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State v. Mercedes

Supreme Court of New Jersey

May 1, 2018

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
JONATHAN MERCEDES, Defendant-Respondent. STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
HASSAN TRAVIS, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued November 29, 2017

          On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

          Kevin J. Hein, Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for appellant in State of New Jersey v. Jonathan Mercedes (A-6-17) (Mary Eva Colalillo, Camden County Prosecutor, attorney; Kevin J. Hein, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Robin Kay Lord argued the cause for respondent in State of New Jersey v. Jonathan Mercedes (A-6-17) (Law Offices of Robin Kay Lord, attorneys; Robin Kay Lord on the brief).

          Sarah C. Hunt, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for amicus curiae Attorney General of New Jersey in State of New Jersey v. Jonathan Mercedes (A-6-17) (Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney General, attorney; Sarah C. Hunt, of counsel and on the brief).

          Alexander R. Shalom argued the cause for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey in State of New Jersey v. Jonathan Mercedes (A-6-17) and State of New Jersey v. Hassan Travis (A-7-17) (Edward L. Barocas, Legal Director, attorney; Alexander R. Shalom, Edward L. Barocas, and Jeanne M. LoCicero, on the briefs).

          Elizabeth C. Jarit, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for appellant in State of New Jersey v. Hassan Travis (A-7-17) (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Elizabeth C. Jarit and Scott M. Welfel, Assistant Deputy Public Defenders, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Kayla Elizabeth Rowe, Special Deputy Attorney General/Acting Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for respondent in State of New Jersey v. Hassan Travis (A-7-17) (Robert D. Laurino, Essex County Prosecutor, attorney; Kayla Elizabeth Rowe, of counsel and on the brief).

          Sarah Lichter, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for amicus curiae Attorney General of New Jersey in State of New Jersey v. Hassan Travis (A-7-17) (Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney General, attorney; Sarah Lichter, of counsel and on the brief).

          John McNamara, Jr., Supervising Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for amicus curiae County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey in State of New Jersey v. Hassan Travis (A-7-17) (Richard T. Burke, President, attorney; John McNamara, Jr., of counsel and on the brief).

          RABNER, C.J., writing for the Court.

         These consolidated appeals raise questions that relate to the Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA), N.J.S.A. 2A: 162-15 to -26, including a rule the Court adopted under its rulemaking authority and what constitutes a "pending charge" at the time of a detention hearing.

         Defendant Hassan Travis was charged with robbery, aggravated assault, and weapons offenses. Travis's Public Safety Assessment (PSA) rated him 1 out of 6-the lowest level-for risk of failure to appear and assigned the same score for risk of new criminal activity. Based on the robbery charge, the PSA recommended that Travis not be released. The State moved for pretrial detention, and the trial court found that Travis should be detained. The Appellate Division affirmed. The Court directly certified the matter. 230 N.J. 587 (2017).

         The case against defendant Jonathan Mercedes involves two separate sets of allegations: a road-rage incident that resulted in a shooting (Complaint-Warrant 4353); and the possession of heroin (Complaint-Warrant 4838). In the first matter, the police responded to a report of a shooting in Camden. On July 12, 2017, Mercedes was charged in Complaint-Warrant 4353 with aggravated assault and weapons offenses. Three weeks later, an anonymous source who had provided reliable information in the past told law enforcement that he or she had seen Mercedes "drop off the resupply of narcotics to [a] drug distribution set" in Camden. Law enforcement officials spotted Mercedes driving and arrested him on the outstanding warrant. A canine alerted to the presence of narcotics. A search of the car, based on a search warrant, recovered 349 bags of heroin and $3458 in cash. On August 8, 2017, Mercedes was charged in a separate, second Complaint-Warrant, No. 4838, with drug offenses.

         Pretrial Services prepared two PSAs. For the first set of charges, the PSA rated Mercedes 4 out of 6 for risk of failure to appear and the same for risk of new criminal activity and recommended that Mercedes not be released. The second PSA, for No. 4838, rated Mercedes 5 out of 6 for risk of failure to appear and 6 for risk of new criminal activity. The PSA repeated Mercedes's history and added that he had a "pending charge at the time of the offense"-the four charges arising out of the shooting incident. This PSA also recommended against release. The State moved for pretrial detention. The trial court did not detain Mercedes. In a brief order, the Appellate Division affirmed. The Court granted leave to appeal and stayed Mercedes's release pending appeal. 230 N.J. 586 (2017).

