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State v. Patel

Supreme Court of New Jersey

August 7, 2019

State of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
Charudutt J. Patel, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued April 23, 2019

          On certification to Superior Court, Appellate Division.

          Victor A. Rotolo argued the cause for appellant (Rotolo Karch Law, attorneys; Victor A. Rotolo, E. Carr Cornog, III, William E. Reutelhuber, and Matthew R. Marotta, on the briefs).

          Patrick F. Galdieri, II, Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for respondent (Andrew C. Carey, Middlesex County Prosecutor, attorney; Patrick F. Galdieri, II, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Lila B. Leonard, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for amicus curiae Attorney General of New Jersey (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Lila B. Leonard, of counsel and on the brief).

          ALBIN, J., writing for the Court.

         In State v. Laurick, the Court held that a defendant is not subject to an enhanced custodial sentence for a second or subsequent driving while intoxicated (DWI) conviction if he was not advised of his right to counsel in an earlier DWI proceeding and entered an uncounseled guilty plea or went to trial without counsel. 120 N.J. 1, 16-17 (1990). Here, the Court considers the applicable standards for both indigent and non-indigent defendants who seek relief from an enhanced custodial sentence for a second or subsequent DWI based on a claimed denial of notice of the right to counsel in an earlier DWI case.

         In 2015, defendant Charudutt Patel was charged in two separate instances with DWI. Patel had twice before been convicted of DWI. In 1994, he pled guilty to DWI in the Piscataway Municipal Court. In 2010, Patel pled guilty to DWI in the North Brunswick Municipal Court. Because of the passage of more than ten years between the first and second convictions, Patel was sentenced as a first-time offender. See N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a). The two 2015 DWI charges exposed Patel to potential third and fourth DWI convictions. Patel claimed that his 1994 conviction in the Piscataway Municipal Court was uncounseled and therefore could not be used for custodial enhancement purposes pursuant to Laurick. Thus, for Laurick purposes, Patel contended that he stood before the court as a second-time offender, and he moved to bar the use of his allegedly uncounseled 1994 DWI guilty plea to enhance any custodial sentence in the pending DWI cases.

         In support of his Laurick motion, Patel filed two certifications averring that he was indigent at the time of his 1994 DWI guilty plea, that he appeared in the Piscataway Municipal Court without an attorney, and that the municipal court judge did not advise him of his right to retain one. Patel did retain an attorney in 2010 to represent him on the DWI charge in North Brunswick. In 2016, no documents remained in the Piscataway Municipal Court to disprove Patel's certifications.

         The court denied Patel's Laurick motion. Patel filed a motion for reconsideration and a third certification to clarify his earlier certifications. He asserted that in 1994, "the Judge never advised me that I had a right to retain an attorney nor did he advise me that I had a right to an appointed attorney at no charge. Therefore, I simply pled guilty." The court denied the motion for reconsideration, stating that in the absence of municipal court records, Patel's certifications were insufficient to prove that he was denied notice of his right to counsel twenty-two years earlier and that, in any event, he should have filed his Laurick motion in 2010 when he was charged with his second DWI in North Brunswick.

         The Law Division denied Patel's appeal. He then pled guilty to the third DWI incident, in exchange for which other charges, including the fourth DWI charge, were dropped. The Appellate Division affirmed, and the Court granted Patel's petition for certification. 235 N.J. 337 (2018).

