New Jersey Supreme Court Rules Youth Can’t Serve as Aggravating Factor in Sentencing

In State v. Cynthia Rivera (A-7-20/084419) (Decided December 29, 2021), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that a defendant’s youth may be considered only as a mitigating factor in sentencing and can’t support an aggravating factor.

Facts of State v. Rivera

Defendant Cynthia Rivera admitted to planning and participating in the armed robbery of Justin Garcia, resulting in serious injuries to Garcia and the murder of his friend, Andrew Torres. At the time of the offenses, defendant was eighteen years old and in a relationship with Martin Martinez. Defendant met and went to a motel with a friend, Garcia, and Torres. Once there, defendant texted Martinez the name of the motel so he could “come down . . . to commit the robbery.” Later, Martinez and another man arrived, carrying handguns. Torres was shot and killed upon opening the door; Garcia was also shot and wounded. Jewelry and a phone were taken from Garcia. Defendant’s friend identified defendant, who turned herself in a few weeks later.

Defendant pled guilty to aggravated manslaughter and assault and to conspiracy to commit robbery. At the time of sentencing, defendant was nineteen years old with no prior criminal history, no juvenile record, and no arrests. Defendant expressed deep regret for her actions and told the court she had severed her relationship with Martinez, who defendant stated was physically, mentally, and emotionally abusive to her.

The sentencing court applied two aggravating factors —the risk the defendant will commit another offense and the need for deterrence, —and two mitigating factors — the absence of a prior record and willingness to cooperate with law enforcement. The court did not address mitigating factor nine — unlikeliness to reoffend — which the State had conceded. The court weighed aggravating factor three more heavily than the other factors, relying in large part on defendant’s youth and finding that defendant “hasn’t had enough time to begin . . . a history of criminal activity, which I most certainly think would have been the case.”

Concluding that the aggravating factors substantially outweighed the mitigating factors, the court sentenced defendant accordingly. The Appellate Division affirmed.

NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Rivera

The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously reversed. “Consistent with both this Court’s precedent and the intent of the Legislature in recently adopting youth as a mitigating statutory factor, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(b)(14); L. 2020, c. 110 (effective immediately), we hold that a defendant’s youth may be considered only as a mitigating factor in sentencing,” Justice Lee Solomon wrote on behalf of the court.  “Additionally, we hold that on resentencing, the sentencing court should consider mitigating factor fourteen — that ‘the defendant was under [twenty six] years of age at the time of the commission of the offense.’ Of course, the weight to be given to that factor is within the sentencing court’s discretion.”

In his opinion, Justice Solomon noted that the appeal turned on the sentencing court’s consideration of defendant’s youth in affording great weight to aggravating factor three — “[t]he risk that the defendant will commit another offense,” — while giving minimal weight to mitigating factor seven — “[t]he defendant has no history of prior delinquency or criminal activity or has led a law-abiding life for a substantial period of time before the commission of the present offense.”  The court ultimately concluded that the sentencing court erred in its analysis.

In reaching its decision, the court emphasized that its precedent, and those of the U.S. Supreme Court, confirm the importance of considering youth in making sentencing decisions. It also noted that the New Jersey Legislature expressly added youth as a statutory mitigating factor.

The New Jersey Supreme Court also found that the sentencing judge erred when it engaged in impermissible speculation that the defendant would have engaged in other criminal conduct but did not have the opportunity to do so because of her youth.

“The court reached its conclusion even though defendant had never been arrested or adjudicated delinquent as a juvenile and the State conceded mitigating factor nine — defendant is unlikely to reoffend,” Justice Solomon wrote. “In doing so, the court failed to provide detail about the weight assigned to each aggravating and mitigating factor and how those factors were balanced with regard to the defendant.”

As Justice Solomon further explained, the sentencing court was obliged to consider defendant as she stood before the court on the day of sentencing. “Defendant had no prior juvenile adjudications, no arrests, and no criminal record. Defendant cooperated substantially with law enforcement and expressed sincere remorse for her role in the crime,” he wrote. “She stood before the court as a first-time offender and should have been considered as one.”

On remand, the New Jersey Supreme Court directed the resentencing court to give due consideration to all credible evidence in the record and all relevant sentencing factors on the day defendant stands before the court. According to the court, the lower court is free to apply mitigating factor fourteen.

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