         HELD: The Court now revises Rule 3:4A(b)(5) to make clear that a recommendation against a defendant's pretrial release that is based only on the type of offense charged cannot justify detention by itself unless the recommendation is based on one of two presumptions in the statute. See N.J.S.A. 2A: 162-19(b). A pending charge is a charge that has a future pre-disposition related court date or is pending presentation to the grand jury, or has not been disposed of due to the defendant's failure to appear pending trial or sentencing, or that is in some form of deferred status.

         1. The State may seek to detain a defendant who is charged with one of the offenses set forth in N.J.S.A. 2A:162-19(a), or has been convicted of multiple serious crimes under section 19(a)(3). A rebuttable presumption of detention exists in only two circumstances: when the court finds probable cause to believe that a defendant has committed murder, N.J.S.A. 2CT1-3, or a crime that carries a sentence of life imprisonment, N.J.S.A. 2A:162-19(b)(1) to (2). In all other cases, a presumption of release applies. N.J.S.A. 2A:162-18(b). To determine whether detention is warranted, "the court may take into account information" about the nature and circumstances of the offense, the weight of the evidence, the defendant's history and characteristics, the nature of the risk of danger and obstruction the defendant poses, and "[t]he release recommendation of the pretrial services program." N.J.S.A. 2A: 162-20(a) to (f). After an eligible defendant is arrested, a pretrial services officer prepares a PSA, which recommends whether the defendant should be released. There are two components to the recommendation: measuring and managing the risk a defendant presents. The risk management component, referred to as the Decision Making Framework (DMF), is primarily driven by the defendant's charges. Certain charges result in a recommendation against release regardless of the PSA score: escape, aggravated manslaughter, manslaughter, aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault, first-degree robbery, carjacking, and seven weapons offenses. Recommendations based on the PSA and the DMF do not replace judicial discretion. Trial judges make the ultimate decision on release after they consider other relevant details. When a court does not follow a recommendation, it must provide an explanation. N.J.S.A. 2A:162-23(a)(2). (pp. 13-17)

         2. Rule 3:4A(b)(5)'s second paragraph provides that "[t]he court may consider as prima facie evidence sufficient to overcome the presumption of release a recommendation. . . that the defendant's release is not recommended .... Although such recommendation by the Pretrial Services Program may constitute sufficient evidence upon which the court may order pretrial detention, nothing herein shall preclude the court from considering other relevant information . . . ." Defendant Travis argues that Rule 3:4A(b)(5) operates in a way that violates the CJRA. (pp. 18-19)

         3. After oral argument, Travis pled guilty to second-degree robbery, and the arguments presented in his case are now moot. The validity of Rule 3:4A(b)(5) and its application at pretrial detention hearings raise issues of considerable public importance, and the Court therefore addresses the Rule at this time. A recommendation against release by itself cannot justify detention if it is based only on the type of offense charged-unless that charge is encompassed by section 19(b). A charge of escape, manslaughter, sexual assault, first-degree robbery, carjacking, or the weapons offenses listed in the DMF-any of which will generate a recommendation against release under the DMF-cannot alone satisfy the State's burden to prove detention. To make the rule more clear, then, its text should point to the additional factors judges consider when they decide whether to detain a person. See N.J.S.A. 2A: 162-20. The Court revises the second paragraph of Rule 3:4A(b)(5). The Court applies the revised version of Rule 3:4A(b)(5) to all pending and future motions for pretrial detention. In addition, any defendant now held in pretrial detention may ask to reopen his or her detention hearing if (1) the order of detention relied solely on a recommendation against release by the pretrial services program, (2) that recommendation was based only on the type of offense charged, and (3) that recommendation was not based on an offense described in N.J.S.A. 2A:162-19(b). (pp. 23-29)

