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State v. Liepe

Supreme Court of New Jersey

August 6, 2019

State of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
William T. Liepe, Defendant-Respondent.

          Argued March 12, 2019

         On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 453 N.J.Super. 126 (App. Div. 2018).

          Jennifer E. Kmieciak, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for appellant (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Jennifer E. Kmieciak and Sarah E. Elsasser, Deputy Attorney General, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Jill R. Cohen argued the cause for respondent (Jill R. Cohen, on the briefs and William T. Liepe, pro se, on the supplemental letter brief).

          PATTERSON, J., writing for the Court.

         The Court reviews consecutive terms of incarceration imposed on defendant William T. Liepe for convictions arising from a motor-vehicle accident he caused when driving while intoxicated.

         After drinking six to ten beers, defendant drove his Ford Explorer south on Cologne Avenue in Mays Landing at approximately 1:00 p.m. Travelling at about forty-five miles per hour, defendant struck the rear end of a Honda Accord waiting to make a left turn. The car was driven by a thirty-five-year-old man, M.G., who was driving his eleven-year-old son, M.J.G., and a nine-year-old family friend, R.S., to a softball game. The collision sent the Honda into the northbound lane, where it was struck by a Cadillac Escalade driven by a woman who was taking her mother, R.V., and her two children on a shopping trip. The second collision sent the car into the parking lot of the softball field.

         The accident killed R.S. M.J.G. was permanently paralyzed from the waist down as a result of the accident. He is confined to a wheelchair and will require continuous medical care for the rest of his life. M.G. also sustained very serious injuries: he broke many bones, had injured organs, and required a forty-five day hospitalization with multiple surgeries. The driver of the Cadillac and her children were unharmed in the accident; however, R.V. sustained back and neck injuries.

         Defendant was tried before a jury and was convicted on all counts. The trial court considered the aggravating and mitigating factors under N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a) and (b). It found three aggravating factors, to which it accorded varying weight, and one mitigating factor, to which it accorded moderate weight. The court concluded that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors. Citing N.J.S.A. 2C:44-5, State v. Yarbough, 100 N.J. 627, 643-44 (1985), and State v. Carey, 168 N.J. 413, 427-31 (2001), the trial court addressed the question of whether defendant's terms of incarceration for his individual offenses should run concurrently or consecutively to one another. The court noted that, although it was mindful of defendant's age, its goal was "to impose an appropriate sentence for the crimes committed and not one designed to assure his release prior to the end of his life."

          The trial court sentenced defendant to three consecutive terms of imprisonment: twenty years for the first-degree aggravated manslaughter of R.S.; seven years for the second-degree aggravated assault of M.J.G.; and five years for the second-degree aggravated assault of M.G. Each of the three terms was subject to an eighty-five percent period of parole ineligibility. For the fourth-degree assault by auto of R.V., the court imposed a term of one year's imprisonment to be served concurrently with defendant's other terms of incarceration. Defendant's aggregate sentence was thirty-two years' incarceration with a parole ineligibility period of twenty-seven years.

         The Appellate Division affirmed defendant's convictions but vacated his sentence and remanded for resentencing. 453 N.J.Super. 126, 142 (App. Div. 2018). The Appellate Division observed that defendant would be ineligible for parole until he reached the age of eighty-nine and found that sentence "shocking to the judicial conscience." Id. at 133, 135. The Appellate Division "discern[ed] from the [trial] judge's decision to impose consecutive terms that he believed Carey required consecutive terms -- a conclusion the Court expressly rejected" in Carey. Id. at 136. The Appellate Division also construed the holding of Carey to be limited to cases in which a defendant's conduct killed more than one victim, and thus determined Carey to be inapplicable to a single-fatality case such as this. Id. at 140-41. The Appellate Division stated that defendant's sentence "has not been shown to be in accord with any other sentence imposed in similar circumstances" and opined that this disparity impairs "the overarching Yarbough goal that there be uniformity in sentencing." Id. at 142. In support of that contention, the Appellate Division attached an appendix in which it "synopsized all available post-Carey decisions . . . identifying sentences imposed in multiple-victim vehicular homicide cases." Id. at 139 n.5, 142-45.

