NJ Supreme Court Rules Criminal Sentencing Statute Does Not Violate Separation of Powers

In State v. A.T.C., (A-28-18/081201) (Decided August 8, 2019), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the Jessica Lunsford Act (JLA) does not violate the separation of powers doctrine provided that certain conditions are satisfied. Specifically, the State must present a statement of reasons explaining its decision to depart from the twenty-five year mandatory minimum sentence specified in N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a), and the court must review the prosecutor’s exercise of discretion to determine whether it was arbitrary and capricious. 

NJ Supreme Court Rules Criminal Sentencing Statute Does Not Violate Separation of Powers

Facts of State v. A.T.C.

The case involved a facial constitutional challenge to the Jessica Lunsford Act (JLA). The JLA imposes a term of incarceration of 25 years to life, with a period of parole ineligibility of at least 25 years, on an offender convicted of an aggravated sexual assault in which the victim is less than 13 years old. The JLA also authorizes a prosecutor, “in consideration of the interests of the victim,” to waive the twenty-five-year mandatory minimum and offer the defendant a negotiated plea agreement in which the term of incarceration and the period of parole ineligibility may not be less than fifteen years. The sentencing court may accept that negotiated plea agreement, and if it does so, it must sentence the defendant in accordance with that agreement. The Attorney General subsequently issued the Uniform Plea Negotiation Guidelines to Implement the Jessica Lunsford Act, (JLA Guidelines), which govern the exercise of prosecutorial discretion under the statute.

Defendant A.T.C. was arrested and charged with possession and distribution of child pornography. Defendant admitted that his computer files included pornographic videos of his girlfriend’s daughter, that he had recorded those videos beginning when the child was ten years old, and that he had digitally penetrated the victim’s vagina.

Pursuant to a plea agreement that the prosecutor offered in accordance with N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d), defendant pled guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a child less than 13 years of age. Defendant moved to modify his sentence, contending in relevant part that the JLA contravenes the separation of powers doctrine by vesting in the prosecutor sentencing authority constitutionally delegated to the judiciary. He argued that, in contrast to other sentencing statutes that the New Jersey Supreme Court has upheld against separation of powers challenges, the JLA affords prosecutors the discretion to determine the precise number of years, within a range of 15 to 25 years, that a defendant will serve in prison.

The trial court denied defendant’s motion. There was no discussion at defendant’s plea hearing or sentencing hearing as to why the “interests of the victim” warranted a departure, or the degree of the departure, from the JLA’s mandatory 25-year term. Consistent with the plea agreement, the court imposed a term of 20 years’ incarceration, with twenty years’ parole ineligibility, for defendant’s conviction of one count of first-degree aggravated sexual assault of a victim less than 13 years of age.

The Appellate Division rejected defendant’s separation of powers challenge to the JLA’s mandatory sentencing provisions. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted defendant’s petition for certification, “limited to defendant’s facial challenge to N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d) as unconstitutional for violating the separation of powers doctrine.”

New Jersey Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. A.T.C.

The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the JLA does not violate separation of powers principles provided that “(1) the State presents a statement of reasons explaining the departure from the twenty-five year mandatory minimum sentence specified in N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a), and (2) the sentencing court reviews the prosecutor’s exercise of discretion to ‘protect against arbitrary and capricious prosecutorial decisions.’” The court remanded the matter to the sentencing court so that the prosecutor may provide a statement of reasons for the decision to waive N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a)’s 25-year term of incarceration and parole disqualifier “in consideration of the interests of the victim,” and the court may determine whether that decision was arbitrary and capricious.

In reaching its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court articulated three core principles from the its prior resolution of separation of powers challenges to statutes granting sentencing discretion to prosecutors: 1. The Attorney General must promulgate uniform statewide guidelines designed to channel that discretion and minimize sentencing disparity between counties, taking into account the legislative objective in the sentencing statute; 2. In order to facilitate effective judicial review, the prosecutor must provide a written statement of reasons for his or her exercise of prosecutorial discretion; and 3. The sentencing court maintains oversight to ensure that prosecutorial discretion is not exercised in an arbitrary and capricious manner.

Applying these principles to the JLA, the court acknowledged that no statutory provision or Guideline ensures that the court is informed of the prosecutor’s reasoning when it determines whether to accept or reject a plea agreement offered pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a). Accordingly, it found there was one necessary addition to the JLA Guidelines: a requirement that prosecutors provide a statement of reasons for a decision to offer a plea bargain in which the term of incarceration or period of parole ineligibility is less than that prescribed in N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(a).

As the court explained:

The JLA Guidelines should be amended to instruct prosecutors to provide the sentencing court with a statement of reasons for a decision to offer a defendant, in a plea agreement, a term of incarceration or a term of parole ineligibility between fifteen and twenty-five years. Such a statement is essential to effective judicial review for the arbitrary and capricious exercise of prosecutorial discretion under N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d).

So that the standard the new Jersey Supreme Court adopted could be applied in the case, the court remand to the sentencing court for further proceedings in accordance with its opinion.

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