NJ Supreme Court Addresses COVID-19 Impact on Right to Speedy Trial

NJ Supreme Court Addresses COVID-19 Impact on Right to Speedy Trial

In State v. Marcus S. Mackroy-Davis (A-43-21/086626) (Decided June 27, 2022), the Supreme Court of New Jersey addressed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on a defendant’s right to a speedy trial. The court acknowledged that the defendant’s trial was subject to multiple delays, most of which resulted from the pandemic. However, because the prosecution announced it was ready to proceed to trial at the two-year mark set forth in the Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA), it concluded that defendant’s statutory right to a speedy trial was not violated.

Facts of State v. Mackroy-Davis

Defendant Marcus Mackroy-Davis was arrested on November 11, 2019 in connection with a drive-by shooting in which one person was killed. A complaint against Mackroy-Davis charged him with conspiracy to commit murder, and the State moved to detain him pending trial. After a hearing, the trial court found there was probable cause that defendant committed the charged offense and that he had failed to rebut the presumption of detention that offense carries. The court entered an order of detention on December 23, 2019. On February 13, 2020, a grand jury returned an indictment charging Mackroy-Davis with murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and obstruction.

Defendant maintains his innocence and has stated he intends to go to trial. At the time of oral argument before the New Jersey Supreme Court, his trial had not yet begun. Defendant argued that the delays violate his rights under the CJRA, and he maintained he is entitled to be released from pretrial detention.

The CJRA, which includes several time limits designed to move cases with detained defendants to trial more quickly, establishes a two year-cap on pretrial detention. Defendants must be released from jail, after a hearing to consider conditions of release, if “the prosecutor is not ready to proceed” two years after the court ordered the defendant detained. The CJRA considers the State ready if the prosecutor is prepared “to proceed to voir dire or to opening argument, or to the hearing of any motions that had been reserved for the time of trial.” Only “delays attributable to the” defendant can be excluded from the two-year cap.

A total of seventeen orders were entered in the Defendant’s case, which excluded time under the 180-day clock from March 6, 2020 through April 22, 2022. Three orders were entered by the trial court, excluding eleven days because defense counsel was not available and a total of 218 additional days. The Supreme Court’s fourteen omnibus orders excluded a total of 461 days. In October 2021, the State obtained a superseding indictment that added three new charges against Mackroy-Davis stemming from information the State learned from a codefendant in May 2020.

Mackroy-Davis was arraigned on the superseding indictment on November 15, 2021. Over his objection, the court ordered excludable time “due to extenuating circumstances” – the court’s “inability, essentially, to move cases more than one at a time,” the “backlog of defendants” since the start of the pandemic, and courtroom unavailability. The following day, the court entered two orders for excludable time, one for 59 days and a second for 159 days. The court also set a trial date of April 22, 2022.

At a January 3, 2022 status conference (the date that both parties agree marked the end of the two-year cap), the court discussed the parties’ readiness to proceed to trial and confirmed the April 22 trial date. The State declared it was “trial ready.” Defendant moved for leave to appeal, which the Appellate Division denied. On appeal, Defendant argued that trial courts are granting “excessive and unwarranted” amounts of excludable time “in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,” contrary to the language, purpose, and intent of the CJRA. He further maintained that the trial court abused its discretion when it ordered 218 days of excludable time on its own.

NJ Supreme Court Decision in State v. Mackroy-Davis

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed. Because the State declared it was ready to proceed to trial at the relevant time, the court failed to find a statutory violation of the two-year cap.

The New Jersey Supreme Court offered guidance on various issues that relate to excludable time under the CJRA as well as the need to schedule more jury trials as soon as practicable to clear the backlog of cases caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, the court encouraged trial judges to create a clearer record than was made in this case regarding the State’s readiness to proceed. As set forth by the court:

First, trial courts should clarify before the date of the two-year cap whether the State will be ready then. The Court directs trial courts to schedule a hearing approximately 30 days before the two-year cap expires. At the hearing, the court should ask the State if it will be ready to proceed on the two-year cap date. Second, because a statement of readiness has significant consequences, a prosecutor’s brief comment on the record must convey a great deal: that discovery is complete at the time the representation is made; that no substantive motions remain to be filed; that the indictment is in final form and no superseding indictment is contemplated, based on information known to the State or that should have been known through the exercise of reasonable diligence; and that the State’s witnesses are generally available. Going forward, a prosecutor’s statement of readiness will be understood to encompass each of those elements.

The New Jersey Supreme Court also addressed what should happen when the parties announce they are ready to proceed on the two-year cap date but no courtroom or judge will be available at that time. “First, the trial court should consult with a supervisory judge who should coordinate trials within a vicinage as directed in this opinion,” the court advised. “Second, if the parties are ready but the trial cannot start before the two-year cap expires, trial judges must schedule conferences at monthly intervals rather than delay a trial for multiple months at a time.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court also rejected the argument that the trial court had no authority under the CJRA to issue sua sponte orders that excluded time from the speedy trial clock. As noted by the court, nothing in the statute or the court rules bars judges from issuing orders about the speedy trial clock on their own accord, and the statute logically empowers trial courts to act on their own in certain instances. “The question is not who initiates an order of excludable time; it is whether the order rests on appropriate grounds,” the court explained.

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