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State v. A.T.C.

Supreme Court of New Jersey

August 8, 2019

State of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
A.T.C., Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued Decided April 23, 2019

          On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 454 N.J.Super. 235 (App. Div. 2018).

          John Douard, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for appellant (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; John Douard, of counsel and on the briefs).

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

          PATTERSON, J., writing for the Court.

         In this appeal, the Court considers defendant A.T.C.'s facial constitutional challenge, premised on separation of powers principles, to the Jessica Lunsford Act (JLA), L. 2014, c. 7, § 1 (codified at N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a), (d)).

         Defendant was arrested and charged with possession and distribution of child pornography. Defendant admitted that his computer files included pornographic videos of his girlfriend's daughter, that he had recorded those videos beginning when the child was ten years old, and that he had digitally penetrated the victim's vagina. Pursuant to a plea agreement that the prosecutor offered in accordance with N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d), defendant pled guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a child less than thirteen years of age. Defendant moved to modify his sentence, contending in relevant part that the JLA contravenes the separation of powers doctrine by vesting in the prosecutor sentencing authority constitutionally delegated to the judiciary.

         The court denied defendant's motion. There was no discussion at defendant's plea hearing or sentencing hearing as to why the "interests of the victim" warranted a departure, or the degree of the departure, from the JLA's mandatory twenty-five-year term. Consistent with the plea agreement, the court imposed a term of twenty years' incarceration, with twenty years' parole ineligibility, for defendant's conviction of one count of first-degree aggravated sexual assault of a victim less than thirteen years of age.

         The Appellate Division rejected defendant's separation of powers challenge to the JLA's mandatory sentencing provisions, 454 N.J.Super. 235, 250-54 (App. Div. 2018).

         The Court granted defendant's petition for certification, "limited to defendant's facial challenge to N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d) as unconstitutional for violating the separation of powers doctrine." 236 N.J. 112 (2018). The Court stated that in addressing the question, it "may consider whether the State __ through the sentencing record and the [JLA] Guidelines __ sufficiently explained its use of discretion to permit effective judicial review as required in State v. Vasquez, 129 N.J. 189 (1992), such that A.T.C.'s sentence did not violate the separation of powers doctrine." Ibid.

         HELD: The JLA does not violate the separation of powers doctrine, provided that the State presents a statement of reasons explaining its decision to depart from the twenty-five year mandatory minimum sentence specified in N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a), and the court reviews the prosecutor's exercise of discretion to determine whether it was arbitrary and capricious. So that the standard adopted today may be applied in this matter, the Court remands to the sentencing court for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

         1. The JLA imposes a term of incarceration of twenty-five years to life, with a period of parole ineligibility of at least twenty-five years, on an offender convicted of an aggravated sexual assault in which the victim is less than thirteen years old. N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a)(1). It also permits a prosecutor, "in consideration of the interests of the victim," to waive the twenty-five-year mandatory minimum and offer the defendant a negotiated plea agreement in which the term of incarceration and the period of parole ineligibility may not be less than fifteen years. N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d). The sentencing court may accept that negotiated plea agreement, and if it does so, it must sentence the defendant in accordance with that agreement. (pp. 12-14)

         2. The Attorney General has issued guidelines that govern the exercise of prosecutorial discretion under the statute. The JLA Guidelines, however, do not require the prosecutor to provide to the court a statement of reasons justifying the proposed reduction of the twenty-five-year term of incarceration and period of parole ineligibility imposed by N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a). Accordingly, no statutory provision or Guideline ensures that the court is informed of the prosecutor's reasoning when it determines whether to accept or reject a plea agreement offered pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a). (pp. 14-17)

         3. The Court reviews separation of powers principles and notes that criminal sentencing is a function that does not fit neatly within a single branch of government. (pp. 17-21)

         4. In State v. Lagares, the Court considered a defendant's separation of powers challenge to a statute that delegated sentencing discretion to prosecutors in certain drug cases. 127 N.J. 20, 24 (1992). The Court agreed with the defendant that, in the absence of guidelines or "any avenue for effective judicial review," the statute at issue would be unconstitutional. Id. at 31. Noting its obligation "to so construe the statute as to render it constitutional if it is reasonably susceptible to such interpretation," the Court imposed three requirements. Id. at 32. First, it interpreted the statute to require the adoption of prosecutorial guidelines. Ibid. Second, "to permit effective review of prosecutorial sentencing decisions," the Court required prosecutors to "state on the trial court record the reasons for seeking an extended sentence." Ibid. Finally, the Court concluded that "an extended term may be denied or vacated" upon a showing that the prosecutor's decision to seek that sentence was arbitrary and capricious. Id. at 33. (pp. 21-23)

