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State v. Melendez

Supreme Court of New Jersey

January 8, 2020

State of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent/Cross-Appellant,
v.
Luis Melendez, a/k/a Arturo Melendez and Pito Melendez, Defendant-Appellant/Cross-Respondent.

          Argued September 9, 2019

          On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 454 N.J.Super. 445 (App. Div. 2018).

          Laura B. Lasota, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for appellant/cross-respondent (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Laura B. Lasota, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Stephanie Davis Elson, Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for respondent/cross-appellant (Esther Suarez, Hudson County Prosecutor, attorney; Kerry J. Salkin and Nicole D. DePalma, Assistant Prosecutors, on the briefs).

          Alexander Shalom argued the cause for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Foundation, attorneys; Alexander Shalom, Liza Weisberg, and Jeanne LoCicero, on the brief).

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

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

         In this appeal, the Court considers whether a defendant's answer to a civil forfeiture complaint can be introduced against him in a related criminal trial.

         In the course of an investigation into drug sales by defendant Luis Melendez, police executed a search warrant in November 2010 at an apartment where an informant had purchased drugs from defendant. The search focused on a bedroom where drugs, weapons, and items bearing defendant's name were found, along with $2900 in cash. An officer arrested defendant and seized $28 in his possession. Defendant was charged with various narcotics and weapons offenses, and a public defender represented him at a bail hearing.

         A month later, the same office prosecuting the criminal case against defendant filed a civil forfeiture complaint. The complaint named defendant and sought to forfeit the $2928 in cash; it alleged the funds were proceeds of illegal activities for which defendant had been charged criminally. Defendant was served with a copy of the complaint; the State did not serve a copy on the attorney who represented defendant in the parallel criminal proceeding. A summons attached to the complaint notified defendant that the State "has filed a lawsuit against you," and that "[i]f you dispute this complaint, you or your attorney must file a written answer or motion and proof of service . . . in the county listed above within thirty-five (35) days from the date you received this summons."

         Twelve days after defendant received the civil forfeiture complaint, a grand jury returned an indictment that charged him with thirteen drug and weapons offenses.

         In April 2011, defendant represented himself and filed an answer to the forfeiture complaint. He objected to the forfeiture of the $2928 and asserted that he had proof that the "funds were not part of or derived from any criminal activity," but rather "were the balance of [defendant's] inmate account while serving federal incarceration time. Therefore, they are not subject to forfeiture." Defendant attached a copy of a U.S. Treasury check to the answer. Ultimately, the court dismissed the civil forfeiture case for lack of prosecution.

         The State moved to admit defendant's answer to the forfeiture complaint at his criminal trial to "show a nexus between" defendant and the contraband found in the apartment. Over defendant's objection, the trial court granted the motion.

         At trial, the court took judicial notice of the civil forfeiture action against defendant and the $2928 seized, and of defendant's answer. The prosecutor read aloud to the jury defendant's answer to the civil forfeiture complaint. Defendant was convicted of the ten counts submitted to the jury; three counts had been dismissed.

         The Appellate Division affirmed defendant's convictions on all counts except one charge that has since been dismissed. 454 N.J.Super. 445, 454, 459 (App. Div. 2018). The court found no Fifth or Sixth Amendment violation but "conclude[d] that the entire chain of events in connection with the forfeiture case violated principles of fundamental fairness." Id. at 471. As a result, the court found that defendant's answer in the forfeiture case should not have been introduced in his criminal trial. Ibid. Because of other evidence, the court nevertheless concluded the error was harmless. Id. at 475.

         The Court granted defendant's petition for certification limited to whether it was error to admit defendant's answer from the civil forfeiture action. ____ N.J. ____ (2018). The Court also granted the State's cross-petition, which raised related questions. 236 N.J. 48 (2018).

         HELD: Under the reasoning of Garrity v. New Jersey, 385 U.S. 493 (1967), a defendant's statements in an answer to a civil forfeiture action cannot be introduced in a parallel criminal proceeding in the State's case in chief. Like the Appellate Division, the Court finds the error was harmless in light of other strong evidence connecting defendant to the apartment. The Court also agrees that criminal defendants who have been served with civil forfeiture complaints are entitled to enhanced notice of certain issues. The Court outlines several points about notice and refers the matter to the Civil and Criminal Practice Committees for further review.

         1. Civil forfeiture proceedings implicate a person's due process rights and invoke certain protections that apply to criminal matters. The Court reviews the language and structure of the civil forfeiture statute and finds that they convey a straightforward meaning: anyone who seeks to claim property that is subject to forfeiture must file and serve a claim to the property "in the form of an answer," and the answer must state the claimant's "interest in the property." N.J.S.A. 2C:64-3(d). If an answer is not timely filed, the property is forfeited. Id. at -3(e). If an answer is filed, the case proceeds in court. Id. at -3(f). In short, the statute requires a claimant to file an answer to defend against a forfeiture action. The last sentence in subsection (f) allows claimants to apply for a stay but does not provide for the filing of a stay motion alone; an answer must be filed first to assert a claim. (pp. 12-15)

