In State in the Interest of E.S. (A-41/42-21/086554) (Decided November 22, 2022), the Supreme Court of New Jersey addressed whether the trial court abused its discretion by choosing to hear the State’s motion to waive family court jurisdiction and prosecute a juvenile defendant as an adult before hearing his motion to suppress the gun seized from him at the time of his arrest. While the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion, it declined to adopt a preference that the Family Part hear suppression motions before waiver motions, holding instead that it is within the discretion of the Family Part to determine its schedule of proceedings and manage its calendar.
Facts of State in the Interest of E.S.
In March 2021, defendant E.S. was arrested and charged as a juvenile with weapons and other offenses that would constitute indictable offenses if committed by an adult. Defense counsel moved to suppress the gun seized from defendant at the time of his arrest. Two weeks later, the State moved to waive family court jurisdiction and transfer the case to the Law Division, Criminal Part, to prosecute E.S. as an adult.
The family court initially decided to hear the suppression motion before the waiver motion but, following the State’s motion for reconsideration, resolved to hear the waiver motion first. The Appellate Division affirmed but expressed a “general preference” for the Family Part to hear suppression motions before waiver motions.
NJ Supreme Court Decision in State in the Interest of E.S.
The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the Appellate Division that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in deciding to hear defendant’s waiver motion before considering his suppression motion, and remanded to the family court for further proceedings. However, it declined to adopt a preference that the Family Part hear suppression motions before waiver motions. Holding that it is within the discretion of the Family Part to determine its schedule of proceedings and manage its calendar, the court provided several factors that Family Part judges should take into consideration.
In reaching its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court emphasized that there are fundamental distinctions between juvenile court and criminal court that render the waiver of jurisdiction by the Family Part a “critically important action determining vitally important statutory rights of the juvenile.” In light of these distinctions, the court has found that due process requires that juveniles receive a hearing, effective assistance of counsel who have access to relevant information, a statement of reasons for the court’s decision, and the opportunity to present evidence and testify. At the same time, the court noted constitutional due process in the juvenile waiver context stops short of constitutional guarantees arising from the question of admissibility of evidence at a trial on the merits, and strict adherence to the rules of evidence is not required at the probable cause hearing.
The New Jersey Supreme Court also highlighted the importance of a trial court’s inherent and necessary right to control its own calendar and the public’s interest in the orderly administration of justice. “Waiver motions fall categorically within the purview of the Family Part,” the court further explained. “Although motions to suppress evidence are not reserved to family court, the Family Part can, like its Criminal Part analog, consider motions to suppress evidence as well.”
In light of the above principles, the New Jersey Supreme Court went on to find that the “order of waiver and suppression proceedings does not touch upon the juvenile’s due process rights to be heard and present evidence.” Accordingly, it held that it is within the Family Part’s sound discretion to decide the order in which it hears suppression and waiver motions.
Nevertheless, the New Jersey Supreme Court advised that, in exercising its discretion, the Family Part should take several factors into consideration, including (1) whether the evidence that the defendant is seeking to suppress, if excluded, would be dispositive of probable cause or have a substantial effect on the case in chief; (2) whether there are co-defendants with suppression motions pending in the Family or Criminal Parts; and (3) judicial efficiency and management of the court’s calendar. “Although we consider those factors to be important in the determination of whether to hear a suppression motion or a waiver motion first, the Family Part may of course consider any additional factors that it finds relevant in exercising its discretion,” the court wrote. “Ultimately, the order of proceedings is left to the Family Part’s sound discretion.” Finally, with regard to the court’s decision to hold a waiver hearing prior to a hearing on the suppression motion in the case before it, the New Jersey Supreme Court found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s grant of the State’s request to hear the waiver motion first in this matter.