         5. In Vasquez, the Court considered the separation of powers implications of plea bargaining under a provision of the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act that substantially expanded prosecutorial discretion in drug prosecution plea agreements. 129 N.J. at 197-209. The defendant argued that the Legislature's grant of prosecutorial discretion in the provision contravened separation of powers principles. Id. at 195. The Court viewed the separation of powers issue in Vasquez to be "similar to that resolved in Lagares," and concluded that "the same interpretation is appropriate." Id. at 196. It construed the provision to preserve judicial authority to reject a plea bargain or post-conviction agreement that waived, or did not waive, the statutory parole disqualifier in the event that the prosecutor's discretion was exercised in an arbitrary or capricious manner. In the wake of Vasquez, the Attorney General issued Guidelines for the drug offense sentencing statutes that the Court considered in that decision. (pp. 23-26)

         6. In State v. Brimage, the Court held that the Guidelines issued in response to Vasquez fell short of the mark, 153 N.J. 1, 14-15 (1998), and ordered the Attorney General promulgate "new plea offer guidelines, which all counties must follow," id. at 24-25. It directed that the revised guidelines "specify permissible ranges of plea offers for particular crimes" and that they be "more explicit regarding permissible bases for upward and downward departures." Id. at 25. "[T]o permit effective judicial review," the Court required that prosecutors "state on the record their reasons for choosing to waive or not to waive the mandatory minimum period of parole ineligibility specified in the statute," and their reasons for any departure from the guidelines. Ibid. (pp. 26-28)

         7. The JLA Guidelines that govern plea bargaining pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d) satisfy Lagares, Vasquez, and Brimage, with one necessary addition: they should be amended to instruct prosecutors to provide the sentencing court with a statement of reasons for a decision to offer a defendant, in a plea agreement, a term of incarceration or a term of parole ineligibility between fifteen and twenty-five years. Such a statement is essential to effective judicial review for the arbitrary and capricious exercise of prosecutorial discretion under N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d). The Court recognizes that the statement of reasons may implicate confidential information regarding the victim and members of the victim's immediate family. In the event that a prosecutor concludes that it is necessary in a given case to reveal such confidential information in a statement of reasons, the court should hold an in camera hearing to consider that information. In this case, the prosecutor did not provide the sentencing court with a statement of reasons for his decision to offer defendant a twenty-year term of incarceration with a twenty-year period of parole ineligibility. On remand, the prosecutor should provide such a statement of reasons to the sentencing court. The court should review whether the prosecutor's exercise of discretion was arbitrary and capricious. (pp. 28-32)

         The matter is remanded to the sentencing court for further proceedings.

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

          PATTERSON JUSTICE.

         The Jessica Lunsford Act (JLA), L. 2014, c. 7, § 1 (codified at N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a), (d)) imposes a term of incarceration of twenty-five years to life, with a period of parole ineligibility of at least twenty-five years, on an offender convicted of an aggravated sexual assault in which the victim is less than thirteen years old. N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a)(1). The statute permits a prosecutor, "in consideration of the interests of the victim," to waive the twenty-five-year mandatory minimum and offer the defendant a negotiated plea agreement in which the term of incarceration and the period of parole ineligibility may not be less than fifteen years. N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d). The sentencing court may accept that negotiated plea agreement, and if it does so, it must sentence the defendant in accordance with that agreement. The Attorney General has issued the Uniform Plea Negotiation Guidelines to Implement the Jessica Lunsford Act, P.L. 2014, c. 7 (May 29, 2014), https:// www.state.nj.us/lps/dcj/agguide/lunsford_act.pdf (JLA Guidelines), which governs the exercise of prosecutorial discretion under the statute.

         In this appeal, we consider defendant A.T.C.'s facial constitutional challenge, premised on separation of powers principles, to the JLA. Pursuant to a plea agreement that the prosecutor offered in accordance with N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d), which called for a reduced term of twenty years' incarceration and twenty years' parole ineligibility, defendant pled guilty to a charge of aggravated sexual assault of a child less than thirteen years of age.

         Prior to sentencing, defendant moved to modify his sentence, arguing that he should have been sentenced to fifteen years of incarceration rather than twenty years. He contended that the JLA and the JLA Guidelines violated the separation of powers doctrine. Defendant asserted that he should be exempt from sentencing under the JLA, or in the alternative, the JLA should be construed to authorize the court to sentence him to a term of incarceration as low as fifteen years. Rejecting that argument, the sentencing court denied the motion to modify the sentence. The Appellate Division affirmed that determination. State v. A.T.C., 454 N.J.Super. 235, 250-54 (App. Div. 2018).

         We hold that the JLA does not violate separation of powers principles provided that (1) the State presents a statement of reasons explaining the departure from the twenty-five year mandatory minimum sentence specified in N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a), and (2) the sentencing court reviews the prosecutor's exercise of discretion to "protect against arbitrary and capricious prosecutorial decisions." State v. Vasquez, 129 N.J. 189, 196 (1992). We therefore remand the matter to the sentencing court so that the prosecutor may provide a statement of reasons for the decision to waive N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a)'s twenty-five-year term of incarceration and parole disqualifier "in consideration of the interests of the victim," and the court may determine whether that decision was arbitrary and capricious.