         HELD: To secure relief from an enhanced custodial sentence for a subsequent DWI conviction, a non-indigent defendant must establish that in the earlier uncounseled DWI proceeding, (1) he was not advised or did not know of his right to counsel and (2) had he known of his right to counsel, he would have retained a lawyer. A defendant contending he was indigent must establish that in the earlier uncounseled DWI proceeding (1) he was not advised and did not know of his right to appointed counsel, (2) he was entitled to the appointment of counsel under the applicable financial means test, R. 7:3-2(b), and (3) had he been properly informed of his rights, he would have accepted appointed counsel. Because denial of counsel is a structural defect in the proceeding, to secure relief from an enhanced custodial sentence, neither an indigent nor a non-indigent defendant must show that the outcome would have been different had he been represented. The Court removes the five-year limitation in Laurick petitions and amends Rule 7:10-2(g)(2), effective immediately, to provide the following: "(2) Time Limitations. A petition seeking relief under this Rule may be filed at any time." Here, Patel's unrebutted certifications established that his 1994 plea was uncounseled, and he had no obligation to establish that he would not have pled guilty or been convicted at trial had he been represented by counsel. The Court therefore reverses the judgment of the Appellate Division and remands the matter for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         1. The right to the assistance of counsel is guaranteed to all defendants charged with DWI. Knowledge of one's right to counsel is indispensable to the exercise of that right. For that reason, all municipal court judges must "inform the defendant of the right to retain counsel or, if indigent, to have counsel assigned pursuant to [Rule 7:3-2(b)]." R. 7:3-2(a). The court also must ask the defendant "whether legal representation is desired" and record the response "on the complaint." Ibid. Because of the singular importance of the right to counsel, the denial of counsel is deemed a structural defect in the framework of the proceedings -- a defect that cannot be quantitatively assessed and therefore defies a harmless error analysis. A defendant denied the right to counsel does not have to establish prejudice on direct appeal; prejudice is presumed. (pp. 13-16)

         2. In Laurick, the Court held that a prior uncounseled DWI conviction could "not be used to increase a defendant's loss of liberty," but made clear that there was no impediment to the use of other collateral consequences of the uncounseled conviction, such as a period of license suspension or financial penalties. 120 N.J. at 4. The Court set different standards of proof for indigent and non-indigent DWI defendants who sought to bar the use of the prior uncounseled DWI conviction for custodial sentence enhancement purposes. See id. at 11. The non-indigent defendant must show, like indigent defendants, a "lack of notice as well as the absence of knowledge of the right to be represented by counsel of one's choosing," but must also show "that the lack of notice otherwise affected the outcome." Id. at 11, 17. The Court did not explain its reasons for placing a higher burden on non-indigent defendants. In State v. Hrycak, the Court "reaffirm[ed] [its] holding in Laurick that an uncounseled DWI conviction may not be used to enhance the period of incarceration for a subsequent offense," restated the Laurick formula, and again set different standards for indigent and non-indigent defendants as to whether prior uncounseled DWI convictions could be used for custodial sentence enhancement purposes. 184 N.J. 351, 354, 362-63 (2005). (pp. 16-21)

         3. In State v. Schadewald, the Appellate Division altered the tests for indigent and non-indigent defendants challenging prior uncounseled DWI convictions articulated in Laurick and Hrycak. See 400 N.J.Super. 350, 354-55 (App. Div. 2007). In that case, the Appellate Division held that both indigent and non-indigent defendants must "demonstrate that if they had been represented by counsel, they had a defense to the DWI charge and the outcome would, in all likelihood, have been different." Id. at 354. The Appellate Division in this case followed the Schadewald paradigm. (pp. 21-22)

         4. Schadewald treats equally two classes of similarly situated defendants. That being said, Schadewald is in clear conflict with the holdings in both Laurick and Hrycak and arguably imposes an unduly burdensome standard by requiring that indigent and non-indigent defendants prove that the outcome would have been different had they been represented by counsel. Denial of counsel -- here the denial of the opportunity to retain counsel or secure appointed counsel -- is a structural defect in the proceedings, not quantifiable by any traditional measurement and therefore not typically susceptible to a harmless-error analysis. And when notice of the right to counsel is not given in DWI cases, to obtain the special form of relief recognized in Laurick, neither indigent nor non-indigent defendants should be required to establish that the outcome of the proceeding would have been different had they been given the opportunity to retain counsel or secure appointed counsel. (pp. 22-24)