         2. The framework of the civil forfeiture statute raises concerns under the United States Supreme Court's ruling in Garrity, which reversed the convictions of officers who were given a choice "either to forfeit their jobs or to incriminate themselves" in the course of an investigation into their alleged misconduct. 385 U.S. at 497. The Court likened the practice to the interrogations it reviewed in Miranda and found the officers' statements "were infected by . . . coercion." Ibid. As a result, the Court held the statements were not voluntary and could not be admitted at a later criminal proceeding. Id. at 498, 500. (pp. 15-16)

         3. Like the defendants in Garrity, claimants in a civil forfeiture action who are defendants in a parallel criminal case also face an untenable choice: to forfeit their property or incriminate themselves. To defend against a forfeiture complaint, claimants who are also criminal defendants must file an answer that states their interest in the property. In other words, to assert their constitutional right not to be deprived of property without due process, they have to link themselves to alleged contraband and give up their constitutional right against self-incrimination. Or they can refuse to answer and lose their property. Under the reasoning in Garrity, a defendant's choice to file an answer under those circumstances is not freely made. It is fraught with coercion. A criminal defendant's statements in an answer to a civil forfeiture complaint thus cannot be considered voluntary. As a result, they cannot be introduced in the State's direct case in a later criminal proceeding. (pp. 17-18)

         4. The Court does not decide in this appeal whether a defendant can be impeached if he testifies at a later criminal trial and contradicts statements he made in a forfeiture action, and it does not consider whether Simmons v. United States, 390 U.S. 377 (1968), would apply to the circumstances presented here. Nor does the Court reach defendant's other arguments under the Fifth or Sixth Amendments or the doctrine of fundamental fairness. Defendant's civil forfeiture answer was obtained in violation of a constitutional right and could therefore not be admitted under N.J.R.E. 803(b)(1) as a statement by a party-opponent. (pp. 18-20)

         5. The Court agrees with the Appellate Division that criminal defendants served with a civil forfeiture complaint should receive enhanced notice about certain issues. Defendants should be advised of the following: (1) they may wish to consult with a lawyer about how best to proceed; (2) the State may not use any statements made in an answer to a forfeiture complaint in its case in chief in a related criminal case; and (3) defendants may file a motion to stay the civil forfeiture action under N.J.S.A. 2C:64-3(f). Whenever practicable, the State should also serve a courtesy copy of the forfeiture complaint on defense counsel when a companion criminal case is pending, so that counsel can offer basic legal advice or make a referral. To comply with the Appellate Division's ruling, the State began providing other defendants in civil forfeiture actions with enhanced written notice. The notice tracks the Appellate Division's guidance and reasoning, but the Court has now modified that reasoning and reaches its conclusion based on Garrity rather than fundamental fairness. The Court refers the matter to the Clerk of the Superior Court to consider any changes to the standard form summons now in use. The Court also refers these issues to the Civil and Criminal Practice Committees for their consideration. (pp. 20-21)

         6. For the reasons stated above, it was error for the State to introduce defendant's answer to the forfeiture complaint at his criminal trial. In light of other evidence that connected defendant to the back bedroom of the apartment, where the evidence was seized, that error was harmless. (pp. 21-22)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED and MODIFIED.

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

          OPINION

          RABNER CHIEF JUSTICE

         In this appeal, we consider whether a defendant's answer to a civil forfeiture complaint can be introduced against him in a related criminal trial.

         After defendant's arrest on drug and weapons charges, the State filed a civil forfeiture action against $2928 in cash. The police found most of the money during a search of an apartment. In the criminal case, the State alleged that the cash -- as well as drugs, drug paraphernalia, and a handgun also found in the apartment -- belonged to defendant.

         Defendant faced a dilemma about whether to answer the civil complaint. Under the forfeiture statute, a claimant must file an answer and assert an "interest in the property." N.J.S.A. 2C:64-3(d). That step, however, can incriminate a defendant in a related criminal case. On the other hand, if a defendant fails to respond to a forfeiture complaint, he risks losing his property.

         Here, without the benefit of an attorney, defendant filed an answer. He asserted that the cash belonged to him and came from a lawful source. The State, in turn, introduced that answer in defendant's criminal trial to try to link him to the incriminating items found in the apartment.

         The Appellate Division concluded the answer should not have been admitted under the doctrine of fundamental fairness. State v. Melendez, 454 N.J.Super. 445, 475 (App. Div. 2018). We agree with that outcome for different reasons.

         Defendant faced an untenable situation -- forced to choose between his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and his right not to be deprived of property in the forfeiture matter without due process. Under the reasoning of Garrity v. New Jersey, 385 U.S. 493 (1967), defendants cannot be compelled to give up their Fifth Amendment protections in that way. We therefore hold that a defendant's statements in an answer to a civil forfeiture action cannot be introduced in a parallel criminal proceeding in the State's case in chief.

         Like the Appellate Division, we find the error was harmless in light of other strong evidence connecting defendant to the apartment. Accordingly, we affirm and modify the judgment of the Appellate Division.

         We also agree with the Appellate Division that criminal defendants who have been served with civil forfeiture complaints are entitled to enhanced notice of certain issues. We outline several points about notice and refer the ...


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