Three Supreme Court Decisions in Criminal Cases

The last few days have seen three opinions by the Supreme Court in criminal appeals. Here are summaries of those decisions:

State v. Rivas, 251 N.J. 132 (2022). This opinion by Justice Albin today, for a unanimous Court, reversed the decisions of the Law Division and the Appellate Division that had denied defendant’s motion to suppress his confession. In a fact-intensive decision, the Court applied the principle of Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981), that if “an accused has invoked his right to have counsel present during custodial interrogation,” questioning must cease and cannot resume “until counsel has been made available to him, unless the accused himself initiates further communication, exchanges, or conversations with the police.” On the facts here, the Court said, defendant’s suppression motion should have been granted.

State v. Bailey, 251 N.J. 101 (2022). This official misconduct case centered on the effect of an amendment to N.J.S.A. 2A:84A-22 that led to an amendment to New Jersey Evidence Rule 509. That amendment created a crime-fraud exception to the marital communications privilege. The issue here was whether that amendment and its crime-fraud exception, applied to text messages exchanged between defendant and her husband before the Legislature enacted the amendment. In a unanimous opinion by Justice Patterson, the Court held that there was no evidence that the Legislature intended the amendment to apply retroactively. The Law Division had permitted the text messages to be admitted into evidence based on the amendment, and the Appellate Division had affirmed that decision. Though that was error, the Supreme Court found it to be harmless, since there was “extensive evidence” that supported conviction.

State v. Lane, 251 N.J. 84 (2022). This was another retroactivity opinion by Justice Patterson. In this matter, the question was whether a 2020 amendment to N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1, which added a new mitigating factor to be weighed with other aggravating and mitigating factors in determining a sentence, applied to defendant. The new mitigating factor was that “[t]he defendant was under 26 years of age at the time of the commission of the offense,” and the Legislature stated that “[t]his new act shall take effect immediately.” Defendant, who was under age 26 at the time of his sentence, appealed that sentence, and that appeal was pending when the statutory amendment occurred. Defendant asserted that he should get the benefit of the amendment. The Appellate Division rejected that argument, finding the amendment to be prospective only. Applying de novo review, the Supreme Court agreed. Nothing in the language of the amendment indicated an intent that it apply retroactively, and the “take effect immediately” statement signified prospective application only. Justice Albin filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. He agreed that the amendment was to apply prospectively only, but stated that “in those cases where the defendants’ sentencing appeals were pending when the new law took ‘effect,’ prospective application does not and should not foreclose the Appellate Division from considering whether, in a particular case, the failure of a trial judge to consider a defendant’s youth as a mitigating factor resulted in a clearly excessive sentence.”