         5. The Court adopts the standards reprinted in the HELD paragraph above and notes that the defendant has the burden of proving that his prior uncounseled DWI conviction was based on the municipal court's failure to advise him of his right to counsel. If municipal courts retain the records mandated by New Jersey court rules and jurisprudence, determining whether there was compliance with the notice requirements should not be difficult. The defendant must secure the relevant documents to establish a violation of the notice requirement. In the absence of documentary evidence or witnesses with a recollection, the defendant is in a position to do no more than file an affidavit averring that he was not advised of his right to counsel and did not know that he could retain counsel. The defendant who claims he was indigent at the time of the prior proceeding should attest that he was not advised and did not know of his right to appointed counsel, and was unable to afford an attorney. In future cases, he also should attach to his affidavit or certification documents that would establish his indigence. (pp. 24-25)

         6. In the present case, the Piscataway Municipal Court has indicated that no record remains of whether Patel's 1994 DWI guilty plea was uncounseled or whether Patel was given notice of his right to counsel and, if indigent, the right to appointed counsel. Patel filed three certifications in the Piscataway Municipal Court in support of his application to bar the use of his 1994 DWI conviction to enhance his custodial term. Patel has made clear in his certifications that had he been advised of his right to counsel, he would have sought the assistance of counsel -- preferably appointed counsel -- and, if he had resources, retained counsel. Patel's assertions -- like those of the defendant in Laurick --have gone unrebutted. See Laurick, 120 N.J. at 6. Patel has satisfied his burden of showing that his prior uncounseled DWI conviction was caused by the municipal court's failure to advise him of his right to counsel. (pp. 26-27)

         7. The current court rules provide that a petition for Laurick relief "shall not be accepted for filing more than five years after entry of the judgment of conviction or imposition of the sentence sought to be attacked, unless it alleges facts showing that the delay in filing was due to defendant's excusable neglect." R. 7:10-2(g)(2); R. 7:10-2(b)(2). In the present case, Patel submits that he sought relief from his prior uncounseled conviction at the only time that it made sense to do so and that therefore any "delay" should be deemed excusable. State v. Bringhurst, 401 N.J.Super. 421 (App. Div. 2008), supports this point. The Bringhurst court reasoned that because "a second or subsequent [DWI] conviction may occur at any time in the future, it would be illogical to apply the Rule's five-year time limit mechanistically to deny all [Laurick] applications." Id. at 433. That logic accords with recommendations by the Municipal Court Practice Committee to allow a Laurick petition to be filed at any time. The Court now adopts the language proposed by the Committee and amends in part Rule 7:10-2(g), effective immediately, to provide:

"(2) Time Limitations. A petition seeking relief under this Rule may be filed at any time." (pp. 27-31)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED for further proceedings.

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

          OPINION

          ALBIN, JUSTICE

         Every defendant charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI), N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, is guaranteed the right to retain counsel or, if indigent, the right to appointed counsel in municipal court.[1] State v. Hrycak, 184 N.J. 351, 362 (2005). In a DWI case, the guiding hand of counsel is essential to safeguard fundamental rights in our adversarial system of justice, such as the right to a fair plea or trial proceeding.

         To ensure the efficient administration of justice in our municipal courts, judges are directed to "inform the defendant of the right to retain counsel or, if indigent, to have counsel assigned." R. 7:3-2(a); see also Hrycak, 184 N.J. at 362. Judges are also required to ask the defendant "whether legal representation is desired" and to have the response "recorded on the complaint." R. 7:3-2(a).

         Repeat DWI offenders are subject to enhanced custodial sentences, license suspensions, and financial penalties. N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a)(2)-(3). We held in State v. Laurick that a defendant is not subject to an enhanced custodial sentence for a second or subsequent DWI conviction if he was not advised of his right to counsel in an earlier DWI proceeding and entered an uncounseled guilty plea or went to trial without counsel. 120 N.J. 1, 16-17 (1990). Under this special form of relief, the defendant is not relieved of enhanced financial and administrative penalties. Id. at 16.

