NJ Supreme Court Rejects Constitutional Challenge to Three Strikes Law

In State v. Samuel Ryan (A-65-20/085165)(Decided February 7, 2022), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that offenses committed by a defendant while under the age of 18 may count as predicate offenses under the state’s  Three Strikes Law, which mandates a sentence of life imprisonment without parole for a third-time offender.

Facts of State v. Ryan

At the age of sixteen, Defendant Samuel Ryan committed two armed robberies within two days; he was convicted of two counts of first-degree robbery in 1990. In February 1996, less than three years after his release from prison, defendant committed two more armed robberies. Defendant was indicted separately for, and convicted of, each of the two 1996 robberies. Upon defendant’s conviction for the second 1996 robbery, the State moved to sentence him to an extended term pursuant to the Three Strikes Law, predicated upon (1) his 1990 conviction, (2) his conviction for the first 1996 robbery, and (3) his conviction for the second 1996 robbery. The court sentenced defendant accordingly.

Defendant unsuccessfully appealed his convictions and sentence and thereafter filed eleven post-conviction release (PCR) petitions between 1999 and 2012. In 2018, defendant filed his twelfth PCR petition — a motion to correct an illegal sentence — relying on the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional, and the Court’s holding in State v. Zuber, 227 N.J. 422 (2017), that juveniles cannot be sentenced to the functional equivalent of life without parole. Defendant contended that his sentence was unconstitutional because his first strike occurred when he was a juvenile and the sentencing court did not consider the Miller factors before imposing a mandatory life sentence under the Three Strikes Law. The trial court denied defendant’s motion, and the Appellate Division affirmed.

NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Ryan

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Defendant’s sentence. It held that the Three Strikes Law and the mandatory life-without-parole sentence imposed upon the defendant under that statute do not violate the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The court further held that Miller and Zuber have no application to adult defendants sentenced under the Three Strikes Law.

The New Jersey Supreme Court first rejected theassertion that the constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment bar application of the Three Strikes Law to any individual who committed at least one of the predicate offenses as a juvenile. In reaching its decision, the court cited Miller in which the Supreme Court held that mandatory life-without-parole sentences constitute cruel and unusual punishment when imposed on juvenile offenders, but did not foreclose juveniles from being sentenced to life without parole. Instead, it instructed sentencing courts to take into consideration the “hallmark features” of youth, the nature of the juvenile’s environment, the effect of youthful “incompetencies” on the prosecution’s outcome, and the “possibility of rehabilitation.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court went on to conclude that the application of the three-factor test for cruel and unusual punishment utilized in Miller and Zuber to the Three Strikes Law resulted in the same conclusion that the court reached over twenty years ago in State v. Oliver, 162 N.J. 580 (2000). In support, the court specifically found that the Three Strikes Law “continues to conform to contemporary standards of decency,” citing that federal courts have overwhelmingly held that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit counting juvenile offenses as strikes, and most states with three-strikes legislation count juvenile-age convictions as strikes where the defendant was waived up to adult court.

The New Jersey Supreme Court further found enhanced life-without-parole sentence is not grossly disproportionate where the offense is a dangerous and violent first-degree crime. Most importantly, the punishment serves the legitimate penological objective of incapacitating serious third-time offenders.  As Justice Lee Solomon explained:

Here, defendant received his enhanced sentence on his third armed robbery conviction, having already served three and a third years of a ten-year prison sentence for his first offense, committed at the age of sixteen. Defendant was not only undeterred by incarceration, but his crimes committed after release from state prison grew increasingly violent: defendant assaulted two Wawa employees during the commission of his first post-release offense and then, before his arrest, shot a store clerk during his final robbery.

The New Jersey Supreme Court also rejected the defendant’s argument that, by counting juvenile-age crimes as predicate offenses, the Three Strikes Law deprives the offender of a meaningful opportunity to rehabilitate and reenter society as contemplated by Miller and Zuber. As the court emphasized, those cases are uniquely concerned with the sentencing of juvenile offenders to lifetime imprisonment or its functional equivalent without the possibility of parole “Defendant committed his second and third armed robberies as a twenty-three year old, and was therefore an adult being sentenced for a crime committed as an adult,” Justice Solomon wrote. “There is nothing in Miller or Zuber that precludes application of a recidivist statute such as the Three Strikes Law to an adult defendant who meets the carefully considered statutory requirements set by the Legislature.”

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