         I.

         A.

         In a 2014 investigation of internet crimes against children, the Passaic County Internet Crime Task Force concluded that defendant had made computer files containing child pornography available for other users of file-sharing services to download. Police officers executed a search warrant at the home that defendant had shared for seven years with his girlfriend and her minor daughter and found child pornography on defendant's computer.

         Defendant was arrested and charged with four counts of second-degree distribution of child pornography, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(b)(5)(a)(i), and four counts of third-degree possession of child pornography, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(b)(5)(b). Defendant admitted that his computer files included pornographic videos of his girlfriend's daughter and that he had recorded those videos on a number of occasions beginning when the child was ten years old.

         The victim, then twelve years old, told police that defendant had been sexually abusing her since she was eight years old. She stated that defendant, ignoring her objections, had touched her vagina many times. Some of the videos found in defendant's computer files show defendant touching the victim's vagina while she audibly implores him to leave her alone.

         Defendant waived his right to indictment and a trial by jury. Pursuant to a plea agreement with the State, defendant pled guilty to an accusation charging him with first-degree sexual assault of a child under thirteen, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a)(1), an offense subject to the mandatory minimum term of incarceration set forth in the JLA, as well as second-degree endangering the welfare of a child by distribution of child pornography, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(b)(5)(a). At his plea hearing, defendant provided a factual basis for both charges; with respect to the first-degree aggravated sexual assault of a child under thirteen, defendant admitted that he had digitally penetrated the victim's vagina.

         At defendant's plea hearing, the court identified the recommended term of incarceration for defendant's aggravated sexual assault conviction pursuant to the plea agreement between the State and defendant: a twenty-year term of incarceration, with a twenty-year period of parole ineligibility. The court confirmed defendant's understanding that if he were sentenced in accordance with his plea agreement, he would serve all of his twenty-year prison sentence and would not be eligible for parole prior to the expiration of that sentence. The court accepted defendant's plea of guilty to both charges.

         After his guilty plea, but prior to the scheduled date of his sentencing, defendant moved to modify his sentence. His motion was premised in part on a contention that the JLA contravenes the separation of powers doctrine by vesting in the prosecutor sentencing authority constitutionally delegated to the judiciary.[1]

         The court denied defendant's motion. It held that because sentencing courts retain the right to reject plea agreements under the JLA in the interests of justice, and the JLA preserves "checks and balances" between the executive and judicial branches, the statute did not run afoul of the separation of powers doctrine. The court also found that defendant's motion to modify his sentence was premature because the motion was filed prior to sentencing.

         At defendant's sentencing hearing, the court found that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors.[2] Defendant argued that he should not be sentenced pursuant to the JLA, or, in the alternative, that he should be sentenced under the JLA to a fifteen-year term of incarceration, not the twenty-year term contemplated by the plea agreement. The prosecutor argued that the harm to the victim, among other factors, warranted the sentence recommended by the State.

         Although the State advised the sentencing court prior to defendant's sentencing that it had "balance[d] the relevant factors set forth by the Attorney General Guidelines," it did not present a statement of reasons justifying its decision to waive the twenty-five-year term of incarceration and period of parole ineligibility prescribed by N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a). There was no discussion at either defendant's plea hearing or his sentencing hearing as to why the "interests of the victim" warranted a departure, or the degree of the departure, from the JLA's mandatory twenty-five-year term. See N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d).

         Consistent with the plea agreement, the court imposed a term of twenty years' incarceration, with twenty years' parole ineligibility, for defendant's conviction of one count of first-degree aggravated sexual assault of a victim less than thirteen years of age. It imposed a concurrent twenty-year term, with twenty years' parole ineligibility, for defendant's conviction of distribution of child pornography. The court also sentenced defendant to parole supervision for life, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6.4; mandated that he comply with the requirements of Megan's Law, N.J.S.A. 2C:7-1 to -23; and assessed statutory fines and penalties, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-3.1 to -3.3, -3.6 to -3.8; N.J.S.A. 2C:14-10.

         B.

         Defendant appealed his convictions and the court's order denying his motion to modify his sentence. He asserted, among other arguments, that the JLA is facially unconstitutional because it violates the separation of powers doctrine.

         The Appellate Division rejected defendant's separation of powers challenge to the JLA's mandatory sentencing provisions. A.T.C., 454 N.J.Super. at 250-54. It reaffirmed the Legislature's sole authority to define what conduct constitutes a crime and to determine punishment for that conduct, including the imposition of mandatory sentences. Id. at 251. The Appellate Division noted, however, that the Legislature "cannot give the prosecuting attorney the authority, after a conviction, to decide what the punishment shall be. That is a judicial function." Id. at 251-52 (quoting State v. Todd, 238 N.J.Super. 445, 455 (App. Div. 1990)). It deemed the allocation of authority in plea bargaining under N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d) to comport with the separation of powers doctrine because the ...


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