         4. In defendant Mercedes's case, the trial court did not rely on the recommendations against release in the PSAs or on Rule 3:4A(b)(5). Mercedes's appeal raises other issues that the Court addresses in turn. (A) Mercedes's detention hearing involved two sets of charges. The trial judge corrected a mistake in the PSA when he reevaluated whether the charges in the shooting case should be treated as "pending charges." One of the nine risk factors that form the basis of the risk-assessment tool is whether a defendant had a "pending charge" at the time of offense. The charges for the shooting incident did not meet any of the conditions in the definition of "pending charge." The definition of "pending charge" does not turn on whether a defendant was aware of an outstanding charge. (B) The trial court also treated two separate prior convictions for drug offenses as a single conviction because Mercedes was sentenced in both cases on the same date. Without knowing more, the convictions should not have been considered as one for purposes of the court's overall analysis. (C) The PSA lists nine instances in which Mercedes failed to appear in court. It appears that the court gave little weight to Mercedes's extended history of not showing up for court. Although eight of his failures to appear were 3.5 to 7 years old at the time of the hearing, they reveal a troublesome pattern that raises serious questions about whether he will appear in court if released. (D) Finally, the trial court discounted the weight of the evidence in both sets of charges. As to the drug charges, the trial court found "significant issues with respect to the weight of the evidence" and noted concerns about the reliability of the informant. The court on its own raised the question about the informant's reliability; that issue would not ordinarily surface until a motion to suppress. It was not appropriate to discount the weight of the evidence based on the informant's reliability. Because the Court cannot tell how the above issues affected the trial court's findings and ruling, it remands the matter and leaves in place the order staying Mercedes's release, (pp. 29-38)

         Travis's appeal is DISMISSED AS MOOT, Mercedes's appeal is REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this opinion, and Rule 3:4A(b)(5) is revised effective today.

         JUSTICE ALBIN, CONCURRING, joins the majority's opinion and expresses the hope that the Court, through its administrative process, will soon address the seeming incongruity between the CJRA and the DMF.

         Rule 3:4A(b)(5)

         Presumption of release. Except when a presumption of detention is required pursuant to paragraph (b)(4), when a motion for pretrial detention is filed pursuant to paragraph (a), there shall be a rebuttable presumption that some amount of monetary bail, non-monetary conditions of pretrial release or combination of monetary bail and conditions would reasonably assure the defendant's appearance in court when required, the protection of the safety of any other person or the community, and that the defendant will not obstruct or attempt to obstruct the criminal justice process.

         The standard of proof for the rebuttal of the presumption of pretrial release shall be by clear and convincing evidence. To determine whether a motion for pretrial detention should be granted, the court may take into account information about the factors listed in N.J.S.A. 2 A: 162-20.

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

          OPINION

          RABNER, CHIEF JUSTICE

         These consolidated appeals raise questions that relate to the Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA), N.J.S.A. 2A:162-15 to -26. After the law was enacted, the Court adopted various rules under its rulemaking authority.

         We now revise one of those rules -- Rule 3:4A(b)(5) -- to make clear that a recommendation against a defendant's pretrial release that is based only on the type of offense charged cannot justify detention by itself unless the recommendation is based on one of two presumptions in the statute. See N.J.S.A. 2A:162-19(b). We also consider other aspects of the CJRA including what constitutes a "pending charge" at the time of a detention hearing.

         I.

         In the first of the consolidated cases, defendant Hassan Travis challenges an order of pretrial detention. In the second, the State challenges an order releasing defendant Jonathan Mercedes. To recount the factual allegations in both cases, we rely on the record established at the respective detention hearings.

         A. State v. Travis

         At about 1:00 a.m. on November 6, 2016, police officers responded to a report of a shooting in Newark. At the scene, multiple individuals relayed that "two young black males" had robbed them. One victim reported that he had been robbed of $25 and shot at three times. No one was injured.

         After the victim told police that the suspects had touched his car, investigators processed the car and developed two sets of fingerprints. One set matched defendant Travis. Three months later, the victim identified Travis from a photo array as the person who robbed and shot at him.

         Travis was charged in a complaint on February 16, 2017 with the following offenses: first-degree robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1(a)(1); second-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(1); second-degree possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a)(1); second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b)(1); and conspiracy to commit robbery, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2(a)(1). Several months later, on June 12, 2017, Travis turned himself in to the police.

         Travis's Public Safety Assessment (PSA) rated him 1 out of 6 -- the lowest level -- for risk of failure to appear and assigned the same score for risk of new criminal activity. According to the PSA, Travis had no prior convictions, no pending charges at the time of the offense, and no record of failures to appear in court. Based on the robbery charge, the PSA recommended that Travis not be released.