         The Court granted the State's petition for certification. 235 N.J. 295 (2018).

         HELD: The trial court properly applied the factors identified in Yarbough for the imposition of consecutive sentences, and defendant's sentence is consistent with the principles stated in Carey and does not shock the judicial conscience. The Court reverses the Appellate Division's judgment and reinstates the sentence that the trial court imposed.

         1. Appellate review of a sentencing determination is limited to consideration of: (1) whether guidelines for sentencing established by the Legislature or by the courts were violated; (2) whether the aggravating and mitigating factors found by the sentencing court were based on competent credible evidence in the record; and (3) whether the sentence was nevertheless clearly unreasonable so as to shock the judicial conscience. The sentencing provisions of the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice are based on notions of proportionality and focus on the gravity of the offense. In Yarbough, the Court provided guidance to trial courts determining whether to impose concurrent or consecutive terms of incarceration, 100 N.J. at 636-37, and identified guidelines for that decision, id. at 643-44. (pp. 15-18)

          2. In Carey, the Court reinstated the consecutive sentences imposed by the trial court for two counts of vehicular homicide for the deaths of two people in a car accident caused by an intoxicated driver. 168 N.J. at 420-21, 431. The Court concluded that "[c]rimes involving multiple deaths or victims who have sustained serious bodily injuries represent especially suitable circumstances for the imposition of consecutive sentences," id. at 428, and held that when a judge sentences a defendant in a vehicular homicide case, "the multiple-victims factor is entitled to great weight and should ordinarily result in the imposition of at least two consecutive terms when multiple deaths or serious bodily injuries have been inflicted upon multiple victims by the defendant," id. at 429-30. The Court did not impose a presumption in favor of consecutive terms. It simply observed that when a sentencing court compares the harm inflicted by intoxicated driving in the multiple-victim setting with the harm that would have resulted from the offense were there only a single victim, it is likely to conclude that the harm in the former setting is "distinctively worse" than that in the latter. See id. at 428. Like any Yarbough analysis, the sentencing court's determination regarding consecutive and concurrent terms in the vehicular homicide setting turns on a careful evaluation of the specific case. (pp. 18-24)

         3. Nothing in the trial court's determination in this case suggests that it reached its decision through the application of a presumption, contrary to the Appellate Division's suggestion. 453 N.J.Super. at 135-36. The court deemed the impact of defendant's conduct on both R.S. and M.J.G. to be the "worst consequences imaginable," and observed that the impact of defendant's conduct on M.G. to be "extremely serious." To the trial court, the imposition of concurrent sentences for defendant's offenses would not ensure accountability. The trial court considered the fairness of the aggregate sentence, taking into account defendant's age. It properly viewed its primary obligation, however, not to ensure that defendant would live long enough to be released on parole, but to craft a sentence warranted by the offenses. The Court finds no deviation from the Code's sentencing objectives in the trial court's determination, and accordingly finds no error. Nor does the Court find the sentence imposed by the trial court to shock the judicial conscience. The Court has never imposed on a trial court the obligation to demonstrate that a sentence comports with sentences imposed by other courts in similar cases. The Yarbough guidelines promote proportionality not by a comparative analysis of the sentencing practices of different courts, but by focusing the trial court on the "facts relating to" the defendant's crimes. Carey, 168 N.J. at 423; see also Yarbough, 100 N.J. at 643-44. Here, the trial court properly focused on the case before it, and on the devastating impact of defendant's crimes. (pp. 24-27)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is reversed, and the sentence imposed by the trial court is reinstated.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, FERNANDEZ-VINA, SOLOMON, and TIMPONE join in JUSTICE PATTERSON'S opinion.

          OPINION

          PATTERSON, JUSTICE

         In this appeal, we review consecutive terms of incarceration imposed on defendant William T. Liepe. Defendant was convicted of one count of first- degree aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(a); two counts of second-degree aggravated assault, N.J.SA. 2C:12-1(b)(1); two counts of third-degree assault by auto, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(c)(2); and one count of fourth-degree assault by auto, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(c)(1). The convictions arose from a motor-vehicle accident in which defendant, driving while intoxicated, collided with another vehicle from behind and propelled it into oncoming traffic, causing a second collision. The accident killed one child, permanently paralyzed another child, seriously injured the driver of the car struck by defendant's car, and injured a passenger in the vehicle that was traveling in the opposite lane.

