Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mandatory Joinder

State of New Jersey v. Louis E. Veney, Jr. - A Discussion

The facts in brief: The defendant was arrested after an officer observed a "marijuana blunt" in his vehicle's console and the defendant told him there was a weapon in the car.

The grand jury indicted the defendant for third-degree "unlawful possession of a weapon" (Count 1), fourth-degree "hindering apprehension" (Count 2), second-degree "certain persons not to have a weapon" (Count 3). The state also charged defendant under separate complaint-summons with disorderly persons offenses of possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia, and with two traffic offenses, operating a vehicle with a suspended drivers license and operating a motor vehicle while in possession of a controlled dangerous substance.

Prior to trial, the State moved to dismiss Counts 1 and 2 of the indictment, with no objection from the defendant. This confirmed a letter previously sent to defense counsel indicating the State's intention to dismiss those counts. The court indicated an intention to dismiss the two counts after the jury was impaneled and sworn. After the jury was sworn, the State did not move again to dismiss the counts, but the trial proceeded only on Count 3 with regard to this defendant.

The jury found defendant guilty of Count 3, "certain persons not to have a weapon." The judge granted defendant’s motion of acquittal notwithstanding the verdict. At the same hearing, the defendant pled guilty, upon the advice of his attorney and pursuant to a plea agreement, to Count 1 in exchange for state recommending 4 years prison with 18 month period of parole ineligibility, dismissal of Count 2 and dismissal of the disorderly persons and traffic offenses.

The court sentenced the defendant according to the plea agreement.

The issues: Was the defendant denied effective assistance of counsel? Was the State precluded from seeking the defendant's conviction on Count 1 of the indictment pursuant to the bar against double jeopardy? Was the State precluded from seeking the defendant's conviction on Count 1 of the indictment pursuant to the mandatory joinder rule?

The court's holding: The state was barred from prosecuting the charge of unlawful possession of a weapon under the mandatory joinder rule, as well as the doctrine of fundamental fairness. The defense attorney should have sought dismissal of the charge prior to defendant's plea, the state previously having tried defendant to conclusion on another charge arising from the same core set of facts giving rise to this charge.

The Appellate Division determined that the Constitution's prohibition against double jeopardy was irrelevant, as jeopardy had not attached when the motion for Counts 1 and 2 of the indictment was made, as the jury had not yet been impaneled and sworn. Therefore, the State would have been within its rights to try the defendant on those separate charges.

However, the mandatory joinder rule precluded such a subsequent trial. That rule was adopted to bar separate trials for multiple offenses that are known to the prosecuting attorney at the time the first trial begins, when the offenses are based essentially on the same conduct or arise from the same criminal episode and are within the jurisdiction and venue of a single court. This rule is more widely applicable than that barring double jeopardy.

[Note: The court may still order a separate trial for multiple charges when it believes the occasion warrants it due to potential prejudice to either the defendant or the State.]

In this case, the State could not have proceeded to trial on Counts 1 and 2 of the indictment after the dismissal of Count 3 by the court. Therefore, by negotiating the plea agreement with defendant, the State had indirectly accomplished what the mandatory joinder rule prohibits. The defendant was "entitled to be free of the harassment and oppression of a second trial on offenses relating to the same episode."

The Appellate Division further concluded that even had the mandatory joinder rule been inapplicable in this case, the State should have been barred from proceeding on Count 1 by the doctrine of fundamental fairness.

In considering the fairness to defendant, the court examined his reasonable expectations. The letter to defense counsel, followed by the statements made in court describing the State's intention to dismiss Counts 1 and 2 and proceed only on Count 3 with regard to this defendant would lead the defendant to believe that, in proceeding to trial on Count 3, he would not have to face subsequent prosecution on Count 1. Further prosecution would violate the spirit of the mandatory joinder rule and the doctrine of fundamental fairness.

In addition, the court concluded that defendant was denied effective assistance of counsel, as his attorney should have moved to dismiss Counts 1 and 2 prior to the entry of a guilty plea by defendant.

The end result: The conviction of the defendant was reversed and the indictment dismissed by the Appellate Division.

What does all of this mean to you? The Appellate Division has reiterated the protection afforded to defendants from multiple trials stemming from the same instance of criminal conduct. Except in instances where the court orders separate trials for separate counts of an indictment, you will be subjected to only one trial, freeing you from the additional stress and expense of facing additional trials at a later date regarding the same indictment.

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