         The State moved for pretrial detention. At a hearing on June 15, 2017, Travis did not dispute probable cause. The hearing instead focused on the issue of detention. The State stressed the violent nature of the offense, the fingerprints and identification, the threat Travis posed to the victim, and the recommendation in the PSA. Travis highlighted that he had turned himself in. He asserted that he had no knowledge of the incident until a family member told him about it, and he denied having anything to do with the crime. Travis also emphasized that he had no prior record, was employed, and had strong ties to the community.

         The trial court found that Travis should be detained. The judge relied on multiple factors: (1) the nature and circumstances of the offense, that is, the "extraordinarily serious" charges that involved a shooting and a robbery; (2) the weight of the evidence, which included forensic evidence and an identification; (3) Travis's history and characteristics, namely, his lifelong residence in Essex County (for twenty-three years), five months at his current job, a lack of "family obligation[s] to keep him here, " and a minimal criminal history; (4) the fact "that a prima facie case has been presented insofar as . . . Pre-Trial Services recommend[ed] [against] release, " see R. 3:4A(b)(5);[1] (5) Travis's "great motive to flee" based on the seriousness of the charges; and (6) the danger to the community "based on the sheer violence of the offense." See N.J.S.A. 2A:162-20.

         Travis appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed the order of detention. The panel noted that the trial court followed the PSA's recommendation, which overcame the presumption in favor of release; considered relevant information and provided sufficient reasons; and did not abuse its discretion. We directly certified the matter under Rule 2:12-1. 230 N.J. 587 (2017) .

         B. State v. Mercedes

         The case against defendant Mercedes involves two separate sets of allegations: a road-rage incident that resulted in a shooting (Complaint-Warrant 4353); and the possession of heroin (Complaint-Warrant 4838).

         In the first matter, the police responded to a report of a shooting in Camden on July 2, 2017. According to the victim, as he attempted to merge onto Route 676, he got into an altercation with the driver of the car behind him. The second car followed him onto the highway, got off at the same exit, and drove to the area of Eighth and York Streets. After the victim parked and began to walk away, the other driver fired two shots, and one struck the victim in the left thigh. The second car then drove off.

         Based on surveillance cameras in the area, the police were able to identify the suspect's car, a 2008 black Nissan, and use the registration to connect the car to a particular address in Camden. Ten days after the incident, the police located and stopped the car in that area. According to the affidavit of probable cause, the driver, Breana Hughes, said that her child's father used the car. She identified him as Jonathan Mercedes. The police later prepared a photo array that included Mercedes's picture, and the victim identified Mercedes as the person who shot him.

         On July 12, 2017, Mercedes was charged in Complaint-Warrant 4353 with second-degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(1); second-degree possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a)(1); second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b)(1); and second-degree possession of a firearm after having been convicted of an offense, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-7(b)(1).

         Three weeks later, an anonymous source who had provided reliable information in the past told law enforcement that he or she had seen Mercedes "drop off the resupply of narcotics to [a] drug distribution set" in Camden. The source added that he or she believed the car Mercedes used, a white Honda Accord, had a hidden compartment in the front interior. The source had seen Mercedes operate the Honda on August 4, 2017, and observed a handgun and narcotics in the car.

         Later that same day, law enforcement officials spotted Mercedes driving the Honda and arrested him on the outstanding warrant. A canine team conducted "an exterior sniff" of the car, and the dog alerted to the presence of narcotics. A search of the car, based on a search warrant, recovered 349 bags of heroin and $3458 in cash.

         On August 8, 2017, Mercedes was charged in a separate, second Complaint-Warrant, No. 4838, with third-degree unlawful possession of a controlled dangerous substance, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(1); second-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5(b)(2); and third-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance within 1000 feet of school property, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7(a).

         Pretrial Services prepared two PSAs. For the first set of charges, No. 4353, the PSA rated Mercedes 4 out of 6 for risk of failure to appear and the same for risk of new criminal activity. There was also a flag for new violent criminal activity, which denoted an elevated risk of violence. According to the PSA, Mercedes had one prior violent conviction for simple assault, two prior indictable convictions for drug distribution, and two prior disorderly persons convictions. He had failed to appear in court once in the past two years and eight times from 2010 to 2014. The PSA recommended that Mercedes not be released.

         The second PSA, for No. 4838, rated Mercedes 5 out of 6 for risk of failure to appear and 6 for risk of new criminal activity. There was no flag for new violent criminal activity. The PSA repeated Mercedes's history and added that he had a "pending charge at the time of the offense" -- the four charges ...


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