         After a jury convicted defendant, the trial court imposed three consecutive terms of imprisonment: a twenty-year term for aggravated manslaughter; a seven-year term for one count of aggravated assault; and a five-year term for another count of aggravated assault. Defendant was sentenced to an aggregate term of thirty-two years' incarceration, with a parole ineligibility period of twenty-seven years.

         Defendant appealed. The Appellate Division affirmed defendant's convictions but vacated his sentence and remanded for resentencing. State v. Liepe, 453 N.J.Super. 126, 142 (App. Div. 2018). It held that the trial court abused its discretion in imposing consecutive terms and that defendant's aggregate sentence shocked the judicial conscience. Id. at 135-41. We granted the State's petition for certification.

         We hold that the trial court properly applied the factors identified in State v. Yarbough, 100 N.J. 627 (1985), for the imposition of consecutive sentences, and that defendant's sentence is consistent with the principles stated in State v. Carey, 168 N.J. 413 (2001). We do not share the Appellate Division's view that the trial court misapplied those principles, or that defendant's sentence shocks the judicial conscience. Accordingly, we reverse the Appellate Division's judgment and reinstate the sentence that the trial court imposed.

         I.

         A.

         We derive our summary of the facts from the record of defendant's trial and sentencing.

         On the morning of April 10, 2011, defendant, then fifty-eight years old, drove his Ford Explorer to a bar in Egg Harbor City, where he drank two beers. He proceeded to a second location, unidentified in the record, and drank between four and eight additional beers.

         At approximately 1:00 p.m., defendant drove south on Cologne Avenue in Mays Landing. Ahead of defendant's car in the southbound lane was a Honda Accord driven by a thirty-five-year-old man, M.G., who was driving his eleven-year-old son, M.J.G., and a nine-year-old family friend, R.S., to a softball game. The older boy, M.J.G., was in the front passenger seat of the Honda Accord, and the younger boy, R.S., was in the back seat of the car.

         M.G. intended to take a left turn from Cologne Avenue into the driveway of the softball field, but he paused before turning because of traffic in the opposite lane. According to a statement that he later gave to a police officer, defendant briefly took his eyes off the road to look at the softball field. Defendant's Ford Explorer, traveling at about forty-five miles per hour, collided with the rear of M.G.'s Honda Accord, sending the Honda into the northbound lane. There, the Honda was struck by a Cadillac Escalade driven by a woman who was taking her mother and her two children, ages fifteen and two, on a shopping trip. The second collision sent M.G.'s car into the parking lot of the softball field. Defendant's car traveled off the road and crashed into a tree.

         The accident killed R.S., the nine-year-old passenger in M.G.'s car. The eleven-year-old passenger, M.J.G., was permanently paralyzed from the waist down as a result of the accident, and is confined to a wheelchair. Because of the injuries that he sustained in the accident, M.J.G. will require continuous medical care for the rest of his life.

         M.G. also sustained very serious injuries. He broke five vertebrae, all of his ribs, his collarbone, and his shoulder blade. He shattered his pelvis, suffered a collapsed lung, injured his diaphragm, and sustained damage to his spleen that required a splenectomy. During a forty-five day hospitalization at a trauma center, M.G. underwent five surgeries and was for a time in a medically induced coma. When M.G. left the hospital, he was not yet ambulatory. He was eventually able to walk with a cane after an extended stay in a rehabilitation facility. M.G. has a metal plate and four screws in his neck, a metal rod in his back, and metal implants in his pelvis.

         The driver of the Cadillac and her children were unharmed in the accident; however, the driver's mother, R.V., tore her rotator cuff and sustained back and neck injuries that continued to cause pain at the time of her testimony at defendant's trial.

         B.

         1.

         Defendant was indicted for first-degree aggravated manslaughter[1] and second-degree vehicular homicide, based on the death of R.S. He was also charged with second-degree aggravated assault and third-degree assault by auto, both arising from the injuries to M.G.; second-degree aggravated assault and third-degree assault by auto, both arising from ...


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