeking a waiver of a mandatory sentence under the Graves Act has the right to discovery of the prosecutor's files on previous applications for Graves Act waivers." 224 N.J. 119 (2016).

         HELD: Defendants are not entitled to discovery of the prosecution's files for cases in which Graves Act waivers have been granted to other defendants.

         1. Underlying the Graves Act is a legislative intent to deter individuals from committing firearm-related crimes by calling for a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment for those convicted of Graves Act offenses. To mitigate the undue severity that might accompany the otherwise automatic application of the mandatory minimum sentence under the Graves Act, the Legislature included section 6.2, a limited exception that allows certain first-time offenders to receive a reduced penalty if the imposition of a mandatory term would not serve the interests of justice. Under that section, an eligible defendant may be sentenced to either probation or a one-year custodial term during which he or she is disqualified from being paroled, (pp. 12-14)

         2. In 2008, the New Jersey Attorney General issued a directive "to ensure statewide uniformity in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in implementing" the Graves Act. Directive, supra, at 10. Once a prosecutor moves for or consents to a waiver, the Directive requires the prosecutor to specify which reduced penalty would best serve the "interests of justice": either a mandatory minimum one-year period of incarceration or a probationary term. Id. at 14. The Directive also contains specific record-keeping requirements, including the documentation of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, case-specific memorializations of the reasons for the prosecutor's decision, and the maintenance of separate cumulative files, which facilitate periodic audits by the Attorney General. In addition, on a quarterly basis, prosecutors must report to the Attorney General the number of pre- and post-indictment pleas in which the prosecutor moved for, or consented to, a Graves Act waiver, (pp. 14-16)

         3. In State v. Lagares. 127 KI 20 (1992), and State v. Vasquez. 129 NJ, 189 (1992), the Court upheld the statutory delegation of sentencing discretion to prosecutors to waive the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act's mandatory minimum term of incarceration, provided that (1) the Attorney General promulgated guidelines to help prosecutors uniformly apply the statute; (2) prosecutors stated on the record the reasons supporting their decision in order to enable judicial review and ensure compliance with the guidelines; and (3) a court could review and overturn the prosecutor's decision if a defendant demonstrates that the prosecutor acted arbitrarily and capriciously, (pp. 16-18)

         4. The Graves Act provides the procedural safeguards required by this Court in Lagares and Vasquez. First, written guidelines exist to channel prosecutorial discretion. The Directive instructs prosecutors how to uniformly apply the Graves Act and section 6.2. Second, the Directive requires prosecutors to document their analysis of all the relevant aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Third, since the Appellate Division's 1991 decision in Alvarez, defendants have been able to seek judicial review of waiver decisions. The assignment judge retains "ultimate authority" to review the prosecutor's waiver decisions for arbitrariness and discrimination. Accordingly, the Graves Act affords meaningful judicial review of a prosecutor's decision to deny a Graves Act waiver, (pp. 18-20)

         5. All case-specific files should contain a statement of reasons which the assignment judge may consider. Conversely, additional case-specific information is contained in case and cumulative files for administrative reasons because those files function as internal documents. No case-specific information beyond a statement of reasons was intended to be accessed by a Graves Act defendant seeking to demonstrate that the prosecutor acted arbitrarily. The Court has never mandated discovery to aid defendants in demonstrating arbitrary and capricious conduct or disparate treatment without a preliminary showing. To the contrary, it has repeatedly stated that defendants must support their claims by "independently secured evidence." State v. Sutton. 80 KI 110, 120 (1979). (pp. 20-22)

         6. Defendants are not entitled to discovery of a prosecutor's case-specific memorializations and cumulative files when challenging the denial of a Graves Act waiver in an Alvarez motion because there are sufficient procedural safeguards in place for meaningful judicial review of a prosecutor's waiver decision, (pp. 22-23)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED AS MODIFIED.

         JUSTICE ALBIN, DISSENTING, expresses the view that the adversarial process has a role to play in ensuring that waiver decisions do not undermine the goal of uniformity in sentencing and concludes that the right to challenge unconstitutional discrimination or denial of equal protection in Graves Act waiver cases is a hollow right if defendants are denied basic information necessary to assert that right.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, and TIMPONE join in JUSTICE SOLOMON's opinion. JUSTICE ALBIN filed a separate, dissenting opinion.

          OPINION

          SOLOMON JUSTICE

         We must determine whether a defendant seeking a waiver of the mandatory minimum sentence under the Graves Act is entitled to discovery of the prosecutor's files from cases in which other defendants were granted waivers of the mandatory minimum penalty.

         The Graves Act prescribes a minimum term of incarceration for certain firearm-related offenses. For some first-time offenders, the statute contains a provision that allows the assignment judge, upon motion of the prosecutor or request of the sentencing judge with the prosecutor's approval, to waive the mandatory minimum sentence and impose either probation or a reduced mandatory custodial term. N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6.2 (section 6.2) .

         In this case, defendant was charged with various firearm-related offenses under the Graves Act. After the prosecutor denied defendant's request for a waiver of the mandatory penalty, defendant sought discovery of documents from recent cases in which the prosecutor had approved waivers for other first-time offenders. According to defendant, this would allow him to demonstrate the arbitrariness of the prosecutor's decision. The prosecutor declined to provide the requested files.

         Ultimately, defendant pled guilty to possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. The Appellate Division vacated defendant's conviction, remanded the matter to the trial court, ordered the prosecutor to provide defendant with a written statement of reasons for denying the waiver, and allowed defendant to renew his request for discovery of previously granted waivers. We granted certification limited to the discovery issue.

         We agree with the Appellate Division that, when denying a Graves Act waiver, the prosecutor must provide the defendant with a statement of reasons. However, we hold that defendants are not entitled to discovery of the prosecution's files for cases in which Graves Act waivers have been granted to other defendants. We therefore affirm but modify the judgment of the Appellate Division.

         I.

         The record reveals the following facts and procedural history. In July 2011, defendant and a few friends stood in the "drive-thru" lane of a McDonald's restaurant in Edison, New Jersey, blocking cars from passing. A vehicle approached, and one of its occupants yelled for the men to move. A verbal altercation ensued, and defendant brandished a firearm. Although defendant did not point the handgun at anyone, he threatened to fire it.

         Defendant and his friends ended the confrontation by leaving the McDonald's. Subsequently, the occupants of the vehicle called the police. Responding officers observed defendant walking with a group of people in close proximity to the McDonald's. Because defendant was carrying a gun and matched the description of one of the suspects, officers approached and ordered defendant to drop the weapon. Defendant threw the handgun behind a nearby motor home, but officers were able to ...


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