         Since Laurick, our courts have struggled to establish clear standards for both indigent and non-indigent defendants who seek relief from an enhanced custodial sentence for a second or subsequent DWI based on a claimed denial of notice of the right to counsel in an earlier DWI case. To receive this special form of relief from an uncounseled prior DWI conviction, we have imposed different standards on indigent and non-indigent DWI defendants. See Hrycak, 184 N.J. at 363. Only uncounseled non-indigent defendants are required to show that the outcome would have been different if counsel had been retained. Ibid. We can find no justification for such an asymmetrical approach.

         The present case provides us with the opportunity to give clearer guidance to indigent and non-indigent DWI defendants who face an enhanced custodial sentence based on an earlier uncounseled DWI conviction. We now hold that to secure relief from an enhanced custodial sentence for a subsequent DWI conviction, a non-indigent defendant must establish that in the earlier uncounseled DWI proceeding, (1) he was not advised or did not know of his right to counsel and (2) had he known of his right to counsel, he would have retained a lawyer. A defendant contending he was indigent must establish that in the earlier uncounseled DWI proceeding (1) he was not advised and did not know of his right to appointed counsel, (2) he was entitled to the appointment of counsel under the applicable financial means test, R. 7:3-2(b), and (3) had he been properly informed of his rights, he would have accepted appointed counsel. Because denial of counsel is a structural defect in the proceeding, to secure relief from an enhanced custodial sentence, neither an indigent nor a non-indigent defendant must show that the outcome would have been different had he been represented.

         I.

         A.

         In 2015, defendant Charudutt Patel was charged in two separate instances with DWI -- in Tewksbury Township in January and in Hillsborough Township five months later. The assignment judge of the vicinage consolidated both cases for disposition in the Tewksbury Municipal Court.

         Patel had twice before been convicted of DWI. In 1994, he pled guilty to DWI in the Piscataway Municipal Court.[2] As a consequence of his guilty plea, his license was suspended for six months, and he was fined $495. In 2010, Patel pled guilty to DWI in the North Brunswick Municipal Court. Because of the passage of more than ten years between the first and second convictions, Patel was sentenced as a first-time offender to serve twelve hours at an Intoxicated Driver Resource Center and fined $764. See N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a) (providing that, for sentencing purposes, a second DWI conviction is treated as a first DWI conviction if more than ten years have passed between the first and second offenses). Additionally, Patel received a three-month license suspension.

         The two 2015 DWI charges exposed Patel to potential third and fourth DWI convictions. For a third and subsequent DWI conviction, Patel faced a 180-day term of imprisonment, a ten-year license suspension, and significant financial and administrative penalties. Patel claimed that his 1994 conviction in the Piscataway Municipal Court was uncounseled and therefore could not be used for custodial enhancement purposes pursuant to Laurick, 120 N.J. at 4 (holding that "a prior DWI conviction that was uncounseled in violation of court policy may not be used to increase a defendant's loss of liberty"). Thus, for Laurick purposes, Patel contended that he stood before the Tewksbury Municipal Court as a second-time offender.

         In 2016, Patel filed a Laurick motion in the Piscataway Municipal Court to bar the use of his allegedly uncounseled 1994 DWI guilty plea to enhance any custodial sentence in the pending DWI cases in the Tewksbury Municipal Court. See R. 7:10-2(g)(1) ("A post-conviction petition to obtain relief from an enhanced custodial term based on a prior conviction shall be brought in the court where the prior conviction was entered."). In support of his Laurick motion, Patel filed two certifications in which he made the following averments. At the time of his 1994 DWI guilty plea, Patel was a twenty-eight-year-old recent immigrant from India, having moved to the United States four years earlier. He lived with his wife in an apartment, was unemployed, "and had no money to . . . hire an attorney." His wife paid the rent, and they "were barely scraping by." He appeared in the ...


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